The power of positive praying–even for atheists

I think that prayer, at its best, serves as a placebo. People may improve because their expectation to do so is strong.

Former Christian evangelist turned-atheist Dan Barker has composed over 200 songs, and one of my favorites is “Nothing fails like prayer.” Even so, I take some issue with the title because I can think of worse failures than prayer.

For instance, I’m pleased Exodus International has acknowledged that its “pray the gay away” campaign was an abysmal failure and that their “reparative therapy” patients have suffered psychological damage. However, looking at the bright side, praying was preferable to criminalizing homosexuality, which all 50 states did until 1962. And praying for homosexuals is certainly preferable to killing them, as prescribed in Leviticus 20:13.

George Washington likely would have lived longer had he requested prayer for his throat inflammation instead of bloodletting, a standard medical practice of his era. Usually performed by barbers, bloodletting was the most common medical practice until the late 19th century. The traditional red and white striped poles outside barbershops represented red for the blood drawn and white for the bandages used to soak up the blood.

Perhaps Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Christian Science religion in 1879, initially attracted some reasonable followers because prayer usually worked better than bloodletting. She taught that the sick should be treated by a special form of prayer rather than by medicine. Eddy may have inadvertently adhered to the advice Hippocrates gave 2,400 years ago. He coined the phrase now repeated in the Hippocratic oath: “First do no harm.” Doing nothing instead of doing harm is as valid today as it was then.

I think that prayer, at its best, serves as a placebo. People may improve because their expectation to do so is strong. Whatever your theology, there is power in positive thinking. Focusing on the half-full glass might put you in a better frame of mind to accomplish your objectives, but the placebo effect does have obvious limitations. Though doctors are fallible, we appreciate the enormous strides that have been made in medicine. Along with scientific advances comes the recognition that prayer alone is a harmful alternative decision for many maladies.

So should people be prevented from just praying while excluding medical care? My view generally is that adults should be able to practice what they want as long as they don’t harm others. They are free to use prayer, crystals, tarot-cards, or exorcists to cure themselves. They can handle poison snakes as a show of faith, try to pray the gay away, mail thousands of dollars to televangelists, or send bank account information by email to a Nigerian prince with the promise of millions in return, as I was requested to do last week.

However, the government has a responsibility to prevent prayer “cures” from being used as the only treatment for children with serious illnesses. Since our secular government must be neutral regarding religion, what we deem parental neglect or abuse should be independent of whether it is for religious or secular reasons.

Here’s a harmless (and, to me, humorous) form of prayer for both adults and youngsters. The Vatican has recently declared that a person who follows prayer tweets from Pope Francis will get time off from purgatory. I don’t believe in heaven or hell, but I’m especially puzzled by purgatory—which God forgot to mention in the Bible. I suppose God made up for the omission by giving a detailed description of purgatory to church leaders. Apparently, it’s a halfway house for punishment until you’ve suffered enough to go to heaven.

Here are a couple of tweet questions I’d like to send to Pope Francis. Would, say, a reduction of a thousand purgatory years be based on earth time? And how does the pope (or God) calculate “time” in eternity? Unlike some former indulgences, at least the tweeting is free for those with a computer or a smart phone. But does God think this “get out of purgatory” pass is really fair to those who can’t afford a tweeting device?

Image courtesy of John Ragai.


Herb Silverman Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.
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