“Give her an out”: Prayer and Terminal Illness


Okay.

Yes.

This.

CaduceusThis is one of the most beautiful, eloquent, touching pieces I’ve read about medicine and religion. The piece is about a child in Seattle with terminal cancer, and her family’s obsessive focus on healing her with prayer. (The story’s been in the Seattle newspapers, and the writer of the piece, Sid Schwab, is a surgeon and writer who’s commenting on it.) And it hits perfectly on the head one of the things that makes me most crazy about medical prayer — i.e., praying for someone, yourself or others, to recover from a serious/ terminal medical condition.

Quote #1:

Praying_hands…pray if you need to. Pray for comfort, for understanding, for strength. But get off this miracle healing thing. You’re ruining what life your child has left. Keep up hope? Sure, as long as it’s reasonable. But give her an out; give her a way to accept what’s happening to her, if such a thing is possible, without blaming herself.

And rather more harsh, but very much to the point, Quote #2:

GodI should just shut up at this point, and let it be about the care of the poor child. But I can’t. I must also say this: there’s something perverse to the point of revulsion in the idea of a god that will heal the girl if enough people pray for her. What sort of god is that? To believe that, you must believe he deliberately made her ill, is putting her through enormous pain and suffering, with the express plan to make it all better only if enough people tell him how great he is; and to keep it up unto her death if they don’t.

Yes.

Exactly.

What makes me crazy about medical prayer is exactly this. If God made you sick, has the power to make you better, and doesn’t, then either:

a) God is a complete asshole with the ethics of a sociopath,

or

b) You did something wrong.

Praying_hands_2svgYou didn’t pray hard enough. You didn’t pray right, with the right kind of feeling or faith. You didn’t get enough people to pray for you.

There’s something wrong with you.

It’s your fault.

Even if you’re a child.

And that’s what I like about the naturalist/ atheist view of the world. In the naturalist view, the world is often harsh, and terrible things will happen to you and your loved ones for no reason — but you don’t have to fucking well feel guilty about it. You can accept it, or fight it, or do whatever combination of the two works for you.

And if you can’t make it better, you don’t have to feel that it’s because you somehow made Daddy mad at you.

Dead_treeInstead, you can know that it’s just the way the world works: we are an animal species in the physical world, and animal species in the physical world get sick, or get in accidents, or get birth defects, or die in natural disasters. Sometimes good people, sometimes too young. And if it happens to you, or someone you love, it’s not because you/ they did something wrong.

Aerial_gardenferns_on_a_treeIt’s because you/ they are part of the world: the physical, natural world, with all its wonders and horrors. It’s a world that doesn’t really care whether you live or die, whether you suffer or rejoice, and to some people that can seem bleak and cold. But it’s a world of which we are a part, a world which we are intimately connected to down to our very molecules — not a world that stands apart from us and punishes us with sickness and suffering for reasons we can never fathom.

(From Surgeonsblog, via Pharyngula.)

Comments

  1. says

    Greta — I was actually saying pretty much the exact same thing last night to my boyfriend on our way home from his (very wacky and devout fundie) gramma’s house last night. Boyfriend’s mum died back in February, and his gramma’s faith did NOTHING to help her deal with it. If anything, it made it even more inexplicable, even worse for her because she thought there was something she could have done. It’s certainly keeping her from grieving properly or healing, because she ~keeps on~ praying for his mum! It’s insanity. People who claim religious belief is neccessary because it is comforting are delusional.

  2. says

    “You did something wrong.
    You didn’t pray hard enough. You didn’t pray right, with the right kind of feeling or faith. You didn’t get enough people to pray for you.
    There’s something wrong with you.
    It’s your fault.
    Even if you’re a child.”
    This is EXACTLY how I felt as a child and teen for my school experiences, for my depression, for the kids picking on me, for my mental illness. I was sure it was a punishment for being smart, for questioning, for not being able to have blind faith. The less I prayed in HS, the worse the abuse at the hands of the other kids got, and I was sure they were connected.
    It’s been 7 years since I left HS. I’m no longer a Christian. I’ve gotten rid of so much of the brainwashing I went through in school.
    …but every now and then, the idea that I must have done something wrong to deserve all that comes back. I just can’t seem to shake it completely. It’s horrible.
    It usually comes back in the voice that says “You know you’re sinning in your heart when you don’t listen to Catholicism. All of this ‘I don’t believe in it anymore’ stuff is just crap. You don’t want it to be true, so you’re just running from it, but if you slow down and actually think about it, you know you believe it and you feel horrible about it but you just can’t stop yourself so you brainwash yourself into thinking you don’t. But YOU KNOW THE TRUTH.” Yeah. It’s hard to make that voice STFU. I wish I could 110% convince myself it’s not true. (I wonder if there’s atheist/Freethinking/Skeptic counseling, like there’s religious counseling, that helps teach you how to stop “believing” [e.g. undo the religious brainwashing].)
    (Actually, in some ways, I think it’s easier for me to accept that it was somehow my fault rather than to just accept that there was no reason that my peers abused me so mercilessly and horribly. My brain just can’t grok no reason, it just happened. It’s too horrible and cruel. How do you apply what you said above, Greta, about the way the world is, to emotional and verbal abuse at the hands of your peers and an ineffectual school system that couldn’t stop it?)

  3. says

    C4bl3fl4m3 — IIRC, Richard Dawkins interviewed a therapist who deals with adults who carry the scars of childhood indoctrination on his “Root of All Evil” BBC series, and discusses her in “The God Delusion.” Her name is Jill Mytton, but I couldn’t find out much more about her in a quick google/Wikipedia search. She does run a support group. Dawkins says in the book that he did put at least one reader in touch with her, so it may be worthwhile to drop him an email.
    As far as reconciling your childhood abuses with the “no reason,” I’d say that’s a little inaccurate. There was, maybe, no reason you could have changed, but maybe you would feel better about things if you did some reading up on human psychology (and evo-psych), anthropology and in-group/out-group hostility, and got to understanding the evolutionary underpinnings of such actions. Well, it’s a thought. Talking to a sympathetic therapist might help more, though. In any event, good luck working through all that! At least you have the internets to remind you that you’re not alone :)

  4. says

    Yes, I have the same reaction when I hear people trot out that claim that religious faith gives you support in times of crisis. There’s a rather interesting radio series on faith vs. science on “To the Best of our Knowledge”
    http://wpr.org/book/GOD/index.html
    I heard the first part the other night driving back from my show.

  5. Eclectic says

    I’ll happily believe that religious _institutions_ can give support in times of crisis, but I can’t see hos faith per se does much.
    I just can’t get over the basic logical problem with monotheism: omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent; pick any two.

  6. Sean McWilliams says

    To believe that the life we live in our “earthly tent” is the only life we live, is contrary to the Bible. The Bible tells us that when we put off this “earthly tent” then we will be with the Lord forever. My life here is not the end all and anything and everything that I experience here – good and bad is preparation for the life with the Lord Jesus. I have had terminal sickness and lack of care and right now have not been healed but I am in treatment that manages my symptoms. I am healthy but my condition remains. This solves any contrary thoughts to any logical problems. Our logic is insufficient to understand God’s ways, but the that is only my humble opinion that continues to grow as I continue to read God’s Word (the Bible). The Bible tells us that one day we we know as He knows. Belief is not 100 percent convictions, but it is an assurance. There are no certainties, but there are assurances. I do hope that your anger and frustration will cause you all to seek His solution to unfulfilled expectations.

  7. says

    I think I missed something in your argument, or to be more honest and less polite, I think *you* missed something.
    The fact that jebus will cure someone if they pray hard enough does not mean that he necessarily made the person ill in the first place.
    Of course, if you add additional information, such as that jebus is all powerful, etc, then you can make this case, but it doesn’t follow from only the original statment. Couldn’t I argue that I’m a non-traditional Christian, and I believe in a somewhat detached jebus with imperfect powers, who is subject to the same emotions as we are– pity, sadness, annoyance, etc– and that if enough prayers reach his ears, he can be persuaded away from whatever else he is doing or not doing to help the girl?
    Of course I still agree with the point that praying for healing makes no sense and often causes a lot of problems– guilt, whatever– in the sick person, but… well, if I were religious, and I read the logical fallacy, I would probably be less persuaded by other things you have to say.

  8. says

    Drew:
    Yes, I’m assuming a belief in an All Powerful, All Knowing, All Good God in this argument. (My original statement of the problem was, “If God made you sick, has the power to make you better, and doesn’t, then either: a) God is a complete asshole with the ethics of a sociopath, or b) You did something wrong.”)
    But I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to assume. The All Powerful, All Knowing, All Good God is by far the most common form of Christianity. And it’s certainly the belief held by these parents who are obsessively forming prayer groups to heal their daughter.
    It is certainly true, though. that if you let go of a belief in God being All Powerful, All Knowing, and All Good, then the arguments for God become less weak. I still don’t buy them, I still don’t think there’s any good evidence to support them; but they’re not as flatly absurd on the face of it. (I think it’s Eclectic who keeps saying in the comments here, “All Powerful, All Knowing, All Good — pick two.”) In a way, the APAKAG God is like a gift to atheists — it’s so very easy to argue with.

  9. The Rabbit Ambulance says

    When my mother was in the hospital dying of a brain aneurysm, a doctor approached me as I was standing by her bedside and said something to the effect that maybe I should pray. I looked her in the eye and said “I don’t believe in prayer. I believe in well-trained doctors.”
    That shut her up.

  10. Julanar says

    Sean, if life is just a dress rehearsal for heaven, then good luck with wasting the rest of your life here. Personally, I prefer the humanist tradition of making the most of the life I have now.

  11. says

    Hi, great article, thank you. And refreshing to see so many intelligent and articulate comments too!
    I’ve written two articles on my blog of relevance: one about healing the trauma of sexual abuse, and one about terminal illness. I’d like to invite you to have a look:
    http://benralston.blogspot.com/

  12. says

    By the way, I believe that there is no God outside of ourselves. Divinity, whatever you believe that to be, cannot be outside of us. Or if it is, it is equally in us. Therefore it seems to me that we are God(s).
    I see nothing in the Bible, or any other spiritual scripture or tradition to contradict this, and I’ve studied a few of them! What some call God, I call Awareness, or Consciousness. I find it to be all powerful when it’s focused (which in most people it rarely is). I also write about consciousness, and I USE it in my work as a HEALER. For those of you that like the Bible (minority here I see but hey…), remember that Jesus apparently said something like: “All these things and more, you will do too”. He was just a highly evolved dude, like Buddha, Mohammed, etc.
    And one more thing: true prayer is not asking someone ‘out there’ for help – it’s about taking responsibility.
    Just my 2 cents worth.
    Ben

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