This is part 4 in a series of posts on prayer. Please use the links at the top and bottom of each post to navigate through the parts. The master post is here.
even if it IS useless, what’s the harm?
Despite the evidence that most types of prayer do absolutely nothing, there are still large sections of society that employ and thus validate prayer as a worthwhile action, especially in times of desperation. Some employ it while in direct danger or out of utter helplessness, some employ it for shallow political purposes, and some genuinely believe that doing so intensely enough or in large enough quantities will actually convince their omniscient, all-powerful deity to change his course. As I’ve discussed earlier, the various qualities you apply to your deity, specifically, will flavour how you go about praying and under what circumstances. But what doesn’t appear to vary at all, is how people perceive this so-called “harmless” act. This section of my series on prayer will demonstrate that the baseline for the potential harm of prayer is anywhere on the scale but “wholly harmless”. Prayer is capable of real and tangible harm, as long as you understand that it’s not the praying itself that directly causes this harm.
This harm, entirely wrought on society at the hands of people praying, is manifold, and can be broken down into a number of categories.
waste of time and resources
In politics, the politicians involved are, of course, only human. Some might debate me on that point, but they’re certainly no MORE than human at least. In a population riddled with belief, it’s no surprise that many politicians will either be faithful themselves, or will be forced to lie about their lack of belief for fear of alienating themselves with their constituency. And they do so like to one-up one another on expressing their faith. Here in Canada, the mode is with showy prayer breakfasts — on a local level (smaller towns like Aurora and Richmond Hill, BC and larger ones like Calgary, Alberta), on a provincial level (e.g. my home province, Nova Scotia), and even on a national level. The more a politician thinks they have to gain from showing how faithful they are, the more likely they are to bring up in public how supportive they have been of the initiatives, and to play up their importance for the future of the country.
When people pray (or even meditate) rather than acting, they are wasting their own time and resources. When these same people encourage others to pray — by calling for prayer for certain parties or causes in their congregations, for instance — they are encouraging others to waste their time and resources. Those that pray regularly and for just about any topic, e.g. to relieve the suffering incurred by a hurricane or earthquake, to cure the sick or dying in your local hospitals, or to preemptively pray for the safety and security of loved ones, must de facto assume their deity is not omniscient and is willing to change his plans. They are also imbuing themselves with a false sense of having accomplished something positive with regard to these situations, which is rather galling when there’s often some direct and readily accessible method of rendering more tangible assistance. Usually it involves money, but it can also involve volunteering. When people in positions of great power (e.g. politicians) engage in it, the waste of resources and time is logarithmically greater.
I don’t suggest one’s time must be spent ENTIRELY on “useful” activities. However, in the cases of hobbies, one does not get the false sense that one has done something beneficial for, say, the starving and injured children in Haiti while one is doing needlepoint pictures of kittens. Selling those needlepoints and giving the money to Doctors Without Borders, on the other hand, would manifestly help. Praying for them will empirically not help one whit.
the failure of faith “healing”
In some specific cases, the method of rendering assistance for the unfortunate, could involve taking direct actions that could be misconstrued by a jealous deity as a lack of faith in his divine plan. When the core tenets of your chosen religion include the power of prayer to heal, parents have been known to make some mind-boggling errors in judgment with regard to their children’s health care. It’s staggeringly more common than one might think — while it’s very tempting to assume that the most galling instances are one-offs, they are practically endemic if you have a memory tuned to remember such affronts to reason for longer than a month or so. Here’s a short list of recent events from the first page of “faith healing death” search results on Google, all of which happened within the last two years:
- Faith Healing Parents Charged in Child’s Death – 15-month-old died of untreated pneumonia and a subsequent blood infection, untreated while parents and Followers of Christ Church congregation prayed
- Father on trial in girl’s faith healing death – 11-year-old girl died of undiagnosed diabetes while her parents prayed for healing, believing all healing comes only from God
- Charges follow faith-healing death – Vaginosis turns to gangrene and kills a 13-year-old girl, whose parents are members of the Church of the First Born and believe there is a “Biblical injunction against medical treatment”
- Oregon couple guilty in ‘faith healing’ death of son – his parents, members of Followers of Christ, go to jail for criminal negligence when a 16 year old boy dies of a urinary blockage
I’m sure there are more, and more galling, instances I could point to, even within the two-year timeframe those first-page search results happened to fall within. It’s easy to look at these cases and say, “but what’s the harm in praying for someone while also getting them the medical care they need?” That mode of thinking is fine in theory, but in practice, it leads directly to fundamentalist splinter sects like the Church of the First Born and the Followers of Christ, who think the important part of that two-pronged approach is not the medical care, but the prayer, because their faith in their deity is just that large. We know, painfully, what damage that can wreak.
ask for divine guidance, get a clock stuck at 9:45
And then there are those much-less-rare instances where someone lacks sufficient information to make a proper decision. In those instances, religious folks often turn to prayers for guidance. This in itself is not a problem, unless you consider the mindset behind it.
Human beings are exceptionally talented at taking limited amounts of input and applying our mental filters to determine the best courses of action, but they are not good at first determining the validity of that input. When you pray to a supposedly almighty deity that can evidently send signs in the form of books (especially holy books) that open to a specific page, or flower arrangements that are apparently just-so, or birds alighting on your porch, your filters for what counts as valid input are severely compromised. A person in such a position will take actions and make decisions that, by all other accounts, are purely random.
The fact is, we as human beings can read “signs” into every random event when we allow for the possibility of a deity driving these random events. Very stupid decisions can be made thanks to misinterpretations of such celestial signs. This is probably evolutionary, to short-circuit self-doubt and encourage action over inaction. Good in theory when inaction gets you eaten whereas action increases your chances of survival by a slim margin. Bad when you’ve compromised rationality with a framework that allows your every prayer for guidance to make you take seemingly random actions for reasons only you (and your presupposed-to-exist deity) would understand.
Our lives are filled with so many seemingly random events — “seemingly” in the sense that they are the result of cause and effect in a manner that seems arbitrary and random to limited beings like ourselves — that it’s impossible to classify what’s a “message from the deity” and what isn’t, even assuming the existence of such a deity. Just because you’re praying to your deity on whether you should move elsewhere in the country, and you notice your clock is stuck at 9:45 (and has been since the last time it was 9:45, apparently), doesn’t mean that your deity set the clock hands to point west in some divine intervention. Especially not if you prayed any time after 9:45. Or if you had noticed the clock and assumed it was a sign. Or if you were actually planning on moving east, not west.
Any deity that would answer such a prayer must not be capable of providing unambiguous directions — it would be just as easy for that deity to provide a sign by rearranging all the words on your newspaper to provide explicit directions to where to move, as it would for this deity to stop your clock arbitrarily and hope that you happen to notice right after you pray. So, the wholly random input provided by praying for guidance is gibberish that we as human beings can go to great intellectual lengths to use to justify our decisions. If you’re using prayer as a way of getting random input for your mental logic-machines, then you might as well rely on flipping a coin for every important decision in your life. And we know what happened to THIS evil deity when he took up that particular habit.
praying directly for harm to be done
On the flip side of accompanying prayer with random action, when you look at the cases of imprecatory prayer, you will often see hate-filled rhetoric not directly accompanied by action, and we are all probably be the better for that absence. Witness this video.
The fact is, this pastor won’t directly cause Obama’s death by praying for it. If anything, he’s striking matches hoping there’s a powderkeg nearby — in this case, powderkeg being a euphemism for “someone that gets it in their head they’re an avatar of God”. If someone from his congregation were to attempt to assassinate the American President over his stance on abortion (despite the video’s sermon being riddled with inaccuracies, as with every argument about abortion ever), the blame can rightly be put on the assassin’s shoulders of course. However, at least some of the blame must be shouldered by the man that put those evil and incorrect ideas in his head.
That’s the real danger with imprecatory prayer — take a large number of people who believe in prayer, use your influence with them to teach them that your shared deity would want a specific person dead, and if even one in the audience is mentally disturbed, there’s a chance something untoward might actually happen to the person against whom you were praying. See? Prayer actually DOES work. That is, if you assume that your direct action in lighting a powderkeg, didn’t cause the explosion — rather it was God answering your prayers.
justice delayed is justice denied — since there’s no afterlife
What can also happen on occasion, in the framework wherein one must pray to one’s deity for absolution after committing crimes, is that a false sense of absolution can be wrought from praying for forgiveness. Evil people can do evil things and never receive their just desserts here on Earth, because crimes are “forgiven” in these religious frameworks and clergy will regularly give cover for such crimes. Take, for instance, the Catholic church’s stance on molestation. While they strongly discourage it, they consider it to be a spiritual crime rather than a secular one, and as such should be punished via spiritual means.
It is this dynamic that allows otherwise good, moral people to abet serious crimes. And what’s worse, the perpetrators are often free to “sin” again, then “atone” again, then be shuffled off to some other area, in a vicious cycle wherein the real victims are largely ignored and the criminals turned into a dirty little secret rather than a subject for investigation and secular punishment. This is probably the most galling and sociopathic manner in which prayer harms society. Even if the atonement is real, it subverts the system of justice we as humans have developed in order to keep our society operational and as fair as possible to all its members. This secular system may certainly have its flaws, but they are minimal compared to demanding only contrition from its criminals, contrition that can be easily faked.
If you assume there’s no afterlife on which to rely, wherein the evil people doing evil things will be meted out justice for their crimes, then what really matters is a) rooting out their crimes and exposing them for all to see, and b) punishing the offenders in such a manner that the damage they can cause to the rest of society is staunched. Such criminals are, in a very real sense, much like cancer on society. If caught early they can be removed from society’s body and prevented from doing further harm (via prison for instance). If they are allowed to “feel atonement for their sins” and be forgiven spiritually, rather than secularly, then they can move around, and cause damage unchecked. The “immune system” of the secular justice system compromised by declaring their crimes spiritual in nature, and untold damage will happen before the body can even turn its immune system on the cancer to begin with.
the feedback loop
The commonality between all prayer and the act of giving cover for it is that when people pray, it gives credence to the act. It doesn’t matter what the purpose of the prayer happens to be — that’s largely incidental. The most shameful part about society’s reliance on the baby-blanket of prayer is the fact that the feedback loop will not be broken as long as people use selection bias to describe the 25% of the time that their “prayers are answered” coincidentally, as being proof positive that prayer works.
The ouroboros prayer, whether standalone or as a function of other types of prayer, reinforces ideas that, by rights, should have been winnowed away as false after being falsified repeatedly. Prayer works like your magic rock protects you from tigers — just because you haven’t seen a tiger since picking it up, doesn’t mean there’s any correlation between the two.
I’ve more than illustrated instances where reliance on prayer does empirical harm to society. So why pray at all? And why let other grown adults rely on their baby blankets and sucking their thumbs in this manner? Why get annoyed when someone tells you that prayer is useless or nonsense, protecting the religious and their delusions?
Divesting people of their delusions is not cruel, nor is it proselytization. You have the right to believe whatever you want. You have the right to be respected as a human being and not be persecuted for those beliefs. But your beliefs themselves have no such rights — my telling you that prayer is useless and nonsense may fall on deaf ears, but my act in doing so is by no means a disrespect to you as a human being. On the contrary. I tell you to drop the baby blanket because I want you to fulfill your potential as a human being. Don’t be mad at me for that. I’m sorry that prayer can’t fix the world’s problems — I wish (/hope /pray) it could. But it can’t.
Mind you, given the crazy shit your compatriots-in-faith are praying for, I’m sort of glad that prayers don’t work. As long as nobody comes out and says “prayer is nonsense”, all these manifold ways that prayer can harm the human social body will persist.