Herbert and Catherine Schaible were taught by their church leaders that prayer cures illnesses. Like many fundamentalists, they believe firmly that praying with an appropriate amount of faith is a very good way to convince God to grant a miracle and cure disease. When their two year old son, Kent, developed symptoms of illness, they didn’t take him to the pediatrician. Instead, they prayed for him. Now, Kent is dead, and the couple is facing involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment charges.
According to Shawn Francis Peters (What a good Christian name!) about twelve children a year die in the U.S. in similar circumstances. Recently, a Wisconsin couple received a six month sentence for a similar crime. Typically, both judges and juries look with some sympathy on parents who kill their children with prayer. The judge in the Pennsylvania case described the couple as “loving” and “misguided.”
There’s a joke in atheist circles, where prayer is called “the best way to do nothing and feel proud of yourself.” Unfortunately, prayer coupled with shunning modern medicine is not doing nothing. It’s literally killing people.
I grew up in a series of churches, all of which taught that prayer is a real and powerful tool for getting things. Sometimes, I was told that if I was “walking with the Lord,” I could literally ask for anything at all, and I would get it if I had enough faith. Believe me — I tried. I asked for a lot of things I wanted. Mostly, I didn’t get what I wanted, but when I asked my youth ministers, they told me that God had, in fact, answered my prayer by telling me that what I wanted would not be good for me. This was always something of a puzzle for me, since most of the things I was asking for seemed like no-brainer “good things” for me. I wasn’t asking for a twelve inch penis or a sports car. I was asking for things like enough intelligence to make calculus seem easy. Even so, I was told that God knew enough about me to know that if I were any smarter, bad things would happen to me.
Most of the churches I attended taught a watered down version of the power of prayer. Only things that were part of the existing will of God would be granted, which means that asking for things for yourself is pretty much out. We’re supposed to be humble as Christians, after all. (It did seem to demand an answer to the question: Why pray at all, if God is already planning it?)
Make no mistake, though. Every church I’ve ever attended believed in praying for the sick. I’ve been to Catholic, Methodist, Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Church of Christ, Episcopalian, and six or seven Evangelical “Non-Denominational” churches. All of them believed firmly in the power of prayer to cure illness. I’ve been to church services devoted entirely to praying for the sick. Every church I’ve ever attended had special times to pray for the sick — usually by name — and in every case, the form of the prayer was essentially the same. We were asking God to heal the sick without the need for medicine.
When I am confronted by accomodationists, I am often chided for messing with religious beliefs that are essentially benign, if misguided. The thing is, the belief in prayer is NOT benign. Several times during my Christian life, I prayed for myself to be healed from illness, and did not go to a doctor. One time, a sinus infection turned into bronchitis, and when I finally broke down and saw my physician, I was told that I was lucky I hadn’t gotten pneumonia. (A couple of years ago, one of my best friends died at age 27 from pneumonia.)
I was not always a rabid fundamentalist. I was also a moderate Christian for some time, but I had been taught my whole life that prayer works, and each time I prayed for healing for myself or for someone else, I believed that the failure had been mine — not God’s. I didn’t have enough faith, and so God did not reward me with healing. In a bizarre bit of pretzel logic, this actually inspired me to repeat my failed experiment over and over, each time believing even more firmly that I was the cause of God’s unwillingness to grant me a miracle.
A few weeks ago, I spoke with a woman in a convenience store who was buying lottery tickets — lots of them. She told me that God told her in a dream that he was going to answer her prayer to win the lottery. Since then, she had stopped looking for a job. (Why look? She’s going to be rich) and had spent every extra bit of her unemployment check she could afford on lottery tickets. After all, she explained, God couldn’t very well grant her prayer if she didn’t give him a chance!
An elderly lady I know had a serious problem with her esophagus several years ago. About one out of three times that she tried to eat, she ended up throwing up violently. Her church prayed for her to be healed for over six months. They had prayer circles, prayer meetings, prayer cloths. They anointed her with oil. They sprinkled her with holy water. Finally, it got to the point that she couldn’t get enough food down to maintain her weight, and she broke down and went to the doctor. Medicare paid for a simple outpatient procedure, and within a week, she was eating normally.
What else is there to say? Religious belief causes death and misery that could be prevented. Lawyers regularly pursue companies who sell remedies that do not do what they claim. There are volumes of laws dealing with what a product may claim about itself and how the claim is to be empirically backed up. Yet with religion, not only do we shy away from prosecuting people who do exactly the same thing, we actually feel sympathy for them and give them light sentences when the worst does happen.
Certainly, there is a potential placebo effect inherent in fervent prayer, and it might be that illnesses which can be defeated without medicine are sped along towards healing by the belief that prayer works, but let’s make no mistake. Prayer does not and cannot cure cancer or pneumonia or AIDS. Anyone who claims otherwise is selling something.