Prayer is a Superstition

The dictionary defines the word "superstition" in this way:

    An irrational belief that an object, action, or circumstance not logically related to a course of events influences its outcome. [ref]

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We have all seen plenty of superstitions. There are the superstitions that a rabbit's foot or a four-leaf clover bring good luck. There are the superstitions that breaking a mirror or seeing a black cat bring bad luck. And we all know that these superstitions are silly. A rabbit's foot or a broken mirror has no good or bad influence on the course of events. This is obvious to any intelligent person.

So let's imagine the following situation. Let's say that you have cancer. You are lying in the hospital after a round of chemo and you feel terrible. A person pops into your room with a bright smile on his face and a horseshoe in his hand. He says to you, "This is an amazing and lucky horseshoe. If you touch this horseshoe, it will cure your cancer. But I need to charge you $100 to touch it."

Would you pay the man $100?

Of course not. We all know that touching the horseshoe will have zero effect on cancer. The belief in lucky horseshoes is pure superstition.

It is also very easy to scientifically prove that the horseshoe has no effect on cancer (or anything else). The way we would do it is simple: we would take 1,000 cancer patients and split them randomly into two groups of 500. We would let 500 of the cancer patients touch the lucky horseshoe and we would leave the other 500 alone in a double-blind way. Then we would look at cancer remission rates between the two groups. What we would find is zero benefit from the horseshoe. We would see no statistical difference between the remission rates in the two groups of 500 patients.


Now let us imagine another situation. You have cancer, you have just finished a round of chemo and you feel terrible. This time, a person pops into your room with a bright smile on his face and a bible in his hand. He says to you, "There is a being named God who is the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator of the universe. I am his representative on earth. If you will allow me to pray to God on your behalf, God will cure your cancer."

You agree to the prayer, and the man prays over you for 10 minutes. He invokes all the healing powers of God, beseeching him, reciting verses of scripture and so forth. Afterwards, as he is getting ready to leave, the man says, "Oh, and by the way, God says that you should tithe 10% of your income to the church. Would you consider making a tax-deductible donation today?"

The question is: Is there any difference between the two men? Will the prayer have any effect greater than the horseshoe?

The answer is: No. The belief in prayer is just as superstitious as the belief in lucky horseshoes.

The fascinating thing is that we can prove that prayer has no effect in exactly the same way that we can prove that horseshoes have no effect. We take 1,000 cancer patients. We pray over 500 of them and we leave the other 500 alone. Then we look at cancer remission rates between the two groups. What we find is that prayers have zero benefit. We would see no statistical difference between the remission rates in the two groups of 500 patients.

In other words, we can prove that the belief in prayer is pure superstition. The belief in the power of prayer is no different from the belief in the power of lucky horseshoes.

These experiments have been performed many times, and they always return the same results. For example, this article says:

    One of the most scientifically rigorous studies yet, published earlier this month, found that the prayers of a distant congregation did not reduce the major complications or death rate in patients hospitalized for heart treatments.
    A review of 17 past studies of ''distant healing," published in 2003 by a British researcher, found no significant effect for prayer or other healing methods.
This article from March, 2006 discusses another study that confirms the same thing:
    In the largest study of its kind, researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.
A peer-reviewed scientific study published in 2001 did indicate that prayer works. According to this article:
    "On October 2, 2001, the New York Times reported that researchers at prestigious Columbia University Medical Center in New York had discovered something quite extraordinary. Using virtually foolproof scientific methods the researchers had demonstrated that infertile women who were prayed for by Christian prayer groups became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have people praying for them. The study was published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine. Even the researchers were shocked. The study's results could only be described as miraculous."
This study was later proven to be completely fraudulent. However, everyone who cut out the original article in the NYTimes and posted it on their refrigerators still has that article as "proof" that prayer works.

This article entitled A prayer before dying uncovers another case where a "scientific study" of prayer is unmasked as fraudulent.

It's not just prayer that is ineffective. Not even a hopeful attitude helps. According to this article:

    A positive attitude does not improve the chances of surviving cancer and doctors who encourage patients to keep up hope may be burdening them, according to the results of research released Monday.
Quite simply, prayer has absolutely no effect on the outcome of any event. The "power of prayer" is actually "the power of coincidence." Belief in prayer is pure superstition.


Now here is the problem. We all know that people who believe in superstitions like rabbits' feet and broken mirrors are daft. And we know that the man with the horseshoe asking for money is a complete fraud. These facts are obvious to everyone with intelligence.

It should now be obvious that the believer's faith in prayer is just as daft, and the minister asking for donations is just as fraudulent.

This is the problem with religon. We allow daft and fradulent people to run freely in our society, spreading their superstitions and collecting their money, rather than pointing out the superstition and the fraud:

  • For a person to say "God answered my prayers today!" is just as silly as a person saying, "My lucky horseshoe granted me my wishes today!" or, "The planet Jupiter answered my prayers today!"

  • For a person to say, "God wants you to tithe 10% of your income to the church, and if you do, God will answer your prayers and let you into heaven when you die," is completely fraudulent.
The time has come for intelligent people to stop accepting or "tolerating" superstition and fraud and, instead, to call it what it is. It is time to state clearly that God is imaginary. Religion is pure superstition, nothing more -- It has been proven time and time again with dozens of scientific experiments. It is time for us to begin eliminating the superstition and fraud from public discourse, for the simple reason that superstition and fraud are detrimental to society.

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by Marshall Brain

New York Times Coverage
discussed in a
New York Times piece
by N. D. Kristof.
For a counter-point to Mr. Kristof, please see
Chapter 26.

Recommendation by Sam Harris
Sam Harris recommends WWGHA in his book Letter to a Christian Nation.

Endorsement by Richard Dawkins
In a New York Times Letter, Richard Dawkins calls WWGHA a "splendid Web site."

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