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We’ll Pray For You

An 11-year-old girl died of a treatable disease because her parent refused to take her to the doctor. Instead, they prayed for her to be healed. The parents reportedly believe she died because they didn’t have enough faith to cure her diabetes. The mother hopes that the girl could still be resurrected.

If I suffer from a fatal illness, for the love of me, please get me some medical treatment! Feel free to pray if that makes you feel better. Dab sacred oil on my head while invoking the aid of ancient, Sumerian, storm gods if you think it will help. Dance your mind away around the spilled guts of a sacrificial chicken for all I care. Just please pause in your superstitious mutterings and circumambulations long enough to get me safely into a competent doctor’s care. Then carry on.

If I get better, then please first thank the doctors whose application of godless medical science saved my life. I certainly will. Then you can go back to your storm gods and chicken innards if you like. I’ll thank you for your love and compassion and for caring enough to seek medical treatment. Don’t expect me to feel grateful for your application of superstition which has no power to heal me, or to save the life of an innocent child who deserved to live.

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  1. Lincoln Cannon said,

    March 31, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

    The prayer of faith is accompanied by every action within one’s power to accomplish the desired end. Anything short of that is not an expression of faith, despite claims to the contrary.

  2. Jonathan Blake said,

    March 31, 2008 @ 3:19 pm

    I wonder how different the outcome would be if I exerted every other action within my power without also praying. Would the outcome be the same?

  3. Jonathan Blake said,

    March 31, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

    Here are another couple instances gleaned from a discussion of this case at Friendly Atheist:

  4. Lincoln Cannon said,

    March 31, 2008 @ 6:41 pm

    The outcome would not be the same because prayer is one of the actions within your power, none of which are superfluous. Check this out:

  5. Anna said,

    April 1, 2008 @ 10:20 am

    While I do believe in prayer, but I always tell people that have serious issues to GO TO THE DOCTOR. What would be wrong with God using the doctor’s to heal someone?

    If you check out my blog, you’ll see some examples of recent prayer that’s working. I don’t want to link them because of the somewhat personal nature of my blog.

  6. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 3, 2008 @ 1:29 pm


    I had actually read that post not too long before you linked to it. I would only point out that meditating on compassion is one thing and petitioning God for his direct intervention in the affairs of the world is quite another. The first has been shown to increase compassion, while in this case at least, the second caused the girl’s parents to ignore her “nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness” that eventually caused her death.


    I tread carefully because this can be such a sensitive topic. There has been recent incident in my own family that people have been praying over. I have refrained from pushing my views on those members of my family who believe that prayer works because that would do little good. So if this is a sensitive subject for you right now, let’s talk about it another time. I’m going to respond in the following paragraphs, but you can choose to ignore my response.

    The studies that have been done on the healing effects of prayer have shown no correlations between distant prayer (in order to avoid observing the effects of a near supportive environment) and improved medical outcomes. If this is true, why do we think prayer works?

    A partial reason, I think, is because believers in prayer count the hits and forget the misses. It is a common human failing to remember the things that confirm our beliefs and ignore those that contradict them. In this case, believers in prayer will tend to remember the times that people got better after people prayed for them and forget the time that someone never got better.

    Also, many illnesses naturally come to an end by themselves. If we pray to get over something, and then we get better, we may assume that it was because of the prayer, an example of a post hoc fallacy. We don’t usually conduct experiments to see whether or not our prayers worked. We don’t for example decide to not pray for someone to see if they will get better on their own.

    I was convinced of the inefficacy of prayer when I was posed the question of why God won’t heal amputees. I still haven’t found a satisfactory answer to that question. The essay answers all of the objections that I could think of.

  7. Lessie said,

    April 4, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

    This is very interesting to me right now. My mom has been diagnosed with breast cancer and my youngest son has been diagnosed with a mid-line disease that affects his optic nerves and his pituitary gland. I haven’t prayed for either of them, yet they’ve both been doing well. My mom has responded beautifully to treatment and my son’s vision is improving minimally (he has light perception now whereas before he didn’t). For me, these things have simply been the way things are. I knew that there was a chance of my son’s vision improving when his stunted optic nerves matured somewhat (doesn’t mean they grow back in, they just mature). My mom has retained a positive attitude about her cancer (as well as a claimed revelation that she’ll be healed) and is doing well. She’s always telling me that she doesn’t care what I think, these things are answers to her prayers. Yet her sister died of cancer in spite of all our prayers to the contrary, her son drowned in spite of what I’m sure were some desperate pleas for his safety, and I’ve left the church in spite of her prayers for my sister and I. So yeah, I’m with you on the suspect nature of those who say they believe in the power of prayer. It takes some mental gymnastics to avoid the obvious–that what’s going to happen is going to happen. Nothing more, nothing less.

  8. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 4, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

    …what’s going to happen is going to happen. Nothing more, nothing less.

    Well said.

    Would God really let my child die just because I forgot to pray for her safety this morning? Or would God let a woman die of cancer because not enough people prayed on her behalf? How many people are required before God would heal her? Five? Ten? Twenty? That just seems petty.

  9. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 4, 2008 @ 1:59 pm

    I almost forgot to say (to my shame) that I hope your mother and your son recover well and have long, enjoyable lives ahead of them.

  10. Lessie said,

    April 4, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

    How many people are required before God would heal her? Five? Ten? Twenty? That just seems petty.

    I’ve wondered this as well, especially in light of my mother’s illness. So many people are praying for her, her name is on hundreds of Sunday School, temple, and church prayer rolls (from a plethora of denominations). Yet she still claims to need my prayers. And I wonder what would be different if she were the only one praying for herself. Would she feel unloved or unwanted and give up the fight? I think that for a lot of people it comes down to two things: 1) they haven’t thought through their philosophy of prayer and 2) when someone says they are praying for you, it brings a sense of solidarity. When people say they are praying for my son, I thank them. Just as I thank you for your hope for my mother and son. I hope for them as well. I really think that’s all anyone can do once technology and medicine have done the rest.

  11. Jonathan Blake said,

    April 5, 2008 @ 5:52 am

    It seems that prayer symbolizes concern from family and friends. I believe people who know they have this kind of support have been shown to do better than those who feel isolated. Prayer may help channel human support and compassion which I guess we should be thankful for.

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