Billy Graham takes on illness and prayer

August 5, 2014

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…

The One Minion Search Party – “are plastic surgeons playing god”

May 16, 2012

I’m at odds with the world of plastic surgery. I wrote a piece in 2011 focused on the dilemma a British woman found herself in after botched work . (She never got the £54 million she thought she deserved, though.) I’m generally appalled by the lengths to which some women will go to look fitter, younger, more mutant or less ethnic. (It affects guys, too. I mean, what the hell, Kenny Rogers? What the merry flipping Ken doll hell?) Some people are addicted to plastic surgery and are never satisfied with their latest run under the knife. Bigger butts, shorter toes, changing the shape of the chin or nose or jaw or cheeks… Facelifts and vagina lifts.. I don’t think there’s an area of the body immune to one’s notion of “room for improvement.”

Earlier this month I got a kick out of story regarding a new television series set in Miami in 1959 and the hellish time the casting people had finding women who didn’t have boob jobs.

Producers discovered many women of South Florida have been surgically enhanced beyond anything natural to the late 1950s.

“I’ve actually had better luck finding synchronized swimming groups than I did finding real boobs,” said Bill Marinella, local extras casting director. “We did a lot of research and reached out to burlesque clubs and just finding people on the beach and literally walking up to them on the street and saying, ‘Hey, you look like you’re right out of The Great Gatsby.’ ”

I suppose it’d be impossible to separate the sense of self worth from the judgement of one’s looks (or at least the suspicion that looks are being judged). I know there are women who claim boob jobs made them more confident, or made people take them more seriously. Hell, older successful women can’t even walk out the door sans makeup without some media outlet making a story out of it. Small wonder people will hurry to a doctor to erase the signs of aging. Every minor physical “flaw” is a reason to pick on someone…

It boosts my mood to see young girls taking popular magazines to task for their portrayals of women. Like 14 year old Julia Bluhm and her protest against Seventeen:

Julia’s journey from smalltown Maine to midtown Manhattan began less than two weeks ago, when she took her cause to, an activist forum, and set up her petition online. She was joined by six other teen girls and young women affiliated as she is with SPARK, a national organization that pushes back against sexualized images of girls in the media.

Julia made her case in detail at the top of her online petition, saying unrealistic images “can lead to eating disorders, dieting, depression, and low self esteem”:

“To girls today, the word ‘pretty’ means skinny and blemish-free. Why is that, when so few girls actually fit into such a narrow category? It’s because the media tells us that ‘pretty’ girls are impossibly thin with perfect skin.”

Those who run the mag assured her that they do their best to portray their models as authentic as possible but other magazines can’t make the same claim. Any lady-aimed rags you look at while in line at the grocery store will either feature immaculate women on the cover or flaunt the worst possible pictures of other women in order to mock the cellulite or the lack of “put-together” while out running errands. It’s a constant bombardment and a constant reminder that women apparently only exist to be admired for their beauty or insulted when they don’t accentuate their beauty.

But getting back to the plastic surgery part of this now – there are good reasons to have properly trained plastic surgeons. There are legitimate reasons beyond pure vanity to hire them; skin grafts for burn victims and fixing cleft palates are two uses that come to mind. There are probably others. I’d never say there’s no need for them but I think needs should be weighed in terms beyond “I want to be prettier!” I’ll quote the Daily Mail article I linked to above:

Rightly, the judge decided this was an over-inflated amount. But even to have granted a ninth of that sum seems to me excessive. Who’s to say the company wouldn’t have failed anyway? After all, it seems to have survived for years after her cosmetic surgery — failing only in 2009, when we were in the grip of recession.

I wouldn’t wish Penny Johnson’s experience on anyone. She certainly deserves much sympathy. But what a shame that she’s not telling the world that she will give most of that money to a charity for facially deformed children.

If only she just rolled up her sleeves and went back to work, she could prove to us all that there really is more to life than just a pretty face.

Yeah, if only. Unfortunately, it’d take more than one person to pull that off. Everybody would have to make the effort and it’s hard to say if there’d be much in the way of incentives for trying.

Birth control in a university vending machine? Why not?

February 8, 2012

$25 a pop for Plan B, the morning after pill, seems a bit steep for the heavily sexually active university student, but if condoms are also offered at least someone could potentially plan ahead.

A university in Pennsylvania hit the news recently because of this topic. They’ve had the machine in place for a couple years but Shippensburg is small and out of mind for most news making. Until now.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is contacting state officials and the university to gather facts, agency spokeswoman Stephanie Yao said Tuesday.

The FDA’s sudden interest took place amid a furor over religious rights and access to birth control. An official resigned from the nation’s largest breast cancer charity Tuesday over Planned Parenthood funding, and Republican presidential candidates attacked the Obama administration for a recent ruling requiring church-affiliated employers to provide birth control.

Consumers have long been able to insert a few coins for the likes of aspirin, ibuprofen, antacids and other common over-the-counter remedies. But some experts see a worrisome trend in making drugs like Plan B, which is kept behind the pharmacy counter, available in a vending machine.

Alexandra Stern, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, said she wasn’t questioning a woman’s right to have access to Plan B, but whether making it so easily available is a good idea.

A student is quoted in the article saying she likes the idea because the town is small and students would be embarrassed to go to the local pharmacy to ask for the pill. Having it accessible on campus is a good move in her eyes, and mine as well. The vending machine also stocks condoms so it’s not like somebody couldn’t plan ahead and thus never have to spend $25 after a whoops. But what about a girl who’s been raped? Is she really going to want to go somewhere public? Better a morning after pill acquired privately than having to hunt for an abortion clinic a month or so later. Would a town boasting 6000 permanent residents even have one? The school is out in the mountains, around 130 miles from either Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, according to the article. Hardly ideal for a girl who finds herself in that situation.

Taking Plan B within 72 hours of rape, condom failure or just forgetting regular contraception can cut the chances of pregnancy by up to 89 percent. It works best if taken within 24 hours. Some religious conservatives consider the emergency contraceptive tantamount to an abortion drug.

It shouldn’t matter what they think. They can think the moon is green cheese and being out on a full moon night will make you smell like Limberger but they can’t stop people from going out. They can’t stop people from having unprotected sex. They can’t stop people from taking a pill to avoid an unwanted future. They want to, but they can’t. They really can’t. They need to be reminded of that on a daily basis, apparently. It doesn’t matter what they think. The pill exists and the pill is legal. Long live the pill. It needs to remain a choice for those who think they need it, no matter how much the righteous might disapprove. Fuck the righteous. Take the pill.

Prior to bringing it in, the school’s health center ran a survey and discovered that 85% of students were in favour of the idea. The machine is only accessible to staff and students and, until recently, there were kids on campus who had no idea the thing even existed.

In December, the Obama administration’s top health official overruled her own drug regulators and stopped the Plan B pill from moving onto drugstore shelves next to condoms and other items. It remains available behind pharmacy counters.

Denise Bradley, a spokeswoman for Teva Pharmaceuticals, which makes Plan B, said in a statement that it sells the product only to “licensed pharmacies or other licensed healthcare clinics, which are required to follow federal guidelines for the distribution of pharmaceutical products.”

On whether the machine might violate the law, “I don’t have a definite yes or no,” said Ron Ruman, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Department of State, which oversees the state pharmacy board. If a person younger than 17 used the machine, it “potentially could be a violation,” he said.

And a check of ages at the school put everyone over 17, so that’s not a problem. There is concern that having the pill handy would mean victims of sexual assault won’t bother getting other help but that sounds like something the health center itself could work on as a project. Remind potential buyers that it’s a physical fix, but not entirely a mental one. If there’s concern that students will take it without knowing about possible side effects or dangers, perhaps the center should have an information night and invite kids in once a semester or something to explain how the pill works and what to think about before going ahead and buying it. Rather than be passive and hope kids will come in to ask questions, they could actively encourage health education and involvement. If they already do some of that, perhaps this will provide them with the incentive to do more.

Jesus loves thin people more so lose weight for Jesus

February 1, 2012

I don’t know if it pays to remind people, but I’m pretty sure part of the reason Jesus stayed so thin was all the damn walking around he did long before cars were invented, and all the junk food he didn’t eat because it didn’t exist and all the work he did instead of sitting on his ass watching Jersey Shore.

A Virginia congregation has lost a bit of weight over the past few years by following a weight-loss challenge issued by the senior pastor of their church. Steve Reynolds of Capital Baptist Church in Annandale lost over a hundred pounds of his own and claims the number of pounds lost by members is around 12,000. The cynic in me wonders if he counts backsliders and the dead. They could count toward weight loss, too, since they aren’t coming around to be weighed anymore. “Mrs. Henderson weighed 150 pounds, maysherestinpeace…”

Joking aside, he’s the author of a book called Bod4God and the idea is a good one in terms of getting people to commit to an achievable health goal and encouraging them to stick with it. It’s part of why Weight Watchers and other groups like it remain popular. (Often with the same people coming back after the pounds do.) TODAY Health goes into more detail about the program, which uses the first commandment “Thou shalt have no gods but me” as its starting point.

In contemporary Christian churches, this verse is usually interpreted to mean simply, “Put God first.” Reynolds believes that some American Christians who struggle with their weight may be unwittingly valuing food over their faith.

I wouldn’t say valuing food is the problem. I think valuing good food over shitty food is where the emphasis should be so far as that goes. I’ve been ordering a bag of vegetables and grains from the Saskatoon’s CHEP group for over a year now. Initially set up to help inner city families get access to sorely needed fresh produce, they’ve expanded their service so more people can benefit should they wish. They deliver twice a month and the result has been me finding new recipes for onions and beets so I can use them up before they deliver more. You should have seen the size of the cabbage I was given in the fall. It was the size of a basketball. That took some inventive cooking to get et…

Coming back to the article, it lists a few other interesting tidbits, specifically a study involving young people, church, and future weight gain. It sounded familiar and sure enough, I’ve mentioned it before. I’d never blame my mass on 7 years of Mass, mind you. It had a lot more to do with my lunch bag and the “Cuban Lunch” chocolate nut bar that featured prominently (for what seems like years, but probably wasn’t), and my natural proclivity toward reading rather than running.

More research points toward the usefulness of group involvement for losing weight and it’s evident from others that picking a noble purpose (in this case, honouring God through weight loss) also helps focus attention on the follow-through.

“It gives you power to know that you’re never alone, that God is with you,” Reynolds says. “And that he gives you that motivation and that willpower that you need.”

I remember overhearing a woman at Walmart once who was talking about how much weight she lost and credited God for the miracle. I felt like asking her if the 20 pounds fell off her body overnight because that’d be the real miracle. Deciding to eat better and exercise isn’t a miracle in the making, it’s just good sense. If people think they need belief in god to keep motivated, believe in god, then. If that’s a help, it’s a help. My interest in weight loss is less about dress size and more about improving my overall health and fitness. I’ve been bouncing around the same minor losses and gains for the past few months but I’m really looking forward to long walks outside again and I think I’m going to invest in a decent bike soon. My last one was cheap and terrible and I let it get stolen. Sorry to whoever was daft enough to take it.

Billy Graham has pneumonia

December 4, 2011

Not uncommon for a man his age (93) but so far his spirits are fine, even if his lungs are not.

Doctors at the hospital in Asheville said Graham was able to stand and walk Friday during a physical therapy session.

Dr. Mark Hellreich, a pulmonologist treating Graham, said he’s making good clinical progress and looks better since treatment with antibiotics began.

Graham has suffered from several ailments in recent years. He was admitted to the hospital Wednesday night after suffering from congestion, a cough and a slight fever that was later diagnosed as pneumonia.

I have a history in this blog of mocking challenging his advice. It’s kind of been a once-a-month habit for me to put an atheist spin on various questions “asked” on his column. (I put that in quotations because it’s been debated that questions are assembled by staff and aren’t specific letters sent to him.) If he takes a turn for the worse, he’ll be missed for that reason, if nothing else.

In 2007, Christopher Hitchens called him a “self-conscious fraud” who didn’t believe what he preached and was instead in it for the money. Time Magazine took Hitchens to task for that, suggesting that his proof for that was erroneous. The article further notes that Graham has since apologized for his comments and attitude toward Jews back in 1972.

When we asked Graham about the conversation, his shame was obvious, and he confessed to the other fault at work that day — his sycophancy, the courtier’s habit of trying to win favor with the king by embracing even his most odious ideas. “I think I was just trying to agree with what he[Richard Nixon] said or something,” Graham told us. Hitchens may reject Graham’s many apologies if he chooses, and discount his remorse more evidence of fraud. But rational people should have a hard time accepting Hitchens’ characterization of Graham as “a disgustingly evil man.”

His preaching on radio and television reached millions and there’s little doubt he changed lives; Wikipedia notes the number his staff reports: at least 3.2 million born-again Christians on account of his efforts. Not evil, maybe, but people could debate the good, depending on what kind of Christians they ultimately became. I don’t like to come down on the group as a whole because that’s how unfair generalizations start. Of course there are terrific and kind people who happen to be Christians, just as there are terrific and kind people who happen to be atheists.

His last Crusade was held in New York in June of 2005. His health had already been an issue, with water on the brain, Parkinson’s and prostate cancer on top of that. He was expected to speak each of the three nights to a crowd of 70,000 or so and here it’s reported that 250,000 turned out to hear him over those days. He’s always been open to all stripes of Christians coming by, too, not just the Baptists. The Fox article linked to at the start of this paragraph also notes his unwillingness to paint Islam with a dirty brush.

his son, Franklin Graham…called Islam “a very evil and wicked religion,” the elder Graham has refused to join in and denounce it.

“He simply will not engage in the demonizing of Islam,” Cox said. “[He believes] that the real struggle in the clash of civilizations is in poverty and disease.”

He’s contradicted himself in terms of who should get into heaven, though, according to the In Plain Site article linked in the same paragraph. The author of that mentions Graham saying God will decide and it’s not up to men to say, and that he’s also said that people need Jesus in order to get there.

Either way, I’m sure Graham expects he’ll get there in the end. Whenever the end is.

Words have power, study finds. The word “God” especially

October 29, 2011

I don’t know if anything new was discovered by this study in terms of that, but it’s an interesting report on results nonetheless. The study was done at the University of Waterloo by psychologists hoping to track what impact faith-based terminology had on ambition.

In the new study, the researchers primed more than 350 engineering students with the idea of God or faith, for example, by having participants write a sentence using a list of words with spiritual connotations. Students then completed skill tests in which they had to make as many words as possible from a group of letters. When prompted with religious imagery or language beforehand, the students came up with fewer words, regardless of their religious background, than those who hadn’t been primed with such imagery.

The researchers think the lack of effort in the “religious-primed” group could be dictated by a belief that fate is in God’s hands. If the students believe that God controls their destiny, trying to be better isn’t going to help them actually be better, resulting in less effort. This entire thought process seems to be unconscious, but just the presence of these God-conjuring words or images could alter behavior.

Another study was done involving students, references to God etc., and appetite for cookies. Those who were given something religious to read ahead of time were less likely to take them.

This effect, however, was found only among participants who had previously said they believe an omniscient entity watches over them and notices when they misbehave, though the strength of their devotion to that God didn’t come into play in any of the experiments, the researchers found.

Makes me think about the U.S. Bible Belt and their obesity problem, as it happens. Overindulging on fried foods doesn’t count as misbehaviour in their god’s eyes, I guess. Via an Emory University blog, I find an article posted at CNN in March. It’s not specifically about that area of the country, but the health of church-goers in general.

The new research, presented at an American Heart Association conference dedicated to physical activity, metabolism and cardiovascular disease, involved 2,433 people enrolled in the Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. The group was tested – at first between 20 and 32 years old – for various cardiovascular disease risk factors such as diabetes, hypertension, and smoking. Those same tests were repeated in the same group over the next 25 years.

The results were mixed for many risk factors for cardiovascular disease, but as researchers analyzed the data, one disparity stood out. Those who reported attending church weekly, or more often, were significantly more likely to have a higher body mass index than those who attended infrequently, or never.

There was some debate on why that would be. Are people prone to reward themselves with excess food on account of perceived good works? Marriage gets tossed in as a theory, since weight gain tends to follow the ceremony and most churches could advertise themselves as matchmakers generally. They love seeing (heterosexual) people get married. The prevalence of the popular church potlucks get a nod, as does the fact that many churches have reduced the amount of time they give over to sport events like baseball teams and other recreational activities. Or possibly it’s because people choose church over organized sports for their families and then sit around all day after service instead of being active in any way. Day of rest and all that.

Like with anything else, it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact cause. There’s still the camp that insists church-life is a health benefit, of course, and as a stress reducer it’s still one of the most popular choices. Research has lent credence to the theory that it benefits longevity, too.

“The real value of the study is not understanding why,” said Feinstein. “What this study does is highlights a group that could potentially benefit from targeted anti-obesity initiatives. That’s exciting because there is a lot of infrastructure already in place in religious communities.”

That’s completely worthwhile. I wonder if they’d run into trouble with that, though, considering how many believers seem to prefer caring about their spiritual after-life than their current physical life. Are they really going to want to change how heavy and unfit they are on this earth if they think they’re guaranteed a perfect body on the other side? What’s the motivation to do a bunch of work on a body they won’t be keeping anyway?

Then there’s that flipside, of course, and the people who think all they should ever be eating is whatever Jesus and company may have been able to ingest. Like Daniel’s Diet, named for the prophet who foresaw a lot of things, including, I guess it can be argued, the need for future followers to slim down a little. That part of the site offers only testimonies that prove it works, not specifics for following it. I guess that’s why there’s a picture of a book people can buy if they want it.

Godweb features information about several Christian-themed weight-loss plans that try to answer the question of “What would Jesus eat?” when it seems fairly obvious going by scriptures available that there’s no way in hell anyone can actually know for sure.

The story of his life sends some very mixed signals as far a diet is concerned. First of all, he adopted a lifestyle that involved constant travelling, on foot, from village to village of his native Galilee and Judea. From the moment he began his ministry, he didn’t have a home.

Therefore his diet was shaped entirely by those who offered him temporary hospitality. It was a function of his decision to be an itinerant preacher. That fact that this involved a significant amount of walking, probably guarantees that he was not obese. Needless to say, he was not tempted by calorie rich Big Macs, french fries, soda or ice cream.

Still, nowhere in the words of Jesus can you find a word of criticism or even comment about the first century diets of his contemporaries. We simply do not know whether he approved or disapproved of the food served to him by those gracious enough to welcome him into their homes.

Constant travelling. On foot. Even if he was having grand seven course meals every night (damned unlikely), that’s a fine way to keep the weight off. Unfortunately, many of those who claim to follow Christ’s footsteps these days would much rather do it by car.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this. Bad planning on my part.

Reiki found to be no better than placebo for cancer patients

October 12, 2011

Seems like kind of a “Duh!” headline, but there you have it. I had a friend in university who trained as a reiki master and took another friend and me through the paces of learning how to do it, too. Masters claim they can heal from afar, but our buddy just gave us lessons on the laying of hands and waving away the bad chi after a session. I always felt like a tool performing that last part, but the laying of hands at least had a little benefit – nowhere near as good as a decent massage, though. Body heat radiating from your own hands warms the area, even though you aren’t physically touching the person. The residual heat still provides some comfort, though, and the patient’s own gullible mind provides the rest. It’s too bad that there are people drawn into believing it’s a legitimate cure for what ails you.

The Guardian reports on a study out of the States involving trained reiki practitioners, who promised patients they’d channel healing energy into them, and untrained fake practitioners who claimed they were trained but just went through the motions. The results are pretty unsurprising to these eyes. Each technique worked equally well for making patients feel better.

The scientific stance may appear heartless and cruel in light of the suffering of cancer patients, while the attitude of the nurses seems patient-centred and caring. This impression is wrong. By insisting that patients must not be treated with placebos like reiki, scientists also advocate that they receive treatments that demonstrably work better that placebo. For instance, massage has been shown to improve the wellbeing of cancer patients beyond a placebo effect. If a patient receives a massage with empathy, sympathy, time, understanding and dedication, she would benefit from the placebo effect – just like the reiki patient – but, in addition, she would also benefit from the specific effect of the treatment that massage does and Reiki does not offer.

Like I said. Many of my relatives have had to undergo chemotherapy for their bouts with the disease, with varying degrees of success. One of them had prayer for a placebo on top of all that but it didn’t stop the bone cancer from decimating every piece of her. Of course people would rather find ways to cure cancer in ways that don’t involve radiation and the like. But reiki not the course to take in order to do that.


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