What If Intercessory Prayer Worked?

What if intercessory prayer worked? What if, when you or someone else had a disease, and you prayed, there was a significant chance that the disease would be healed, either by one or another divine being, or by some other mechanism?

And yes, I realize that a lot of people think that it does; but I’m going to look at this in the way a science fiction writer might, and see what happens.

One of the most obvious attributes of prayer is that it’s cheap and easily-accessible by anyone. It’s also said to be as safe and side-effect-free as, say, homeopathy. That means that it should be everyone’s first recourse, not their second, third, or last. People wouldn’t say “there’s nothing to do now but pray” after an operation; they’d say “prayer didn’t work; there’s nothing to do now but operate”.

Insurance companies would refuse to cover the cost of, say, blood pressure medication or chemotherapy unless you’d already tried cheap prayer first. In this, they would be joined by doctors, because medications have side effects (to say nothing of surgery and similar operations), so it’s best to try side-effect-free prayer first.

Then again, maybe insurance companies wouldn’t bother: they’d just assume that everyone would pray before resorting to medical professionals, that there wasn’t any real money to be saved by screening out the vanishingly few die-hard antitheists, and they’d get rid of that particular bit of paperwork.

At the same time, though, assuming that not all prayers are equally effective, we’d see a new profession: prayer therapist. These would be people whose job it is to help you pray in the optimal way: do you need to be on your knees, or can you just sort of wish for recovery while sitting in traffic? What are some good ways to achieve the purity of heart that gives the best odds of recovery? Is it okay to take painkillers so you can pray without being distracted by the pain? For that matter, are Catholic prayers more effective than Buddhist ones, or doesn’t it matter? (Yes, it means that some people would stay with insurance companies that they hate simply because their favorite prayer therapist is in-network.)

Naturally, in addition to the well-informed professionals, there would be the fakers, posers, and spouters-of-BS. Hollywood celebrities would hire celebrity prayer therapists and would compare notes on morning talk shows about the latest trends and fashions in intercessory prayer.

None of this even addresses the wider theological repercussions: if prayer really worked, there would be an awful lot fewer atheists, and a lot more members of whichever faith had the most effective prayers. I’ll leave it up to the reader to decide how well this little flight of fancy corresponds to the world we live in.

How Not to Report Science

One of the stories in the news today is about a study showing that no, US presidents don’t have their lifespans shortened by the rigors of office. The AP writes:

Using life expectancy data for men the same age as presidents on their inauguration days, the study found that 23 of 34 presidents who died of natural causes lived several years longer than expected.

This set off little skeptical alarm bells in my head. And indeed, a few paragraphs later, we find:

Given that most of the 43 men who have served as president have been college-educated, wealthy and had access to the best doctors, their long lives are actually not that surprising, [study author S. Jay Olshansky] said.

I haven’t found the text of the study in question, but LiveScience writes:

“To me, it’s a classic illustration of the benefits of socioeconomic status,” Olshansky told LiveScience. “All but 10 of the presidents were college-educated, they were all wealthy, and they all had access to medical care.”

So yeah, maybe I’m jumping to conclusions, but I suspect that being able to afford living in a neighborhood where you’re not going to get shot by a drug dealer, and getting regular checkups at Walter Reed may have a teensy bit to do with one’s life expectancy.

So really, what this story tells us is that the stress of the presidency, when combined with good lifestyle and health care, is not enough to lower a man’s life expectancy to the national average. What it doesn’t say is what effect the presidential lifestyle has on people’s health. For that, it would be necessary to compare presidents’ life spans to those of people of comparable wealth and access to health care. From the remarks above, I suspect that Olshansky understands this perfectly well, but I don’t know whether that study has been done.

US Legal System Says Prayer Doesn’t Work

From the
Associated Press:

WAUSAU, Wis. — A Wisconsin man accused of killing his 11-year-old daughter by praying instead of seeking medical care was found guilty Saturday of second-degree reckless homicide.

Dale Neumann, 47, was convicted in the March 23, 2003, death of his daughter, Madeline, from undiagnosed diabetes. Prosecutors contended he should have rushed the girl to a hospital because she couldn’t walk, talk, eat or speak. Instead, Madeline died on the floor of the family’s rural Weston home as people surrounded her and prayed. Someone called 911 when she stopped breathing.

Neumann’s 41-year-old wife, Leilani, was convicted on the same charge in the spring and is scheduled for sentencing Oct. 6. Both face up to 25 years in prison.

The six-man, six-woman jury deliberated about 15 hours over two days before convicting Neumann. Jurors submitted four questions to Marathon County Circuit Judge Vincent Howard before reaching a verdict. In one, the panel asked whether Neumann’s beliefs in faith healing made him “not liable” for not taking his daughter to the hospital even if he knew she wasn’t feeling well.

Neumann, who once studied to be a Pentecostal minister, testified Thursday that he believed God would heal his daughter and he never expected her to die. God promises in the Bible to heal, he said.

“If I go to the doctor, I am putting the doctor before God,” Neumann testified. “I am not believing what he said he would do.”

(emphasis added.)

There have been a number of cases recently in which people were
charged with criminal negligence for praying instead of providing
medical care. And for the most part, I think sanity has prevailed, and
parents who chose superstition over medicine have been convicted. This
case is one more example of that.

And what I find interesting is what this says about the US legal
system and American society. What people do is a better indicator of
what they believe than what they say. If I say that I think the stock
price of Amalgamated Widgets is about to skyrocket, then short their
stock, that means I don’t really believe the company’s doing well. If
I say that the world will end in five years, tops, but am socking
money away in a pension plan, then I don’t really believe what I’m

In the Neumann case, I’d wager money that a majority of the jurors are
Christians, and that some significant number of them would say that
prayer has beneficial effects. And yet, when push came to shove, they
found Neumann guilty of reckless homicide. The message is that prayer
doesn’t work nearly as well as medicine, and that Neumann should have
known this.

It’s disappointing, though, that push has to come to shove before
people call bullshit.