The Placebo of Prayer
I posted the image below on my Facebook wall just to irritate my Christian friends. And as predicted, they stewed in silence because deep down inside they know it’s true.
What I didn’t expect was the following response from an accommodationist faux-agnostic friend:
“It serves no logical purpose but there are people out there (statistically, about 92%) that actually believe in this stuff and that it makes them feel better. Can’t a placebo prayer be valuable if it makes the participant feel good, regardless as how insane the proposition may sound? Thereby, under that scenario, doesn’t prayer serve a purpose?”
Ah, yes. The “placebo” argument in defense of prayer. My personal favorite.
This rant is my public response to him.
You’re Giving Me a Placebo-ner
You asked, “Can’t a placebo prayer be valuable if it makes the participant feel good…?”
Can’t it? I suppose if you’re going to be that vague and unqualified, yes. But life is a bit more qualified and far more circumstantial than that. Dropping your pants in a crowded room and taking a crap in a bucket can be valuable too if you really need to go and have no other recourse. We could paint any picture to justify that which we want to justify. You also asked, “Thereby, under that scenario, doesn’t prayer serve a purpose?” Yes, so does murder. Again, life isn’t this vague.
The placebo argument fails on many levels. I’ll cover them in no particular order.
First, I don’t know where your 92% statistic comes from. While the missing 8% represents the non-believing world population (although I’d wager more than a few bucks it’s higher in actuality), there’s no way that 92 out of every 100 people pray to a god. There are far too many deists and non-practicing theists in this world, plus religions without deities (like Buddhism) who meditate but don’t pray or ask an anthropomorphic being for favor.
Regardless, I’ll accept your 92% because it doesn’t help your argument. In fact, it hurts it. (We’ll get back to this in a bit.)
Where’s My Beef?
But first let’s cut to the chase and admit what this argument is all about. It’s about prayer versus action when life deals you a shitty hand, and the comfort people seek from those prayers.
There are only two scenarios:
- You pray and leave it to god.
- You pray and act on your own accord in case god leaves you to your own devices.
Your implied accommodationist contention is that people should be allowed that comfort without attack or criticism (per your quoted argument). I say that such stupidity (yes, stupidity) should be called out for what it is. But know that I don’t and never have said that they shouldn’t be “allowed” anything. People are free to do as they choose within the bounds of the law. But let’s be clear about this: I’m drawing a big fat black and white line.
Let me remind you of what you have conveniently forgotten. Just a few days ago I posted a story about a couple charged with second degree manslaughter for the death of their son when they opted for the comfort of prayer over medicine. You made it clear that they should in fact be charged with first-degree murder. I’d wager my 401(k) that you’ll now be quick to claim some semi-tortured logic to invoke an exception, which is perfectly fine and perfectly to my point.
Note: My friend remained conveniently quiet after I posted this response – but we all know where he stands when prayer, gullibility, and weakness yield tragedy.
However, when it comes to the placebo argument, you don’t [no one gets to] cherry pick its validity. No one person gets to decide when it’s acceptable, reasonable, or rational – and when it’s not. We’re a planet of over 7 billion people. Who’s going to draw the lines for your 92%?
Sorry, but it’s binary. It’s all or none. To say “Can’t a placebo prayer be valuable if it makes the participant feel good, regardless as how insane the proposition may sound…” but then start spewing disclaimers, provisos, or exceptions when confronted with counter-arguments (like the actions of that dead child’s parents). To do so is to piss all over your own feet. There’s no gray here because no one can speak for the entire praying world. They either can have their comfort in prayer without scorn or criticism, or they can’t.
And so we’re left with this “Why can’t you just let them have their comfort?” mentality – which I find to be a rather odd position to take because in practicality society doesn’t let stupidity, laziness, or negligence slide in the spirit of live and let live.
When Placebo Meets Crazy
In order to wage any meaningful placebo argument, the prayer “thing” must necessarily be (at the very least) harmless if not beneficial. And this is where the argument is crushed by its own weight.
So let’s go back to the two scenarios. We’ll start with the people who pray without action – reminding yourself that you don’t get to decide for someone else when it’s acceptable, reasonable, or rational. Cherry picking in this manner necessarily destroys its own argument. Again, there is no gray. It’s black and white – just like the big fat line I just drew. Again, they’re either absolutely afforded their comfort without criticism, or they’re not. Otherwise who gets to draw the not-so-fat gray lines? Who gets to decide where harmless becomes crazy or negligent? You? Me? Mind you, I’m not saying that I get to decide either, but I’m not waffling in the gray. I reject crazy in totally.
I have personally lost two friends to cancer specifically because they opted for the comfort of prayer over medical attention. Both believed that the prayers of friends and family would keep them in good stead because the comfort of prayer was an easy out over the discomfort of a medical alternative. One friend, Nina, who was in remission for nearly a year, refused to go for follow-up exams for fear of hearing bad news. I got her to cave after threatening to drag her to her doctor by force, but by then it was too late. She was dead in 3 months. Sorry, but people who opt for the comfort of prayer over logical action are idiots, and those who enable them by condoning or catering to it are no less negligent. Moreover, Nina’s cherry picking worldview clearly didn’t work for her, so I can’t conclude that yours [to let them have their unchecked comfort] will work for anyone else.
And we need not take it to the extreme case of loss of life. Seeking comfort through prayer over action for financial distress, marital woes, substance abuse or any other addiction, etc., are all worthy of the same critical scorn. And clearly you do recognize that MANY people in this world opt for prayer and avoidance over action. Even casual observation of the world proves this true. And you need not look very far or long.
Enter the Spin Zone
Now this is where all the yummy back-pedaling begins. This is where the “Why can’t you just let them have their comfort?” argument is downgraded to a safer, more benign catering to weakness and stupidity. Your highly selective tolerance is now limited to (admittedly) harmless pleas, like praying to get into a particular class for which you’ve been wait-listed, or to draw an inside straight on the river, or to bang that hot piece of ass Judy Bigjugs. Congrats. You just shat all over your argument. Your position is now conditional, the rationale driving it being wholly irrelevant. You’re now singing my song. You’re now drawing lines like me – the rest being a matter of degree. I’ve drawn my line at 100% pointless, if not outright dangerous, and you’re at some lesser percentage of insanity. So why do you get to draw lines, but I can’t? Because you’re nicer and more empathetic about it? No. I don’t think so.
Starting to see your little problem now?
Regardless, going full circle, the position fails because to cherry pick the acceptability and rationality of comfort from prayer is to speak for someone else, and no one will agree where the lines of stupidity and negligence are drawn. Again, I choose not to cherry pick. I toss the baby out along with the bath water.
Now let’s looks at those who pray for the comfort it gives and act to a resolution through other means. (Get ready for some real pissing.)
I’m sure you’re aware of the adage that every prayer is answered by YES, NO, or WAIT. The deck is stacked to protect the efficacy of prayer. Every outcome is covered and the power of prayer cannot be impugned. Clearly this is a bullshit man-made construct, but that’s another rant for another day.
Intellectual honesty time. You and I both know that those who pray for god to give or guide favor while also acting to that end are hedging their bet. You and I both know that deep down inside they’re well aware that their prayers will likely fall on deaf ears. Faith has it’s limits, and it would appear that NO and WAIT are it. And this is where the argument is again crushed by its own weight.
If you’re hedging your bet through other means, where’s the placebo? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been part of a clinical trial. One of the prerequisites is that you do nothing else that could possibly interfere with either the medical effect (should you blindly get the drug) or the placebo effect (if you don’t). I mean, isn’t that the point? Too see if the placebo works on its own accord? Um, hello? This is why we have the damn thing in the first place.
Placebo (in Latin) means “I shall please.” The whole point of a placebo is to please in the absence of the real thing. So if you’re getting the real thing, whether it’s coming from doctors or therapists or financial advisors or whatever, then the any potential placebo effect is moot. If there’s an overriding action then you’re negating the whole thing.
Again, intellectual honesty time. You’ve been diagnosed with stage 4 whatever and you’re at the hospital being pumped full of drugs that will hopefully save your life. Are you really going to argue comfort in the efficacy of prayer? Please. If anything it shows the absolute opposite – a LACK of faith in the efficacy prayer, and there’s no intellectually honest placebo effect in that. Seems to me that your bet-hedging faith lies in earthly doctors and the efficacy of their tools of their trade.
This is where knee-jerky Christians (and others who pray) are quick to argue that prayer brings healing through the doctors, but I don’t cater to such disingenuous nonsense. This is just an extension of the aforementioned deck stacking. They always have another rationalization in the lineup ready for when the prior one fails.
I may be the contrarian as well as the most hated guy in the room, but I prefer to leave crazy to crazy. And I don’t believe in catering to the lowest common denominator.
When Duplicitous Cowards Hedge
A long story told quickly: Prior to a friend’s bone marrow transplant, one admittedly well-intentioned moron laid his hands upon him in prayer in a very unsolicited manner before he had any time to respond. After 60 or so seconds of commanding the imaginary sky god to intercede, this very deluded soldier of god said, “Go tell your doctors at UCLA that you no longer need them. Tell them Dr. Jesus has healed you.” Clearly, he and Christ MD were wrong – but I digress.
Anyway, as irony sometimes hands you life’s sweetest gifts, just a few years later this crank case ended up requiring a transplant to save his own life. Oddly, he sprinted to a team of earthly Heebs with medical degrees. (Perhaps Dr. Jesus was on vacation. I dunno.) At any rate, don’t discount the power of delusion. It can blur lines so much so that harmless and benign become indistinguishable from “you’re in serious fucking danger.”
I mean, come on. You honestly believe that these people can distinguish between serious and benign? No fucking way. Placebo doesn’t even factor into the equation. This is dangerous thinking, and any attempt to account for numbers (i.e. the percentage of people who fall into this flavor of crazy) is futile. Any percentage is an unacceptable percentage.
The Bottom Line
Is it harmless in an overall sense to delude oneself that prayer works for the comfort that it may provide? Demonstrably, no. Hell no. Consider the dead child from the news item the other day. Where was the tolerance for his parent’s right to seek their flavor of comfort? Or did you draw a big fat line like I did? Now let’s apply this possibility to your whopping (and alleged) 92% of people who pray. I can assure you that number is far from reality. Regardless, whatever it may be, if you wish it were lower, then perhaps you shouldn’t cater to any degree of prayer placebo.
And I don’t consider the rationalizations for those benign instances to be a valid offset for all the aforementioned reasons. They dull rationality and make fuzzy the lines that tell us when to knock off the childish bullshit and get real.
You have faith that people are smart enough to know what’s harmless and what isn’t? I don’t. One dead child is more than enough to end that discussion, but know that this kind of thing happens every single day to one degree or another. And I got news for you, Nina was an intelligent, well-educated, worldly woman, and I see no reason to discount the cumulative effect of a lifetime of self-reinforced prayer delusions that brought her to a much larger folly. And far beyond Nina and her fate, this mindset hurts society in a far more impactful “big picture” sense.
I am unapologetic in my position and I see no valid reason to sugarcoat it. Besides, someone’s got to be a dick about it.