God as a Placebo

I read with interest an article about Dr. Mark Pool, a highly-regarded heart surgeon in Dallas who prays with his patients. He claims that no one—not even those who don’t believe—has turned down his offer to pray before surgery.

Well, duh. If you need open-heart surgery, and you’ve been referred to this guy by your family doctor or by your insurance company, are you going to tell him, “Hell, no. I don’t want you to summon the invisible man to help you do your job, doc!” If Pool believes that a 2000-year old historical figure named JC is guiding his hands as he performs surgery, then he might also believe that you are a follower of Satan. Would he be less interested in saving one of the enemy’s foot soldiers? What if someone answered, “You could make a believer out of me if I wake up after this surgery?” Would he work harder to save his patient?

In all fairness, according to the plethora of Medscape articles I’ve read over the past couple of years, this is a serious topic for both physicians and patients. People who believe seem to be more at ease when a doctor prays. And doctors who believe seem to think prayer really does work. (Keyword being “think.”) Sometimes I wonder if that’s all it takes. However, studies have found that:

“First, intercessory prayer itself had no effect on whether complications occurred after CABG [coronary artery bypass graft]. Second, patients who were certain that intercessors would pray for them had a higher rate of complications than patients who were uncertain but did receive intercessory prayer.”

In other words, believe whatever the hell you want, but prayer is simply like taking Xanax. It might be calming to the patient, but it has no effect on the actual outcome of the surgery. (The study states, “We have no clear explanation for the observed excess of complications in patients who were certain that intercessors would pray for them.”)

There was another physician interviewed for this article. Dr. Rohan Jeyarajah, also prays with his patients. He says, “We have to be careful about being in a position of perceived authority and not overstepping that bound. This is like a teacher-student relationship. There’s a chance you could be inappropriate.”

Wait, what? Anyone other than doctor is a student, an amateur, a neophyte?

On the contrary, we are customers, and doctors, as evidenced by the bills they send to us, are running a very lucrative business. Just as we would not expect a pilot, a dentist, an attorney or a professor to put his hand on our shoulders and ask that God help guarantee success, we should not expect a doctor to do this.

No, you would not see this crazy sh*t in any other profession, but I suspect that all patients tolerate this because specialists are small in number and because people just want to get better, no matter what kind of crazy belief system the doctor holds. What some doctors seem to forget is that they are medical professionals, not faith healers, and we are their paying customers.

I have been to a doctor who is very religious, and I must admit, that I am a little wary. What educated man or woman believes that there are spirits helping out in the office or the operating room? Do these doctors have such little faith in themselves?

And this is where we may find the only benefit for those of us who don’t believe in god. If a doctor truly believes that god is on his team, that god is working through him, then perhaps he has just a little more confidence in his skills. For an atheist doctor, maybe he or she is not as confident. After all, they would be aware of the truth: we all are fallible, fragile, flawed–no matter how much education we have. A doctor who doesn’t believe in god knows that it’s just him and his staff and the patient, and he’s counting on his team, his education and his experience to do his job successfully.

So for some doctors, it seems, god is simply a placebo.

What do you think? Would you trust a doctor who wanted to pray before your or your child’s operation?


83 responses to “God as a Placebo

  1. While a doctor believing god is on his team may raise his or her confidence, it could also cause the doctor to take unnecessary risks believing god will look out for them.

  2. In the county and town where I live, we have a well respected and well known surgeon. He runs his own medical practice and also works at the county hospital, where he is chief surgeon. He is extremely religious and it is well known that he spends time in prayer before he performs surgeries. Also, from time to time patients will request prayer with him before he performs surgery.

    I don’t attribute his success as a surgeon, because he takes time to pray. I believe success in the medical field does come from a certain amount of academics, practice and experience. However, I believe that an individual can possess natural gifts in certain aspects of life. For example, some people have a phenominal ability to draw pictures. Some people have beautiful voices and can sing. Some people write the most involved computer programs, or create the most advanced electrical diagrams.

    I believe the doctor in my town is naturally gifted when it comes to performing surgeries? Has he made mistakes? Most likely. Show me a doctor who hasn’t. I would trust this man with my life and with the life of my daughter, without question. Then again, I do know him personally and consider him a friend.

    Although, I do tend to agree with you. If it were some random stranger, I wouldn’t trust him or her anymore than I would trust any other random stranger regardless of their prayers.

    • @dqfan2012 Interesting. I’m really surprised by how many doctors do offer prayer. (Of course, it’s usually Christian.) Both my parents have had doctors who either want to pray with them or who have told them to trust in God to help them make their medical decisions. My mom, being Catholic, still was uncomfortable with this as she believes faith is very private.

  3. It definitely does NOT increase my confidence. It sort of reminds me of those bumper stickers that say “God is my co-pilot.” Like if they mess up, he will take over and save the day? Again, one of my biggest problems with religion – where is the personal responsibility? The sky man isn’t going to swoop in and fix things. (If he could, he would have fixed my A/C that went out over the weekend. duh.) I have sort of the same thing going on with the guy that does my hair. I don’t go to him but about 2x/year, but he is REALLY off the wall. He rants about chem trails, end times, aliens, and all the regular preachy god-stuff. It’s creepy, but he does good hair. 😉 I just tend to ignore it and change the subject, but I think if he actually invited me to pray with him I wouldn’t go back. Fortunately, hair is not nearly as serious as medicine.

    • Exactly! OMG “Jesus take the scalpel?” ACK!

    • @Theresa Sorry to hear about your ac. It’s been so humid lately, too.

      Your hair guy must be the guy I used to go to (Charles Wilson)?? I couldn’t take him any more. He had me captive, and no matter how much I tried to change the subject, it always came back to the bible is The Truth and Jesus is his savior.

      Have you been to Dr. Brinkman’s office? He’s got all pictures on the walls of physician who has Jesus looking over the doctor’s shoulder, helping him make a diagnosis.

      • No worries on the A/C – got it fixed by 10:30 this morning!

        Hair guy is Randy Richards. I’ve lucked out the last couple of times and gotten his assistant. (yay!) Haven’t been to Brinkman’s office – now I don’t think I will. That SO wouldn’t make me have confidence in a doctor, aside from the fact that it’s REALLY creepy.

  4. I’d decline if my doctor asked, and have declined when asked by the hospital chaplain as recently as two years ago. Couldn’t see taking part in a rite I don’t believe in.

  5. My physician is also off the wall when it comes to religion and paranoia. Still, I see him about 2-3 times a year in order to have a couple of very necessary scripts filled. As a nurse with much experience there’s no reason in heaven (pardon moi) why he’s gets to write them over me other then to charge for the visits and keep me tethered to his hospital/employer. For more serious problems I do the research and follow-up with the appropriate provider.

    • @anonymous I agree and feel the same. I think doctors just want to keep their income stream. The large majority of prescriptions should be available over the counter. If you’ve been taking a certain prescription for years–statins, birth control, whatever–you should be able to request those yourself.

  6. I understand how this could make a non-believer uncomfortable. Even as a believer it would surprise me. But what I like about it- beyond the God aspect- is the effort the surgeon puts into personal interaction. It indicates he genuinely cares about his patients and his work. In a surgery I had last year, my surgeon barely made eye contact with me before the operation. I didn’t need a prayer, but even an “any questions or concerns?” would’ve been nice.

    Many surgeons are so self-important and busy (no, not ALL are) their first interaction with the patient is after they’re under anesthesia. Maybe he is overstepping his boundaries, but I would feel touched that this busy surgeon was spending a few minutes of his time (and what the hell does he get paid by the minute?) to just try to comfort me or connect with me, even if it was a way in which I didn’t agree with.

    There are excellent doctors that are both religious and non-religious. In my experience, prayer doesn’t replace personal responsibility. I don’t think this guy solely prayed his way through med school, he probably did a hell of a lot of studying too. You can pray about a problem, but then you still work as hard as you can to fix that problem. Prayer compliments, but doesn’t eliminate, the element of work.

    I had a religious ex-boyfriend (key word – ex) who would NEVER study in college… and when I would pressure him about his grades he would say a) he prayed about it and/or b) what does it matter? this world is all passing away anyway. Now I DEFINITELY didn’t agree with him in those opinions and I don’t think most believers would. Faith in God is not a free pass to sit on your ass. You still have to do your part.

    • @Molly Yikes. Did your ex-bf become a doctor? I do understand that, for people who believe, this is a comfort to them. For people who don’t, it might make them nervous. Regardless, it’s too bad that all physicians don’t put a little more effort into the personal side. As you said–asking if there are questions/concerns. I try to stay away from doctors as much as possible. Just seems like a good place to get sick! 🙂

      • @Debbie… no … he didn’t study enough to be a doctor! Funny enough he ended up doing campus ministry… a good fit for him probably! Haha.

  7. I have no problem with a doctor believing in god or even praying before surgery. I would have a problem if he asked me if he could pray with me before surgery. That would lead me to believe he was not confident in his skill set and needed divine intervention/guidance. If I don’t know he’s praying, that’s fine. If he asks me to join in?

    Um. No. Thank. You.

    I actually feel that men of science without religion have taken their education more seriously and know they must rely on their learned skills than a greater power. That would give me more confidence as a patient. And in my mind, him/her more confidence in their ability as my doctor.

    • I would not go to a doctor who believes in AND openly expresses his/her faith in magic. I would even go as far as claiming it highly unethical to summon goblins, angels, JC or Yahweh to assist in an operation that real professionals have taught the surgeon to do. Not that the pious ever think it that way but it is really obnoxious and rude to kinda tell that “I personally cannot handle this but I have magic on my side…”.

      I have a friend who flies commercial airplanes (the really big ones) and once he told me that he just flies the plane as he is trained to do – the passengers will follow 🙂 No deities required.

      • @saab that’s how I feel. I live in the south. It’s going to be a rarity if one of my doctors isn’t religious. But to offer to pray with me just before he cuts me open? Definitely unprofessional. And it would kinda freak me out a little bit.

        he just flies the plane as he is trained to do – the passengers will follow 🙂 No deities required


      • @saab93f Surprisingly, and I’m not sure if this was mentioned in that article or some place else, but 80% of medical schools now offer courses on spirituality and medicine. That’s surprising to me.

    • @oatmellow Yeah, my thoughts, too. It’s fine if you pray to yourself, but if I hear it, I’m going to be a little nervous that you have to ask someone to step in and assist!

  8. I’m mostly comfortable with my doctor being overtly Xian. Hell, it would be hard to find one around here who isn’t. But insisting on praying with me? I’d switch doctors as soon as possible. Not because I doubt his skills or expertise, but because I would question how much he cares about me as an individual versus a potential convert.

  9. I think you nailed it when you said prayer is like Xanax or a placebo. It probably has a calming, reassuring effect on the supplicant and at the very least might lower his blood pressure, relax tension, etc. All of which is good. However, praying in my presence would have the opposite effect. Not good.

    I would expect any good doctor (or polite person, for that matter) to be aware of all this and to acquaint himself with a patient’s religious beliefs or non-beliefs before bringing up the subject. Like you, I worry when any highly educated person professes a belief in a sky daddy, and I would shy away from any doctor who thought he had or needed an invisible assistant.

  10. When my sixth baby was born at home, within a few hours he began spitting up blood and we had to rush him to the ER. We didn’t know at the time that he had Down syndrome and an intestinal defect that would require surgery the next day. While we were in the ER and a team of doctors and nurses surrounded his tiny little body on an exam table, and they began putting tubes down his throat and into his little arms, my husband and I were terrified. A hospital chaplain came and asked if she could pray with us. And even under those dire circumstances, I looked at her like she was crazy. “Are you fucking kidding me?” I thought. What I said, though, was “No thank you.” I think she was taken aback – she had probably never had anyone turn her offer down before.

    Of course, that’s not exactly the same thing as a doctor, but that’s the first thing that came to mind reading your post, Deb.

    Just recently, my husband had his gall bladder out. Because of extensive scar tissue from previous cancer surgery, they couldn’t go in laparascopically and instead had to make quite a sizeable incision, which the surgeon closed with 23 staples. Ten days later, the surgeon removed the staples, and later that same day, my husband’s incision came open and he had to go to the ER to have more staples put in. When he went back a second time to have the surgeon remove the second set of staples, he told him what had happened. Wanna know what the surgeon said? “That was HIS decision,” he said earnestly, pointing upward.

    Is he fucking kidding me?

    • Lisa!! OMFG. Seriously? That was “his” decision? Did you look around and wonder if you could ask a sane doctor to help out.

      As for the hospital chaplain, I imagine he doesn’t get many “no, thank you’s.” Kudos to you for being so polite in such a difficult time.

      In that article it brought up the (irritating) saying that there are no atheists in foxholes. Well, how would you know unless you are an atheist? My father didn’t get all religious as he was dying. Neither did his father.

  11. I think my reply to a prayer request would depend on the circumstance, i.e. in total shock, I may assent. And I think it would also depend on the prayer, too (though of course, you don’t know that until you are in it.) I mean, is the doc asking for help? Or giving thanks for his great skills which he will now put to use?

    You know, I also still throw salt over my shoulder when I spill it. I will open an umbrella inside no problem, but other things like picking up pennies and kissing the quarter before putting it into the carnival fortune teller I file under the “couldn’t hurt!” category. I’m silly that way I guess — I’ll adhere to the more outlandish voodoo.

    • @MelissaM LOL. Well, I think a lot of people feel that way about belief, too. “Couldn’t hurt.”

      A good friend of mine is so superstitious that, when they have relatives over to eat, if there are 13 people at the table, they will set-up another table. The superstitition is that if you have 13 at a table, the baby of the family will die. Another WTF moment….

  12. I live smack in the Bible Belt, but I don’t believe I’ve ever had a doctor mention God to me. There was a calendar on the wall that had religious quotes on it – but it could have been a free one or something, I really don’t know. They probably do believe, but I haven’t yet had one tell me he did.

    I do know that doctors are often not good with people, or don’t bother. But somehow offering to pray doesn’t make me think that doctor is anymore patient friendly. I’m not sure why, but to me it smacks of “look how good I am.” I mean, Jesus very clearly states in the Bible that you should go in your closet to pray. I honestly don’t see the need for a doctor to help me pray. I’d feel much more comfortable if he sat and listened to my concerns about before and after the surgery, etc.

    When I was in the hospital with pneumonia, I was scared because for a while I was alone and I felt worse than I had in my life. The nurses were like, oh, nothing physical wrong, and they just left me there crying. The Hispanic janitor lady took my hand and said “It will be okay. God is with you.” Now that meant something, because I knew it was her way of saying that she cared. But she wasn’t a doctor, either, she was just a caring person. And she wasn’t doing it before she cut into me. I separate the two – it just doesn’t seem to me that prayer is professional in the medical field. Just like teachers shouldn’t do it because of separation of church and state, doctors shouldn’t be giving out their religious beliefs either, though the separation isn’t as clear.

    There are just boundaries. I had a campus psychologist, after I said I did not believe in God, ask me if he could talk to me about his belief. I was very young so I was like, whatever. But later it left me with a bad taste. Even though he asked first, I felt it was wrong for him to do that.

    • @alice I agree with you that is awkward what your campus psychologist did. He preyed on you because he thought you were an easy convert. He took advantage of your honesty with him.

      Re the janitor who comforted you, did that make you feel better? Don’t you think her motive was pure in trying to comfort you? I guess my only point was, maybe this surgeon’s motive is kindness and compassion, not boasting about his religion or trying to convert someone. But I don’t know what his motive his.

      • It’s possible – but it still feels strange to me. I feel like it’s crossing an ethical professional line. I see a difference in professional vs a layperson.

        • @alice, yeah… like I said, it would probably make me a bit uncomfortable even as a believer. I just want to believe his motive is a good one.

    • Alice, I dig what you’re saying. That lady seriously meant well, and seemed genuinely concerned about you. It was a very non-threatening and compassionate gesture.

  13. Toward the end of my healthy pregnancy I began the rotation with other doctors within the practice. When asked if I had any problems/issues/concerns I asked in all earnestness what I could do to avoid rolling onto my stomach when sleeping. I thought it could not be good, but could not stop my sleeping self from doing it… Anyhow, the good doctor answered that “God wouldn’t let me do anything to hurt the baby.” My husband and I were MORTIFIED
    There is a time and place for everything – I don’t expect a minister to check my blood pressure, and I’d like it if doctors could keep their religion to themselves unless asked.
    PS Baby was born healthy & happy 🙂

  14. Fascinating — and slightly terrifying — post. Where I live (France) I don’t think anyone would even think about their doctor praying. They would be very much more concerned about his/her skills and knowledge, and they would probably undertake lengthy trips to take advantage of the best teams, practices and infrastructure. For the praying part (if they cared) they would go to church/temple/mosque/whatever, before or after. Assuming, of course, that they were believer.

    Personally, I would just change doctor if he/she came up with such irrational initiatives.

  15. It has been well documented that a patient who ‘believes’ something will make them better, have a higher chance of actually getting better. The brain and our bodies can do some amazing things.

    • Kevin, do you have any sources for this? Deb has a source above that she cites that states otherwise.

      • @MelissaM I know Kevin, and he has similar views. I have actually read that, too. There have been studies that show prayer helps believers get better because it gives them a more optimistic outlook. The article I posted addresses whether or not this is actually provable. It’s sort of like, when people believe there are ghosts in a house, they suddenly start hearing and seeing things….

        • I’d still love to see something, tho. My quick googling shows nothing along the lines of “well documented.” I do believe in the power of positive thoughts, or maybe I should say, looking on the bright side (I don’t adhere to The Secret mumbo jumbo where if I see myself driving a Ferrari, it will happen.) I just looked up the placebo effect and found that a meta-analysis of studies showed “little evidence in general that placebos had powerful clinical effects.” Enquiring minds wanna know, is all. 😉

  16. If it were me, I’d turn him down. If he insisted, I admit I might feel tempted to along with it … if only because he’s the guy who will be fiddling with my insides in short order, and it might make things go more smoothly if I play nice with whatever he believes. In the end, I’d probably still say no 🙂

    I don’t have kids, but if it were for them, I would flat out refuse. I would tell the doctor to tell them where they went to school, how much they studied, where they did their internship, and for how many years they’ve been performing these types of operations, and what their success rate is. I would want them to understand that they should put their trust – not their faith – in modern medicine. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best we have.

  17. As an atheist doctor I get this in reverse. Patients often refer to my “healing hands” (which I do not possess), and thank god for them. I e also been referred to as a vehicle for god to heal. Firstly, why would god need a vehicle and force his followers to pay thousands of dollars for it? Secondly, you can thank me and my professors for our hard work and dedication.

    To throw a wrench in it, I’m a chiropractor. Many people think I’m doing something mystical and outside the bounds of the natural physiological world. This couldn’t be further from the truth and it offends my intellect.

    This is an ongoing challenge for me. I’m very much in the closet with the majority of my bible-thumping practice members. I usually just smile and compliment THEM on THEIR OWN healing ability. And then I feel dirty and wash my hands.

  18. If I went to a doctor who wanted to pray with me, I’d walk out and I’d never see that doctor again. I see it as a serious ethical breakdown, so that would immediately tell me that the doctor has ethical issues. I don’t want magic at the doctor’s office. I want science and competence. It is just inappropriate no matter how you slice it.

  19. Hey Debbie, this all reminds me of a doctor’s visit I had not too long after moving to Tennessee. My family just survived a horrible natural disaster, and lost so much, we had just moved for the second time in a few months because of it, and I had horrible female issues for two years at this point. All of this was making me batty, especially as I stayed home with two small kids, and my husband was getting adjusted to his new base. I went to see a military doctor who was a sweet, and much older woman. She put in a referral for me to see an obgyn, and prescribed a low dose effexor. Her resolve for me was to “find a good Sunday school”! I was a Christian then and still thought “What the hell, lady!” Religion was never a quick fix for me, even when I held on year after year. I know she meant well, but it sure seemed awfully condescending!

    • Deborah Mitchell

      @Charity. All is can say is: Yikes! That was her solution?

      • Yeah, Debbie, she continually said “you just need to find yourself a good Sunday school class”. You know how people talk shit to you, Christian or not, because they believe all your loneliness, hurt, and emptiness is because you’re just not trying hard enough. It’s as though you never considered any of their suggestions before. I had already been down that road plenty of times. In fact, I was already apart of that Southern Baptist Church I told you about. (The one here that my family and I were heavily involved in two different periods of time.)

        I had to take into consideration that 1) this was in the South 2) this was in a small town and 3) this was at a military clinic and 4) she was an older woman. When combining all of these things into one doctor’s visit, what did I expect?

        I won’t even get into the whole “God and country” ordeal within the military.

  20. I don’t believe that there is much use/validity in scientifically studying the effects of prayer, given that prayer that is not in accordance with God’s will remains unanswered. If a boy asks his dad for a knife, his father is unlikely to give it to him. God is no different in this regard. To disagree is to grossly simplfiy and misunderstand the Bible. (It often happens that sicknesses are beneficial for us: they help us to re-prioritise our lives, to “tie loose ends”, to sympathise with the sufferings of others etc).

    Not everything in reality can be explained in the lab. Qualia, for example, which includes any subjective experience, covers a lot of bases: consciousness, thoughts, dreams, reasoning, conscience etc. It is not unreasonable to posit the existence of an equally inexplicable God, in order to explain such things. I would argue the contrary position.

    While I do not place my faith in miracles, I believe that there are countless instances of such occurrences e.g. in the lives of the Saints, such as St. Padre Pio (d. 1968), in the records for the beatification/canonization of Saints, in the lives of many Christians (and others) etc. etc.

    • @littlestsouls, if you could see into the homes of the people reading your comment, you’d see a lot of heads shaking and hear a lot of drawn out sighs. A boy’s dad giving him a knife? Of course not, because that would be dangerous. But a boy asking his father to keep him safe in a tornado? The dad would do everything in his power to do so. Funny how “God’s will” seems to match up with whatever the hell happens, even if it means a small boy being killed in a tornado.

      • God promises to give what is best for us- not what appears best to us. Suffering *can* be beneficial for us. That is my main point.

        Many see death and suffering as the most tragic things in life, but if one is going to argue with God, they must argue on His terms…

        The Saints are the most reliable examples of the Christian tradition put into practice. St. Francis of Assisi welcomed “sister death”, which he saw as a passage into eternal life. The saints feared sin, not death, for it is sin- they believed- that renders death terrible, and which brings down God’s just chastisements.

        “Death, but never sin”, said the courageous and loving 13 yr old St. Dominic Savio. “Your sufferings have saved many souls”, said Jesus to St. Faustina. There are hundreds of accounts like this, whether or not we believe them. I, for one, believe that they make sense of suffering, morality, good and evil. Materialism, nihilism, compatibilism, and a host of other beliefs, on the other hand, fail to convince me that these things even exist in any meaningful sense. Moral relativism pervades society, yet while a relativist will often excuse his own perversity, he is all too ready to judge God.

        God’s permissive will refers to whatever happens. This is important, but not nearly important as God’s active will, if you like. First and foremost, God desires our salvation. But who of us can earn such a gift?

        Many are content with spending more money on their pet dog than their dying neighbour. We are desensitised to such hatred and love of self, but God, Who is infinite love, detests this infinitely more than we can conceive, and it deserves more suffering than anyone on Earth could endure.

        If someone’s dear child dies in a tornado, I do not analyse this temporary tragedy. All I know is that no one is damned who does not deserve it, while many are saved who certainly do not deserve it.

        Take care.

        • Hi littlest souls,

          I’m curious how you come to know what “god promises,” what god “detests,” what is god’s “will,” and what “god desires”? You seem to know the mind of god, and I’m wondering how you can speak for someone else, especially someone that cannot be seen, heard or felt.

          I’ll agree with you here, “Many are content with spending more money on their pet dog than their dying neighbour.” However, this has nothing to do with belief in god.

          Sainthood is a very human undertaking. It’s not granted in the saint’s lifetime, and it has, perhaps, one of the most rigorous application processes in the world. The determination is then left to a committee of mortals to decide.

          It seems that your belief helps you understand the world and bring you comfort, but god doesn’t make sense to many people.

          • “For this is the will of God, your sanctification.” (1 Tim. 4:3)

            I apologise for my brevity, but I am very busy…

            I wanted to critique the premise that unanswered prayer disproves its power. This is a non-sequitir; it is a theologically flawed understanding of prayer: God does not promise to grant everything we ask for (Luke 11:11).

            Jesus suffered great agony in the Garden of Gethsemane; He prayed that His sufferings would be removed; yet His sufferings remained and He embraced God’s will. He also died a terrible death. My point? God does not promise to remove all sufferings.

            • God does not promise to grant everything we ask for (Luke 11:11).

              Unanswered prayer doesn’t necessarily “disprove” its power, but it certainly has made its results completely indistinguishable from random chance over the course of history.

              • At times, perhaps. But I also believe there to be many remarkable instances of answered prayer.

                • You’re welcome to believe that, but without anything to support the claim beyond anecdotal evidence, it’s nothing but wishful thinking.

                  • Neither of us can state unequivocally that a certain event is the result of natural causes, or if there is an interplay of natural causes and a divine cause. Having heard various accounts of “miracles”, I am prepared to believe that are best explained by God. Likewise, I see no reductionist, materialist, naturalist or deterministic account of reality that so much as allows us to discuss these things meaningfully. You will have to clarify what you mean by “wishful thinking.” A wish presupposes an intention, but I have reason to doubt that you can justify the existence of intentionality in principle.

            • @littestsouls Jason offered a great rebuttal to this: “God does not promise to remove all sufferings.”

              I would also like to say, again, that you cannot know the mind of “God.” Quoting the bible works for you because you believe in its veracity. But to many of us, it’s only a collection of stories, many second, third and fourth-hand, that have little basis in historical fact. If it works as a moral guide for you, then that’s great.

              • Your article made reference to Jesus ‘guiding’ a certain doctor. You then proceed to criticize the efficacy of prayer for patients, as if to show scientifically that it is not credible. It seems, then, that you are guilty of claiming to know the mind of God, for the “Judeo-Christian God” does not promise to cure every patient. If you imply a certain theological premise, it is only logical to provide a critique on the same terms ie. a theological critique. I was providing my response within that context. I certainly do not claim infallible knowledge of God.

                I try to conform my moral beliefs to reason, but I acknowledge the difficulty in applying the “moral law” to certain situations, as well all do. I believe that a rational soul best explains many real things, such as qualia, conscience, morality, truth, intentions etc. which are no less real to us than the physical world, yet which cannot successfully be reduced to matter.

        • “If someone’s dear child dies in a tornado, I do not analyse this temporary tragedy. All I know is that no one is damned who does not deserve it, while many are saved who certainly do not deserve it.”

          Losing a child can hardly be called a “temporary tragedy”. It’s permanent! If that’s your outlook please never comfort a grieving parent.

          Supposedly, no one deserves eternal bliss. It is only with grace are people saved through faith in God as a result of the sacrifice of His only son Jesus Christ that anyone enters into heaven. So, if a woman is raped, a teenage girl falls victim to a constant and persistent pedophile or an innocent man is murdered they all risk hell when they die if they’re unbelievers. However, the rapist, pedophile, and murderer can access heaven if they would just ask God to forgive them. It’s nice to know that the Almighty functions like the Martin/Zimmerman case.

          If God is sovereign why pray? Aren’t you then trying to coax Him with your chants, prayers and songs to fulfill your own sincere and selfish needs? As a former Pentecostal we use to call prayer and intercession “moving the hand of God”. Sounds like a whole lot of manipulation and lack of trusting one’s Savior to me.

          • Human life is certainly not permanent. It is in this sense that I use the word temporary. In context, I was saying that damnation is at least in principle much worse than biological death.

            Rather than get into in-depth theology, I would rather appeal to authority:

            “We all know that those who are afflicted with invincible ignorance with regard to our holy religion, if they carefully keep the precepts of the natural law that have been written by God in the hearts of all men… and if they lead a virtuous and dutiful life, can attain eternal life by the power of divine light and grace. For God, Who reads comprehensively in every detail the minds and souls, the thoughts and habits of all men, will not permit, in accordance with his infinite goodness and mercy, anyone who is not guilty of a voluntary fault to suffer eternal torments.” (Quanto conficiamur ,1863)

            Anyone can be forgiven. God can draw good from evil. Many gravely evil indiviudals have converted and become forces for good.

            On prayer:
            “St. Mary Magdalene of Pazzi said, ‘that when we ask graces of God, He not only hears us, but in a certain sense thanks us.’ Yes, because God, as the infinite goodness, in wishing to pour out Himself upon others, has, so to speak, an infinite longing to distribute his gifts; but He wishes to be besought: hence it follows, that when He sees Himself entreated by a soul, He receives so much pleasure, that in a certain sense He thanks that soul for it.” – St. Alphonsus Liguori

    • prayer that is not in accordance with God’s will remains unanswered.

      I’m curious. What about something in accordance with God’s will that has not been ‘activated’ by prayer? Does God just hold back until the request comes in?

      • That’s what I was going to ask. And if it doesn’t follow any measurable, logical pattern such that we’re stuck interpreting every event vainly trying to apply our limited understanding of God’s “will”, how does this make it different from random chance? What reason do we have to think it’s anything more than that?

        • The pattern is logical. Those who embrace God’s will become holy, happy and full of joy. The saints are proof of this. They embraced sufferings, persecution, trials and even martyrdom. Consequently, they grew in humility, virtue, detachment from earthly things, compassion, and love. We are called to accept our crosses (within reason). I do not advocate abstinence from blood transfusions etc.

          Commenting on the Scripture, “To those who love God, all things work together unto good” (Rom. 8:28), St. Alphonsus says something very profound: “Those who love God are always happy, because their whole happiness is to fulfill, even in adversity, the will of God. Afflictions do not mar their serenity, because by accepting misofrtune, they know they give pleasure to their beloved Lord: ‘Whatever shall befall the just man, it shall not make him sad.’”

          • @littlestsouls The saints offer no proof. You have no idea how they felt, if they were “happy and full of joy.” You don’t know if they “embraced sufferings, persecution, trials and even martyrdom.” You cannot speak to a person’s inner history, especially since they left no record. The saints did not know they would be sainted–and they weren’t until long after they died. You are glamorizing and molding the identies of historical figures you didn’t even know so that you can fit them to your purpose.

            • A friend of mine knew a saint (St. Padre Pio). He suffered immensely, but he also expressed his great joy in sacrifice, by means of his actions, words, his letters, and his writings- many of which can be seen today in San Giovanni Rotondo, Italy (where he lived until 1968). Also, many saints have recorded their interior life in their diaries. Many of them have expressed great sufferings, but also great joy, and we can often gleam from their writings that they were remarkably humble, compassionate and unselfish. Many of these saints lived within the last 100 years, and their biographies or autobiographies are well-authenticated.

              If someone says, “I embrace the cross for love of God”, or something like it, I have some reason to take their word for it.

          • How are we to know that this was caused by divine intervention and not self delusion? I hear the same stories from Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, etc.

      • “… for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (Mt. 6:8) Likewise, God gives us many things before we ask Him. Life, for example.

        • @littlestsouls, I’m an atheist who is “happy and full of joy,” much more so than when I was religious. And to repeat Debbie’s question, how do you know the mind of god? Please don’t quote bible verses – they are wasted on us. You might as well quote Mother Goose as your proof. I’d also like to know the answer to some previous questions that you avoided. Why bother to pray if god already has a plan for you? Is it a popularity contest in god’s mind? The more people that pray for you, the more likely he is to answer your prayers? What kind of “father” would want his children to suffer? That’s a pretty crappy father in my book.

          • @Kathy, You took the words right out of my mouth. When I was a believer, I was never “Happy and full of joy”. I was full of fear that everything I did may send me to hell. I went to a church and did everything I was “supposed” to do and I was so stressed out about what was going on with my friends who were “sinners.” (you know, because they were teenagers doing what teenagers do.) I was constantly told by my elders that if I didn’t TRY to convert my friends and bring them to the light, then my soul was damned as well. I was no better than the sinners.

            What a thing to say to a teenager. And how on earth could anyone be filled with happiness and joy when they think that no matter what they do, they’re going to hell. Damned if you do…damned if you don’t. Literally.

            • I cannot adequately respond to your comment in a few words, so I will simply quote a Doctor of the Church, who is commonly regarded as one of the greatest (and most authentic) philsophers and theologians:

              “Considering the omnipotence and mercy of God, no one should despair of the salvation of anyone in this life.” In fact, I have read numerous accounts of deathbed conversions and other acts of great mercy e.g.

              “God’s mercy sometimes touches the sinner at the last moment in a wondrous and mysterious way. Outwardly, it seems as if everything were lost, but it is not so. The soul, illumined by a ray of God’s powerful final grace, turns to God in the last moment with such a power of love that, in an instant, it receives from God absolution of sins and remission of punishment, while outwardly it shows no sign either of repentance or of contrition, because souls [at that stage] no longer react to external things. Oh, how beyond comprehension is God’s mercy!” – St. Faustina

              I must refrain from further comments, due to other (very time-consuming) commitments. Take care.

          • Please read my response to Debbie, which clarifies that I do not claim to know the mind of God.

            I apologise but I do not have the time to give detailed responses to every question. We are free to rebel against any plan. Suffering is said to be a consequence of a free choice to do evil. The God of the Bible does not delight “in the death of the wicked”, or suffering, but He can draw good from it, just as He did with Jesus.

            That is all I have time for unfortunately. Take care. There are many good books that address these topics, such as “Trustful Surrender to Divine Providence’, ‘Predestination’ by Garrigou Lagrange etc.

  21. @Deborah Mitchell You have a knack for finding great topics to discuss.

    What worries me about these doctors who want to pray before performing their duty, either with or without the patient, is the sense of final accountability. Would they then say should the patient die that it was god’s decision? Where’s accountability and, as others noted, a sense of confidence on one’s abilities?

    This is unnerving to me and I would never allow a doctor to do this. If the doctor was adamant or showed any sign contempt for my refusal, then I would ask for another doctor. After all, isn’t asking for guidance and protection from an imaginary being just another form of being a witch doctor? The last thing I want is a doctor to look at me, and burst into song singing: “You put the lime in the coconut / And drink it all up! You put the lime in the coconut / And drink it all up!”


  22. LanceThruster

    Hi, all. Had a couple of visits to the ER in the last few days (don’t worry…bad tooth). Felt a slight wave of pride answering “atheist” for religious preference to hospital personnel. Did not say “God bless you” to the people who assisted me when I had my dizzy spell but instead said, “Thank you for being so helpful. You were all very sweet.” (wondered if ‘sweet’ came off like ‘bless your heart’ but oh well).

    To anyone who longs for the ‘good old days,’ I have two words for you – painless dentistry. ~ P.J. O’Rourke

    • LT!! Wondered where you were. I figured you were just busy with work. So glad to hear you are okay. I know that “tooth issues” can be pretty serious. It put one of the tennis coaches here in critical condition.

      Ha. I laughed about you telling your caregivers that they were “very sweet.”

      • I laughed about you telling your caregivers that they were “very sweet.”

        It was better than that. It wasn’t the emergency staff, it was the ‘civilians’ in line with me at the clinic. What happened was like how you feel sometimes if you stand up too quick and get dizzy except on steroids…and I had not done anything to bring it on. When it hit I was trying to retain my balance and kept bumping into the guy in front of me. I was fine after they sat me down and got me some water but the clinic staff insisted I go with the EMT’s. I thanked everyone for being so nice. When I got back in the afternoon to make my appointment, the same people were there for theirs and were all asking me how I was. That’s when I thanked them all for being so sweet. Aside from how caring they were, what I liked about the encounter (though not my medical episode), was that it was a totally secular experience (I wonder if I would have ‘ruined’ it for someone if *I* said ‘bless you’).

  23. I’ve heard studies confirming the opposite so I’m not sure what what’s however, I do tend to think that the simple act of prayer can be centering and calming for believers or non-believers. Regarding the topic of prayer in general? I have no idea what’s what! Lol. Several yrs ago as a zealous Christian – I would have told you prayer worked. As pure as my motives were – I was treating an invisible “deity” much like some treat a rabbit’s foot and if the outcome was favorable – that “deity” blessed me, hallelujah! If the outcome was not so favorable (code for turning out MY way…ahem) – I’d chalk it up to “well, that’s how god wants it….” or “it was not meant to be…” or “god had bigger plans for me/us/you so we/I/you must exercise more patience…” or the worst one, “If I only had more faith!”


    In end – I still believe for some prayer can be like meditation – calming, centering, balancing etc. But it can also be terribly damaging.

  24. Hey Debbie, I saw this last night and thought about this post.

    Jeremiah Camara often speaks on “Slave Sermons”. He addresses the Black community to wake up and disconnect themselves from the bondage of religion. I’ve been looking at website and videos for a for a while.

    Those who have been spiritually abused may not want to watch it.

  25. In order to validate or disprove a relation between two phenomena, in our case healing and praying, we need to establish a degree of correlation which cannot be explained by chance alone. Please note that this would be necessary, but not sufficient. Conversely, if one finds that there is no correlation, then this is sufficient to rule out a possible relation. That is to say, in scientific experiments if a hypothesis is hold true until negated by even just one experiment where it fails.

    This said, I would like to point out that the world is full of cultures where religion plays a very minor role in everyday life. Yet it seems that these cultures ar able to cure illnesses quite well, to the point that no appreciable differencies can be recorded between comparable medical treatments. Getting healed in France and the Netherlands, to name two rather secular countries, is as likely as it is in the US or Canada or UK or many other western nations.

    The fact that a deep belief in something helps the healing is a very well known phenomen, the placebo effect, which works of course for the prayer but also for omeopathy, blessings of any sort, magnetism and others. It also appears that being buddhist or muslim or christian or shintoist makes little difference — we should otherwise see a marked difference as the different faith systems are too different (and very willing to say that each one is the right faith system) to accept that it would make no difference for the supposedly existing gods.

    It is also worth noting that there exist the nocebo effect, i.e. believing that something will harm you will likely make you sick or unwell. This is also well documented.

    As to being inspired fo the better by an illness, well, this is usually what happens with a lot of life experences. Given that — forgive me — sh*t happens, it would be very unwise if we would not try at least to draw something positive from an otherwise sad experience. It does not take a saint to realise that being gentle, caring, loving towards others, to cherish life and enjoy the company of friends and loved ones is a good thing. It takes just the eyes to observe and a functioning brain.

  26. I personally know Dr. Jeyarajah and I completely disagree with the way you interpreted his quote. Nevertheless, the important matter at hand is that Dr. J is a man of a faith who also respects those of other faiths and those who do not practice a religion. You will be hard pressed to find such a compassionate surgeon with excellent bedside manner. On a daily basis he reaches out to people who have been shunned by other doctors who lack faith in God and will not perform surgeries on those they deem terminal. On the other hand, Dr. J dares to operate on these patients, offering them a second chance at life. If I was dying of pancreatic cancer, I would want such a man to perform my surgery.

  27. Hello! I am new to this page, so I am a first time commenter here. I am a closeted athiest (out only to my husband and close friends), although I do not pretend to be a Christian. Let’s just say I try to tip toe around the subject if it comes up. Anywho, i had my gallbladder removed in September by a great surgeon here in Nashville, TN, and he just happened to be a Seventh Day Adventist. He did not tell me this, but I came to this conclusion after we both talked about both us being vegetarian and after I noticed he had studied at Loma Linda. There was no talk of religion in the consultation appointment, however right before surgery began he did ask me if I would like to pray with me. I must have had a shocked look on my face, because he immediately said we didn’t have to. But I felt awkward and told him that was fine. He pulled the curtain closed around my bed, and he quickly prayed as he rested his hand on my shoulder. Yes, it was weird at first, but I still felt confident being cut open by him. I am not one to discount someone’s occupational skill set based on their religious beliefs.

    • Hi Sarah, Welcome! Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Most people would probably welcome their surgeon praying with them. I think the important part is that your doctor asked you first and let you know that he was okay with not praying. (Although if praying gave him more confidence in surgery, I’d want him or her to pray, too!)

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