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The Problem with (Criticizing) Prayer
by Ethan Winer - 1997
You've probably seen them in your local newspaper - small display advertisements offering thanks to the blessed virgin, or perhaps a prayer to be read out loud with the caveat that you must also place another ad just like it. On a typical day our local newspaper in Danbury, Connecticut runs a half-dozen of these ads. The one that finally got me angry enough to do something promised that you could pray for pretty much anything, and it was guaranteed to be granted.
In an effort to offer a common-sense balance to these pro-prayer ads, I wrote my own version (Figure 1) and attempted to buy a few column-inches in the Danbury News-Times. A salesperson at the newspaper told me that the prayer ads, being non-commercial, were sold at a discount rate. When I explained that my ad was similar, but of opposite sentiment, I was told it would have to be approved by the sales manager. A few days after I submitted the copy I received a call from the newspaper's advertising manager telling me they were refusing my ad. He explained they have a policy of not running ads that disparage or contradict other ads. But, I argued, I'm not saying that muffler repair doesn't work or, tempting as it might be, that chiropractic is not effective. Then he told me that advertising space is intended only to sell a product, not to express an opinion. But in that case, what product or service do the pro-prayer ads sell?
PRAYER DOES NOT WORK
Many people find it comforting to believe that someone else is looking out for them, watching over them, and guiding them gently through the path of life. Indeed, life would be so much simpler if someone else were responsible for our destiny, for countering evil with good, and for ensuring that caring people enjoy a comfortable afterlife. Many well-intentioned but misguided people will tell you prayer is the answer to the problems of the world. They'd have you believe that if only you pray often enough and hard enough, you can realize your most precious goals. Unfortunately, this is not reality. The untold suffering throughout the world should be evidence enough that no benevolent creator is watching over us, helping justice and fairness to triumph. People start wars, people abuse children and animals, and there's no deity to prevent that. You are responsible for your own happiness, and you alone are responsible for your own successes and failures. Be an honest person for its own value - not from fear of spending an eternity in hell. Success in life requires hard work and logical thinking, and these are the values you must strive for. E.W.
Figure 1: "Prayer Does Not Work"
Not satisfied, I phoned the paper's general manager and explained it's simply unfair that the prayer advocates can buy ads to promote their views, while my ad is refused. My ad is not vindictive, and I was careful to avoid ridiculing the believers. He was sympathetic, and essentially agreed with everything I said, yet he refused to change his mind. I was welcome to write a letter to the editor, though the letter would have to include my name because they don't allow "Name Withheld." However, all of the prayer ads are placed anonymously, listing initials only. My wife and I were afraid of receiving harassing phone calls - or possibly worse - so a letter to the editor was not an acceptable solution.
Still unwilling to give up, I called the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union. An attorney there told me newspapers have the right to accept or refuse ads at their discretion. They can even print news stories they know are untrue! The CCLU attorney did agree to write a letter to the newspaper's manager urging him to accept my ad in the interest of fairness, but that letter was ineffective. I was able to get some exposure in another local paper - one of those "underground" weekly freebies - but the article was too brief to be as educational and explanatory as it should have been. In particular, there was no space for me to explain why I believe prayer is not only ineffective but also harmful.
WHAT'S SO BAD ABOUT PRAYER?
The illogical - and I contend harmful - belief in prayer is pervasive. More than just silly entertainment like the newspaper astrology column, or TV shows such as Strange Universe and Sightings, prayer has been touted repeatedly on NBC's 11:00 O'clock News and other seemingly respectable TV news programs as actually working. The belief in prayer appeals to people's weakness and tends to prevent them from accepting responsibility for their own success or failure. Similarly, the belief in fate and destiny can prevent someone from actively pursuing a better life for themselves - "It's out of my hands so why bother?"
Even people who agree with me that prayer is useless question why I feel so compelled to petition against it. But prayer is not just a harmless waste of time for those who choose to practice it. Prayer is harmful when people use it instead of going to a doctor. Prayer is harmful when people use it instead of hard work, logic, and common sense to find a better job or otherwise improve their lives. Prayer, when combined with using grocery money to buy lottery tickets, is particularly damaging. In a nutshell, prayer offers false hope, and diverts people's attention from what they really should be doing to succeed in life. If prayer actually worked, everyone would be a millionaire, nobody would ever get sick and die, and both football teams would always win. Saying prayer works is the same as saying that wishful thinking alone can solve problems. It's also unreasonable to argue that prayer consoles and comforts those who believe in it. If that were really true, why do the believers keep going back to church week after week, like an addict in need of a fix?
Gaining knowledge about the world we live in is in the best interest of mankind. If we understand how disease thrives and spreads, we can develop effective cures. If we understand agriculture, we can reduce starvation. And if we understand psychology, we can strive to be a happier and more tolerant society. These are important and worthy goals which, unfortunately, defy the very definition of the term "faith." Yet many, perhaps most, otherwise intelligent people leave their logical powers at the curb when they enter their chosen house of worship. I have a friend who is a gifted pianist and college-educated, but she's also a practicing Christian Scientist (now there's an oxymoron) and prays often. Another friend - a professional engineer - criticizes religion and prayer, yet he believes that mind power alone can bend a spoon. He swears he has seen it done in person, and he can't accept that what he saw was merely a trick performed by a skilled magician.
Just because I cannot explain a particular magic trick does not mean it isn't a trick. And just because I cannot prove there is no god does not make the notion that god exists more credible. If someone has a theory about something, the burden of proof is upon them. They must be able to offer at least some evidence. The believers would have creationism taught alongside evolution, as if it were equally plausible. Yet there is not one shred of evidence supporting the theory that a god created the universe and the earth's creatures in their present form. Compare that to the wealth of evidence supporting the theory of evolution. Indeed, if a god created the universe, who or what created that god? And what kind of self-centered and insecure god would demand that people worship and pray to him? Indeed, the God theory invites more questions than it answers.
Much of what we know about our world is based on empirical evidence. We know that gravity exists because we can observe a falling object. But no such evidence exists for the presence of a god, the efficacy of prayer, or many other equally silly but often-accepted notions, such as destiny, predicting the future, palm reading, life after death, locating a murderer by looking at photos of the victim, homeopathic healing, and so forth. When subjected to careful and objective scientific scrutiny, such phony claims have been debunked repeatedly. Yet a sizable number of people do not want to hear that, and the popular news media instead focuses on the magical and the mystical. When confronted with an obvious contradiction, a believer answers, "The Lord works in mysterious ways." But you can explain away anything with that kind of logic! How is that different from no god and random events?
Church leaders have no business trying to influence science, education, or politics. Only recently did the Catholic Church apologize for placing Galileo under house arrest for life because his telescope showed that the earth revolves around the sun. Do we have to wait another 400 years for the pope to admit he was wrong to insist that the starving people in Africa not use birth control? The pope recently warned famed physicist Stephen Hawking to stop searching for the origins of the universe because his findings contradict the beliefs of the Catholic Church. That is akin to saying, "My mind is made up, don't confuse me with the facts." If we ever do learn how the universe began, you can be sure the answer will come from scientists, not theologians.
MORE HARM THAN GOOD
Many unbelievably horrible acts have been committed in the name of god because people believed they were doing what god wanted. (One definition of a fanatic is, "Someone who does what god would do if only god could.") I've heard religious people condemn sex scenes in movies as being against god's teachings. But if these people really do believe in an omnipotent god, how dare they presume to speak for that god? Likewise, these same people have railed against pregnancy and AIDS education with disastrous results. The believers often react violently to people like me, because they have no logical arguments with which to counter my claims. It becomes reduced to "might makes right," which defies the notion of a democratic society. Contrary to the popular belief that people who devote their life to god should be exalted, the Religious Wrong, as I like to call it, is full of hatred and intolerance for homosexuals, atheists, and even women. If a god created all of mankind, did that same god not also create homosexuals and atheists?
One of the worst influences of religion upon society is the notion that sex, nakedness, and even pleasure itself are bad. Masturbation is a sin, and some religions require their followers to fast periodically and even flog themselves. Indeed, the word "follower" implies the unhealthy notion that people are not to think for themselves. I am not aware of any legitimate research that proves or even suggests that youngsters can be harmed by looking at the pictures in Playboy and similar magazines. Does there exist an adult who has never seen such pictures? Where is the harm in nudity? How is nakedness related to morality? Why do otherwise intelligent people hold high a group of men and women who are so confused that they've vowed to never have sex or even masturbate? Here's a quote from Our Sexuality, a graduate-level psychology text by Robert Crooks and Karla Baur - "It has been widely reported by a variety of therapist researchers that severe religious orthodoxy equating sex with sin is common to the backgrounds of many sexually troubled people." And these are the very people Ann Landers recommends for marital and other counseling.
Many Americans bemoan the fact that our students do badly in science and math. Yet the belief in prayer and god defies scientific understanding and knowledge. Teaching impressionable youth to accept, on faith alone, illogical theories and beliefs undermines all scientific objectivity and stifles progress. Is it proper to tell an 18-year-old that Santa Claus really does exist? Of course not, yet that is no different than saying that god exists. Many eyebrows were raised when it was revealed that Nancy Reagan employed an astrologer. Why is there not equal outrage when the president of the United States goes to church and prays for guidance "from above?" It's scary indeed to think that a president is reluctant to think for himself!
Religious beliefs have other negative effects - they often discourage people from being organ donors, and they are usually behind laws against sodomy, prostitution, assisted suicide, and homosexual rights. Clearly, misguided religious beliefs are behind the constant barrage of abortion clinic bombings, and that bombing of a gay bar in Atlanta.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The ineffectiveness of prayer and other forms of mysticism is, at heart, a consumer issue - we are asked to donate money to churches or cults as an act of kindness and to help them in their "mission," and in exchange we are promised to eventually get to heaven. But how can they possibly deliver? Our government recently wasted more than $350,000 of taxpayer money on research to test "laying over of hands" as a way to heal burn victims. And millions more have been wasted paying psychics who claim to be able to help the police solve crimes. If religious organizations were required to pay taxes like every other business, the financial burden on the rest of us would be reduced dramatically. Worse, the believers not only want taxpayers to finance their teachings in the form of tax credits and private school subsidies, but now they also want public school teachers assigned to teach in those schools.
The problem of people believing in prayer and god is epidemic - a recent poll commissioned by Free Inquiry magazine found that 92.1 percent of the U.S. population believe there is a god, and most of those further believe that god can answer prayers. In addition, 80.3 percent believe in life after death, and only 39 percent agree that evolution is the best explanation of human existence. If we are concerned about the failure of our country's educational system, these are frightening figures indeed!
Public opinion changes slowly, but it can change. If you or I can make even one person stop and consider the illogic in something they have always just accepted, perhaps that person will in turn influence someone else. I urge you to do all that you can to help turn the tide.
As I was completing this article, I noticed the following on my local cable station's Public Access channel, alongside the usual Public Service Announcements:
FREE GIFT FROM JESUS
To receive the gift of eternal life confess with your mouth that Jesus is lord and except [sic] him into your heart as your personal savior.
Unable to resist, I submitted the following message:
PRAYER IS NOT THE ANSWER
Only you can control your success and happiness. Work hard and be a good person for its own value, not from fear of an imaginary god.
Although the cable station refused to run my message (because they post only non-profit announcements from legitimate organizations), they did agree to remove the Free Gift message.
On April 22, 1999 the AP released the following news story:
CINCINNATI (AP) - The Catholic Telegraph, the official newspaper of the Cincinnati archdiocese, has ended its long-standing practice of printing "thank you" ads to saints.
The weekly newspaper, in its 168th year, said the ads, which cost $30 apiece, were dropped as of April 1 because they appear to make promises that cannot be guaranteed.
The so-called "pray and publish" ads typically give thanks to a particular saint for answering a prayer. The prayer is published in the ad and others are encouraged to use it. But after the prayer is said, the ad maintains it must be published for it to work.
Telegraph Editor Tricia Hempel said she decided the ads resemble chain letters.
"Our mission is to educate, to inform, to encourage dialog and to evangelize," Ms. Hempel said. "I looked at these ads and could not see that they fit in with our mission in any way, shape or form.
Ethan Winer is a self-employed programmer, audio engineer, author, and an avid amateur cellist.
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