The power of reasoning

William  Zingrone
assistant professor
of psychology

Rain dances don’t work. We know this. And sacrificing small animals will not grant us special favors from an unseen spirit. Such ideas nowadays are beyond laughable, not worthy of a moment’s serious consideration. But the “power of prayer” remains as an unquestioned assumption, politically incorrect to doubt or disparage because of course some of them, if even a minute fraction, do get answered. Well maybe, and maybe only for certain things, maybe. So can we pray for rain and expect an answer? One of our top presidential candidates evidently thinks so. Rick Perry, governor of Texas, enshrined such an expectation in an official proclamation; “…it seems right and fitting that the people of Texas should join together in prayer to humbly seek an end to this devastating drought…” Maybe he should have danced. That was in April and the drought yet continues unabated.

Undaunted, Gov. Perry went for a grander request: fixing a “Nation in Crisis” through a mass evangelical prayer rally in August. Maybe praying for rain or a better economy makes some of us feel real good for a very short time but don’t we all know better as far as what to truly expect from prayer other than our own momentary well-being?

We pray for survival from a heart attack, remission of cancer, the early end of sickness and pain. We pray only for hidden, ephemeral results, things we can never tell if prayer has any real effect upon. Nobody prays for a new limb, a reattached finger, not even a paltry earlobe.

Instead we see a surgeon. Surely a measly earlobe regrown in the night whilst we sleep should be a trifling task for the Creator of the universe who not only caused all things material and living to come to be from nothing, down to every last elementary particle across the entire universe?

One who is implored to rearrange weather patterns over hundreds of square miles of west Texas or magically dissolve Obamacare at our humble request, surely.

He could be called upon to whip up a few measly centimeters of earlobe flesh for us overnight? But nobody prays for that, or for a new amputated limb, or to start our car. Even the most devoutly religious get a jump from their neighbor or call a mechanic.

They know better. We know better. Consider this quick thought experiment. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 100,000 U.S. adults contract and die of lung cancer every year. Given that nearly 80 percent of us Americans are religious to some degree and believe in one god or another, one can safely assume that these victims of adult cancer – someone’s mom, dad, aunt, uncle, sister or brother – were prayed for by any number of relatives, friends, coworkers, etc. on at least one, if not many occasions.

Even the non-believers among us were likely included in the prayers of believing friends, relatives and, at very least, in the general prayers “for the sick and dying” offered up in churches throughout the land every Sunday. So these 100,000-plus cancer stricken folks each had conservatively dozens of prayers for their survival submitted on their behalf.

Besides being prayed for what do they all have in common? They’re all dead. That’s millions of unanswered prayers for this one illness alone, in just one country.

Extend that reasoning to the 9 million or so children who die every year before age five of disease, hunger or mayhem worldwide; all prayed for by desperate parents and relatives to gods of all kinds.

That’s hundreds of millions, likely billions of prayerful pleadings definitely left unheard, utterly ignored. Only on very rare occasions, when an unexplainable and hidden reversal or remission of a disease occurs do some insistently claim credit for an answered prayer.

But even then if one attempts to maintain such a case is an example of the “power of prayer” you have to admit the power, if any, is vanishingly small, and utterly unprovable. Maybe prayer makes some of us feel better for a short time, but prayer doesn’t make rain, cure cancer, fix transmissions, save children, regrow body parts or advance Republican agendas. And we all know better.