13 July 2007

The powerlessness of prayer

I just got word yesterday that my grandmother was in a car accident. It sounds like she's going to be all right, thank goodness. But times like these certainly make one feel powerless, to hear that a loved one is suffering and to be unable to do anything to help.

We human beings like to have control over things. I'd say much of what makes us human is our ability to control our environment: we went from foraging to agriculture, from hunting to domesticating livestock. And when we can't control something--be it because we don't understand, or because we don't have the power to act upon our understanding--we like to make up ways that we think might give us control. Our ancestors described the world in terms of gods and spirits because, though they didn't understand the world, their brains were predisposed to interacting with other people. Belief in the anthropomorphic supernatural gave them the sense that they could communicate with and thereby control an uncontrollable world.

Nowadays, our understanding of the world is better, and that has improved our control to a degree. For instance, we now know how to predict weather, as well as prevent and treat disease. But no matter how much we understand, much is still beyond our power to control; we can't control who gets sick, where hurricanes strike, or when accidents occur. So in our desire for control, some of us cling to those old misconceptions so well-tuned to our cognitive biases: we imagine that the world has a human intelligence, in the hopes that we can convince it to get us out of trouble.

We know that prayer doesn't work. We know that. We've used the two great pillars of the scientific method--separation of variables and statistical analysis--and we have seen time and again that prayer does not influence the outcome of anything. The only thing that the human mind has ever moved is the body to which it is connected.

It would be great if I could say a little incantation in Massachusetts and help heal my grandmother's broken ribs in Pennsylvania. But that's not the way the world works, and there's no way I can un-know that. Contrary to the popular adage, there are atheists in foxholes; we don't run crying to God just because we feel weak or frightened. But even if I could believe in God again, why would I want to?

Our ancestors thought that we could control the world via appeal to the supernatural. We have since learned that there are some things we just can't control, and that's intimidating. But we have also learned that there are some things we can control. It may be troubling to know that there's nothing I can do to help my grandmother heal, but I can take comfort in the fact that she's surrounded by medical professionals who can help her.

Who wouldn't trade all the imaginary power in the world for a little real power to help a loved one?

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