Billy Graham takes on illness and prayer

And probably not for the first time, but here’s the question as posed.

DEAR BILLY GRAHAM: What good does it do to pray for someone who’s facing a serious health crisis? They’ll either get better or they won’t, depending on how they respond to their medications or surgery. Just because we pray for someone doesn’t mean they’ll get better, in my opinion. — E.W.

DEAR E.W: As I read your letter, I couldn’t help but wonder if you’ve ever faced a serious health crisis, either in your own life or in the life of someone you love. When people do, I find, they almost always turn to prayer, even if they haven’t had much to do with God.

That’s the atheist in the foxhole logical fallacy, if I’m not mistaken. I’m not mistaken. It might not be in the list of logical fallacies, admittedly, but it’s a very common assumption made by religious people. And totally fallacious.

Several years ago I had this weird body experience in the middle of the night, a strange fluttery sensation in my chest, under my rib cage that woke me up and kept me from falling asleep again. Instead, I drove my car to the hospital emergency and when describing the sensation to the doctor on call I literally said, “It vibrates my chest as if an alien installed a beeper in there and someone’s calling it.” They kept me attached to some kind of machine overnight and encouraged me to relax and for the next couple days I wore a monitor of sorts that recorded whatever my heart was doing, I guess, and sent a report somewhere, perhaps to the doctor in my home town, since hers was the name I’d given when I came in. It only happened for a few hours and I’ve never experienced the sensation again and never got a call back about anything amiss. The description I gave at the time is still apt for what it felt like. Bzzzzht. bzzzsht. Bzzzsht…. Weird. Totally weird. Not frightening, just weird.

I remember laying on the bed in Emergency that night with the electrodes attached and the oxygen piped in through my nose and the intern reminding me to relax and the notion of praying to any particular god at the time was completely absent from my brain. No sense at all that some deity had to be called upon to get me through the night and keep me from stressing out. I just trusted the doctors.

Why is this? One reason, I believe, is because we all know that even with the best medical care, things can go wrong, and healing is not assured. In addition, some situations are so serious that there seems to be little or no hope of recovery. We also know that our bodies and our minds are very closely connected, and if a person is very discouraged or doesn’t want to live, their recovery is doubtful. Why shouldn’t we pray for them?

Because study after study after double-blind study demonstrates the complete and total lack of proof that prayer works.

Positive thinking and the placebo effect though: scientifically proven to be useful and beneficial to mood, attitude and sense of pain improvement.

Your question, however, suggests to me that the real reason for your letter is that you simply don’t believe God answers prayer or that he cares for us. You may not even believe he exists, or at least you’re uncertain about it.

And then he resorts to the old “Take Jesus into your heart” canard that ends the majority of his advice columns.

People can bounce back from illnesses in amazing ways. Ways that’ll seem pretty damned miraculous, but are really just demonstrations for how awesome our immune system is, or the field of medicine itself that took a risk with a patient that paid off, like Jeanna Giese who actually survived a bout of rabies – a disease assumed to have no cure.

I’m not really sure how to end this one. People who don’t seem to have any major health issues can suddenly die, too. There’s no rhyme or reason to it. I suspect religions exist to help people deal with that randomness. It’s soothing to tell a person that God chose them to die because of whatever ludicrous reason. Create meaning out of something meaningless. Shit happens. The universe doesn’t care and certainly evolution doesn’t really give a damn who lives long enough to pass genes along. There’s no intelligence in either one. That’s a frightening prospect for some.

I don’t have kids but Dad’s brother married Mom’s sister and they had three kids. Those cousins of mine are nearly siblings to me and they all have children. Evolutionarily speaking, our mutual genes are set for another go-around and my input into the collective gene pool would be kind of redundant. I share enough genes with them and their children anyway. We’re covered. Evolution doesn’t have a set plan for humanity. Mutations just happen and over time enough of them will benefit the human species and give us an edge. I’m satisfied with that. Or, we’ll mutate into something else before other genes cause our downfall. It’s all up in the air…

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