The Mythical Power of Prayer

NBC “News” did a story about a Catholic priest who was injured in a terrible accident and faced a life of paralysis, but managed to recover. Predictably, he thinks the reason he wasn’t paralyzed forever was because he and others prayed. Because that’s not true of other people, amirite?

A Catholic priest who was paralyzed from the chest down in a fall four years ago says he has proof that prayer can heal.

Doctors had told Father John Murray of Brooklyn, New York that he would never walk again after bone chips from his neck sliced into his spinal cord.

“‘You should expect no voluntary movement,'” said Murray. “That’s a quote. ‘No voluntary movement for the rest of your life.'”

But within a year and a half after he tripped on a Jersey Shore boardwalk, the priest was able to rise from his wheelchair and walk.

“I think it’s a result of prayer,” said Murray. “Other people’s prayers and my prayers, without a doubt.”

Without a doubt? Really? My brother’s best friend, a guy I knew pretty well growing up, suffered a spine injury a year and a half ago. He and his wife are devout Christians and they and large numbers of others have been praying for a recovery day and night since then. He’s never left his hospital bed and almost certainly never will. What made you so special, Mr. Murray? Does God just like you better? Every single person facing any medical crisis in this country, even atheists, likely has lots of people praying for them. If you think prayer is “without a doubt” the reason you recovered, you are simply incapable of rational thought.

And then the article veers off into an entirely different subject but gives a highly inaccurate picture of it:

Father Murray has a lot of company. Half of all Americans believe that prayer can heal. But medical studies increasingly show the same thing, says the medical professor who runs Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health.

“People who are more religious just live longer; that’s kind of the bottom line,” said Dr. Harold Koenig.

Koenig said more than 4,000 studies have examined the connection between spirituality and health, with the number of studies tripling, by his estimate, in the past decade.

According to Koenig, most studies show religious people have better mental health, are less likely to experience depression, and cope better when they do. His own research shows that people who pray daily are 40 percent less likely to have high blood pressure.

“They have greater well-being, in general,” he said. “Religious people who are part of a faith community and have a relationship with God, so to speak, just have higher levels of well-being. They’re happier. And that’s been shown — hundreds of studies have now shown that.”

No, they really haven’t. What they really show, as my friend Luke Galen’s research suggests, is that people who belong to supportive communities tend to be mentally and physically healthier. Whether those communities are religious or not is irrelevant. Those who are active members of secular communities show similar results.

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  • Raging Bee

    Well, so much for the pipe-dream of American media companies engaging in healthy competition to provide better service to their consumers.

  • Marcus Ranum

    he has proof that prayer can heal.

    No doctors? No MRI? No drugs? Prayer?

  • erichoug

    I think it would be far more horrifying if god actually did help sick and injured people who prayed to him. Just as with Ed’s friends, why would god help some and not others? what about people who are devoutly religious and yet die horrible, painful deaths?

    Frankly I find the idea of a god who arbitrarily heals some of his flock and lets others die in awful circumstances more difficult to believe than the idea that there is no god.

  • busterggi

    The power of prayer is no myth – how else can you explain world peace, the end of hunger & disease and the ’69 Mets?

  • illdoittomorrow

    Yabbut when you godless marxist heathens do it it’s godless marxist heathenism!

  • Trebuchet

    I suffered major spine and leg injuries two years ago and am walking and living almost normally — with no prayer at all. I guess the big guy in the sky just likes me. Or just maybe the medical folks did a great job.

  • grumpyoldfart

    It’s a pity there wasn’t a stenographer to record what the doctors were telling the preacher when he suffered his accident. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was talk about a possible misdiagnosis; the chances for a partial recovery; the chances for a full recovery, and also a warning to prepare for the worst: “No voluntary movement for the rest of your life.”

    As the preacher says, that last statement was a “quote”, but I’ll bet there are plenty of other “quotes” (from doctors) that he is failing to mention because they will ruin the story he is trying to sell.

    [I could be wrong}

  • Modusoperandi

    It’s a wash. Remember, this is also the same God that sent him to New Jersey.*


    * Take that, place I’ve never been!

  • dan4

    @5: Uh, what is the “it” in “when you godless marxist heathens do it” in reference to?

  • Larry

    Of course, prayer works. Nearly half of all sports teams whose supporters pray for them to win, actually do win. And this has been going on for, well, nearly as long as there have been sports team.

    Take that, atheists!

  • tfkreference

    Wrong, Larry, the number of prayers for sports teams was overwhelming, so God now just lets the team that is better prepared and in better condition on the day of the game win.

  • Raging Bee

    Threadjacking from Larry’s point: if there’s anything more obnoxious than people credting “the power of prayer” for their medical recovery, it’s jocks crediting it for their latest win.

  • Sastra

    grumpyoldfart #7 wrote:

    It’s a pity there wasn’t a stenographer to record what the doctors were telling the preacher when he suffered his accident.

    Yes, the science-based medicine advocates make this point all the time when dealing with the ‘cures’ of alternative medicine. People routinely misremember what the doctors tell them. Most common is to (understandably) focus on the worst-case prognosis (“there is a possibility you may never walk again”) given as a rational precaution and ignore the caveats and more positive possibilities. Later on, the 5 minute speech which contained numerous alternatives, contingencies, suggestions, and therapies is reduced to “they told me I’d never walk again — but LOOK at me now!! Bullshit X works! This is proof positive!”

    And then the article veers off into an entirely different subject …

    Yes, doesn’t it? The claim that miracles are miracles and the claim that being devout makes you feel better are not only different topics, they’re actually conflicting claims. One of them promotes belief in an actual God which exists and manifests itself in empirical ways and the other promotes belief in belief, any belief, as a useful form of therapy for the believer. That’s more than a slight distinction in emphasis. Those approaches are in opposition to each other.

    I’d include this sort of thing in what I like to call Kitchen Sink Apologetics, in which the defender of the faith throws in anything and everything in hopes that it will “work,” regardless of whether the arguments are consistent or appropriate with each other at all (like combining a presupp with an evidential argument.)

  • Modusoperandi

    Sastra “(like combining a presupp with an evidential argument.)”

    I did that. It made an appletini. True story.

  • illdoittomorrow

    Dan4 at 9: the “it” was “belong to a supportive community”, more specifically a nonreligious one.

    If ever anything I say doesn’t make sense, it’s the phone’s fault, honest.

  • Raging Bee

    You got an appletini from an argument? Usually it’s the other way around.

  • timgueguen

    Of course some believers will whip out the old “God has a plan we mortals aren’t capable of understanding.” excuse to explain why some are healed and some aren’t. But that, if you think about it, is just more evidence God is some sort of asshole. After all one thing that can happen to people who have some tragedy in their life is a loss of faith. So apparently part of “God’s plan” is for some people to end up in Hell, because God wasn’t there when they needed him and it drove them away.

  • cjcolucci

    Just one regenerated limb, that’s all it would take. One lousy wooden leg among all the crutches. Is that too much to ask?

  • gopiballava

    cjcolucci: It’s not too much to *ask* for. The answer is the key detail. For example:,475/