L’Infame: Soul Surrender
Prayer’s Demeaning Power
Pierre Tristam/Candide’s Notebooks, March 31, 2006
Leafing through clips of madness I come across this brief AP bit from 1998, datelined Philadelphia: “A teen-ager accused of fatally stabbing his mother and shooting to death two classmates testified today that he had been driven by demons who told him he would be ‘nothing’ if he did not kill.” That was the story of Luke Woodham. The defense didn’t stick. He was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences, plus a bunch of consecutive 20-year terms for aggravated assaults, though Woodham continued his idiotic rationales the moment a camera was turned on him: “The reason you see no tears anymore is because I've been forgiven by God.” His likes aren’t taken seriously for good reason. Calling in gods or demons to pinch hit for one’s barbarism isn’t exactly good form. But how different is that from calling in gods and prayer legions to intercede on one’s behalf in tough times? Why take seriously the claim that prayer can make a difference in one’s life if we’re not ready, as we shouldn’t be, to take seriously the murderer’s claim that Satan made me do it? Leave it to America’s ongoing miasma of religious hysteria to devote millions of dollars and billions of man-hours on figuring out whether a Hail Mary or two can keep John Big Mac’s bypass surgery from crapping out.
Ten such studies have been conducted. (I have no objection to using taxpayer money on whatever study helps debunk—or sustain, for that matter—one foolery or another: that’s what unbounded science is all about, so long as the studies’ results are given more room to influence people’s thinking than their prejudices). But the largest of its kind was released this week and published in the American Heart Journal. Prayer doesn’t help. If anything, it could hurt: Patients who knew they were being prayed for had higher anxiety and mortality rates, maybe because they expect too much—or, more logically, because they give up their own self-sustaining battle and puts it in others’ hands.
Besides its scientific rigor, the value of the study as less than a partisan blast against god’s fatal potential is in its funding and lead physicist: The John Templeton Foundation is no religious rebel. To the contrary. And Dr. Herbert Benson is an advocate and believer in the power of prayer. Whether it’s a matter of chance that mortality upticks when prayer is involved doesn’t diminish evidence that shows that, in sum, prayer makes no difference one way or the other. The delusion is not just unnecessary. It’s irresponsible. It puts man in a submissive role to powers that are assumed to be greater than his own, when those powers can at best be assumed to be only supremely indifferent—leaving it to one’s own powers, or what’s left of them, to make the difference. Why not call in the extra help?
There is the political dimension: prayer is turning into an ideological cudgel, a way to assert one kind of belief over another as the proper kind, sometimes the superior kind, to the point of involving federal rule-making authorities, as the minor row over the issue in the U.S. military illustrates. But that’s another story. The personal dimension is what’s at stake in these medical matters. The extra help in this case isn’t a freedom of conscience matter (what goes on in an individual’s mind is precisely where that freedom should have no limits); it’s freedom’s opposite, because it doesn’t rely on one’s own powers, because the soul shouldn’t seek the dole, and because it diminishes both the individual and the spirituality he claims to be honoring: “The problem with studying religion scientifically,” the New York Times quotes Dr. Richard Sloan as saying, “is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion.” (Sloan is about to publish Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine.)
The link reminds me of John Updike’s Roger’s Version and the attempt by Dale Kohler, the 28-year-old computer science student, to prove the existence of god with his computer. What if he could succeed? Would we want that proof? Would we want god so diminished to a set of ones and zeroes? Would we want prayer to so pitifully lasso god’s “will” to one’s wishes? Are we that arrogant as to assume that we deserve the special treatment? Are we so pathetic as to assume that we are not our own person? Prayer is the first step toward surrender—not to god, but of one’s freedom.