Thursday, July 20, 2006

 

The Power of Prayer

The Age of Enlightenment started about 300 years ago, but yet we see the persistence of superstition in even the most advanced societies.

This is pernicious. Belief in the unverifiable in one area conditions people into accepting myths in other branches of knowledge as well. Let's start with the most pervasive belief in all major religions - the power of prayer.

There is a simple test to determine cause and effect. It's usually called the "scientific method". One performs some action (the experiment) and sees what happens. If there is a certain outcome then one can infer that there was a cause and effect relationship. The other key part of the method is that the experiment must be repeatable by others and also produce the same result.

What happens with prayer? There have been very few actual scientific experiments because all stories about the efficacy of prayer are anecdotal. But recently there was a real scientific experiment on the power of prayer to promote healing and lessen complications in heart surgery patients. Depending on how one interprets the data the results were either that there was no effect, or even a negative effect. The latter being attributed to some sort of psychological impact on patients who were told that they were being prayed for.

In general people pray and if what they wished for comes about they say "my prayers were answered". If they don't get their desired result they say "I didn't pray hard enough", or "God chose not to answer by prayers", or "God moves in mysterious ways". Translated into scientific terms: the experiment (prayer) produced random outcomes, thus implying there is no cause and effect.

For those willing to acknowledge the lack of the efficacy of prayer there are two possible explanations. The most common one among the religious is the "Deist" one. God started up the universe, but isn't concerned with day-to-day events. The other is, of course, there is no supernatural being that influences human outcomes. In either case, if the conclusion is that there is no cause and effect why continuing praying?

This leads to the other big issue of the day - the existence of a supernatural being (or beings in some parts of the world). Those who "believe" are not content to keep these ideas to themselves. They feel compelled to try to convince the non-believers of the errors of their ways. Why? This is only a guess on my part, but since everyone who prays knows at first hand the results are unpredictable. Thus, lurking in the back of the minds of the faithful is the thought that their whole belief system is false. This gives rise to the need to obliterate all forms of dissent: out of sight, out of mind. We have plenty of examples of what this type of intolerance leads to when the faithful also get political power. History has examples ranging from the Inquisition to present day imposition of Sharia law.

The same fear of having one's belief system challenged (or one's children's) is what is behind much of the censorship and suppression of knowledge that is taking place. In order to prevent the dissemination of scientific evidence about key areas of human behavior and social policy, the faithful have taken to distorting reality, funding authoritarian religious programs and trying to disallow other points of view to be presented.

Just to mention a few: the effects of global warming, the efficacy of private (that is church-sponsored) schools over public schools, the efficacy of "abstinence only" sex education, the teaching of Darwinism, and the definition of "life". In a world where other societies are not being inhibited by such false doctrines the ability to make real scientific and social progress is proceeding apace. In societies where theology trumps reality not only is human freedom curtailed but so is economic progress and world competitiveness. For a good current example one only has to look at Iran. It has fallen back 100 years in economic power, women are mistreated, it's only economic influence is because of oil and unemployment stands at 30%. This is the real power of prayer.

A true democratic society is inconsistent with authoritarian religions which seek to put their stamp on social policy. "Liberal" theology is just as incompatible with democracy as any other type. Each says "believe me without evidence (that is have faith), and do as I say." Democracy works only when people have access to all the facts and can judge for themselves.
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