Sunday, April 01, 2007

When Prayer Worked

I am an atheist. One of my favorite posts that I've done was a post asking how reality-based theists* can possibly believe that prayer works. I've not had a conversion; I stand by that earlier post. So how can I headline a post "when prayer worked"? Surely I don't think that prayer has ever (or could ever) work?

Not quite. -- Let me explain.

I thought of this when I came upon a new formulation of a (to me) familiar statistic. In today's NY Times Magazine article on Universal Health Care, it is mentioned in passing that "It was around 1910 or 1912 when it became possible to say that a random patient with a random disease consulting a random doctor stood better than a 50-50 chance of benefiting from the encounter." As I said, I'd heard this before -- I even routinely mentioned it to my classes (I teach U.S. history), although the version I'd heard was slightly different: it was that it was the turn of the century, and that it had to do with going into a hospital rather than seeing a doctor. (At the time going to a hospital was, if anything, even worse than going to a single doctor, as one was more likely to get infections (before the discovery of antibiotics, too.)) I don't know which version is right -- whether the difference between their citation and my memory represents a scholarly discovery, and scholarly dispute, or a simple misremembering on my part.** But it's an interesting fact, and whether we date it from 1900 or 1910 is ultimately a minor part of it.

And as always, it made me think of my grandmother.

My grandmother was a Christian Scientist. Never voluntarily saw a doctor or took medicine in her life.*** I always thought it was silly; we used to argue about it at great length (and had a good time doing it, too).

But when Mary Baker Eddy founded the Christian Scientists in 1879, was it really silly?

Eddy said that you were better off praying than going to a doctor. And in 1879, she was right! According to the scientist quoted in the NYT Magazine this week, this was true for more than four decades after the Church was founded.

And that's only on average. My grandmother grew up in a tiny Midwestern town; it seems to me more than likely that whatever doctor her family might have found (had they sought one out) would have been decidedly less than average. So that even though my Grandmother was born right around the time that the odds tipped in medicine's favor, it probably wasn't true for her in her childhood.

Mary Baker Eddy was right. In the early years of the Christian Scientist church, you were better off praying.

Of course, she wasn't right about why she was right. She thought that this was true because prayer was healing her parishioners. It wasn't. But it was keeping them away from doctors, which at the time was a net plus. Presumably the prayer had added placebo benefits, and possibly helped by generally lowering stress too.

And of course this is no longer true. Medical advances have been dramatic in the past century; I hate to think how much worse the odds are if one doesn't go to a doctor now. (Which is why we need universal health care in this country!)

But it's amusing to me to think that it was in fact true for several decades.

I don't think there's a moral to this story. I don't think it makes Christian Science any more reasonable as a world view. I don't think it should make us doubt doctors today.

Perhaps if there's a moral, it's just that those of us in the reality-based community need to be very careful about our claims. After all, the doctors in 1879 certainly didn't tell their patients that they were on average worse off! In fact, from what I've read of it, the doctors in the nineteenth century spoke with all the confidence and assurance of -- well, of doctors today.

And there's nothing wrong with that -- when it's true. But one of the sins that science falls pray to is exaggerating its certainty, and its applicability in areas it has yet to probe. (Two other examples from around the same time are Taylorism, when a bunch of hyper-controlling management practices were sold as 'scientific', and social darwinism, when ruthless laissez-faire economics was similarly draped in the cloak of science to try to give it unearned respectability.)

It's hard for doctors -- it's hard for scientists -- it's hard for any human being -- to admit what they don't know, and how uncertain they are. We atheists are always (reasonably) asking theists to admit it. We should make sure to ask it of ourselves, too.

So that when our claims are solid -- as, in the case of medicine, they soon turned out to be -- there is not any lingering doubt from earlier exaggeration.

* I define the term in the post; read it if you're curious.

** They don't give a citation, unfortunately; the sentence is just cited to "a scientist" -- no name given. And I'm not quite curious enough to track it down without one. But I'd love to know how they computed the statistic. There must be tricky historical epistemology issues involved, and I'm quite curious what they are.

*** Incidentally, she lived to a ripe old age and was in perfect health for all but the last few years of it.

1 comment:

Verndigger said...

Hi Stephen; interesting discussion, but unfortunately, an unsound foundation, i.e., your claim that prayer worked in the beginning of Christian Science because medicine was so primitive.

you might like to research a little more deeply into Christian Science healing.

you can read the last chapter of Science and Health, which is all testimonies of healings from reading the book.

at any Christian Science Reading Room you can get a book called "healing spiritually" which gives many healings of serious physical difficulties, often medically diagnosed.
there is another book covering a more current period, its title I believe is "spiritual healing".

and there are also the weekly and monthly periodicals which you can read at the RR, which contain healing testimonies.

you can read Science and Health, and see testimonies and articles on healing, at

search for 'testimonies', or 'healing' - or any other keyword that you think of. try 'cancer', you will see some healings of that.
don't think modern medicine has done that yet. :-))