Prayer Cures Disease? Tried and Found Wanting.

Does prayer cure disease?In early 2012, Washington state declared an epidemic for pertussis (whooping cough). Pertussis hadn’t been this bad for decades. The 2500 cases during the outbreak was more than ten times higher than the previous year.

Before routine child vaccination in the 1940s, pertussis caused thousands of fatalities annually in the U.S.

You might imagine that this is a story about anti-vaxers, afraid of a perceived vaccine-autism link, who refused to vaccinate their children and helped create this epidemic. Not this time. The anti-vaccine movement seems not to have been a factor.

Instead, the interesting angle on this story is not disease prevented by vaccine but disease prevented by prayer. Kingdom League International, an online ministry based in western Washington, said in a brief article titled “Whooping Cough Epidemic Halted in Jefferson County”:

Churches in Jefferson County [one of those hardest hit by the statewide epidemic] used our strategy to mobilize prayer and establish councils to connect in 7 spheres of society [the Dominionists’ Seven Spheres of Influence]. On Mar 27 they met and a County Commissioner asked them to pray about the whooping cough epidemic. … As of April 13 there has not been one case reported. From epidemic proportions to zero.

A bold claim, but the question is whether we can find natural explanations besides prayer to explain the facts. We can. Epidemics peak and then diminish, particularly when there’s an effective health system in place that can administer vaccines. There were 21 confirmed cases for this county in 2012, with no new cases since mid-April. Is this remarkable? Is this unexplained by the efforts of the public health system? This looks to me like an epidemic that’s simply run its course.

I jumped into a discussion with the author in the comment section. Aside from being quickly asked my faith status (though I’m not sure how this affects one’s ability to evaluate evidence), I got the expected tsunami of miracle claims—a bad knee healed, a barren woman now pregnant, lung cancer cured, demons cast out, blindness healed, a stroke patient recovering, a rainstorm to break a heat wave, a cracked rib healed, and so on.

(For comparison, consider the pinnacle of medical cure sites, Lourdes. After 150 years as a pilgrimage site and with six million visitors per year, the Catholic Church has recognized just 67 miraculous cures.)

I pointed out to my Kingdom League correspondent that natural explanations hadn’t been ruled out. Surprisingly, he had no interest in doing so.

I tried to portray this as a missed opportunity. If any of the many healing claims were more than just anecdotal, this group should create a dossier of x-rays, test results, photographs, or other evidence, both before and after the miracle. Add the report of the doctor who witnessed the change and then show this to the Centers for Disease Control or an epidemiologist or some other qualified authority. Why hide your light under a basket? Jesus had no problem using miracles to prove his divinity.

There seems to be no shortage of these miracles (at least in their minds), so if one miracle claim isn’t convincing, then pray for some more and try again to convince the skeptics.

That this group has no interest in going beyond feel-good anecdotes makes me think that they understand that their claims wouldn’t withstand scrutiny, not because skeptics wouldn’t play fair, but because honestly evaluating the claims would show them to be little more than wishful thinking. Their purpose in celebrating these “answers to prayer” isn’t in convincing others but convincing themselves.

Pray v. To ask the laws of the universe to be annulled
on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.
— Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 5/31/12.)

Photo credit: AJC1


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