Prayer absolutely, positively does not work

Prayer does not work.  For anybody insisting it does I offer the following rebuttal: Zachery Swezey.

“Family members were aware that Zach was seriously ill prior to his death,” said a report filed with charges from Okanogan County Sheriff’s detective Kreg Sloan. “Family members were also aware that Zach was going to die before his death; yet there was no effort, at any time, to obtain medical assistance,” the report stated.

Before finishing that paragraph, most of you have already guessed why his parents never sought medical assistance.  There is really only one thing that can cause parents who love their child, who want their child to get well, to watch as their child dies without ever picking up the phone to summon an ambulance.

Carlton parents who police say unsuccessfully tried to faith-heal their son back to health have been charged with second-degree murder.

Good!  If you watch impotently while your son dies, you should go to jail.

There are many who believe that prayer can heal the sick if one’s faith is sufficiently strong.  You will not find a stronger faith than the Swezey’s.  It failed.

The escape will be to say that the parents should have taken their son to the hospital AND prayed.  But the hospital works all by itself, without prayer, for atheists, Christians, and believers of other faiths alike.  You can’t combine the thing that clearly doesn’t work on its own with the thing that does work all by itself and then claim they share the credit (unless you’re really desperate).  That’s like mowing your grass while whistling to show how whistling can result in a well-trimmed lawn.

Prayer is impotent, and to pray while you could actually be doing something effective is immoral.

But charging documents, filed Feb. 2, also indicate that Greg Swezey told investigators he knew 10 to 15 minutes before his son died that he was going to die. He also told detectives that he asked his son if he wanted to go to the hospital, and Zach declined.

Oh horseshit.  If you take a child, who is biologically programmed to trust authority, and every day you tell it that this is the way it is, it’s your fault when they grow up thinking those ludicrous things.

This young man did not have to die.  What killed him wasn’t malice, it was a bad idea about the universe: a bad idea kept alive by gaggles of Christians who, themselves, keep irrationality alive by renaming it faith.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • Steve

    The comments there are nauseating. Way too many brain dead morons who defend the parents

  • Alley B

    I noticed that too, Steve. There were far too many comments about how the parents’ strength of faith made their decision totes okay. Then I got down to the guy who claimed that Zakk was alive and healthy with Jesus and had to give up.

  • Katie Tims


  • pentatomid

    How anyone can defend the parents who let this happen is beyond me. I mean, I get that the parents didn’t want the kid to die. Sure. But apparently they didn’t care enough about the kid to get him to a hospital. They placed their faith above their own child, and it cost him his life. So yea, these parents deserve to go to jail.

  • B-Lar

    “…That’s like mowing your grass while whistling to show how whistling can result in a well-trimmed lawn.”


  • redwood

    My wife isn’t American and has a live-and-let-live philosophy about other people–if an adult wants to pray him/herself to death, that’s their right. But when I tell her stories like this, where a parent lets his/her child die because religious values overcome common sense, she just shakes her head with disbelief. She knows this kind of thing doesn’t only happen in the States, but it sure seems to happen there a lot.

  • Guest

    I still can’t believe the stupidity. I grew up actively catholic and I don’t know anyone who would have pull that stunt. EVERYONE knew that prayer doesn’t “work” like that.
    (today, being atheist I still can’t believe it)

  • unbound

    I remember a study back in 2006 (largest study on the subject at that time at least) that showed that not only did prayer not work, but, if the recipient of the prayers was aware that people were praying for them, they actually fared worse.

    • pencil0007

      Inaction due to belief that they were being helped.

  • jaranath

    I agree, but to play a little devil’s advocate:

    Keep in mind that many of these people Really Believe It. As JT points out, the kid was raised to believe it too, so he (maybe, if we trust the dad’s word) declined treatment. If you Really Believe this crap then tuere’s nothing wrong with putting your faith above your health, because your faith defines itself as more important than health. Who cares if you suffer and die here if you get to go to Eternal Jesus Disneyland when you die as a reward for letting it happen?

    This is one of the things that leads me to see religion as a parasite; obviously not a real virus or worm, but a shifting, mutating parasite nonetheless. It finds things that work, and assigning itself top priority in the minds of its victims works. People get hurt when that happens, but religion doesn’t care about that, there’s always more where they came from.

    I also like Orac’s string of posts on this regarding the Cherrix case a few years ago, and the excellent B5 episode on the topic. There’s no clean way out of cases like this. If this is a genuine belief, then at the very least forcing treatment is a major violation of their beliefs, if not condemning them (in their minds) to hell. In the end, I agree with Orac that the State has to put the interests of a child first and cannot view those interests through a religious lens. Until the age of consent, which may or may not involve a judgement call, I don’t think the child can’t make that determination on their own. But I don’t think that will always be easy or pretty.

    • Rory

      The major problem I have with the argument that their faith is so important that they’re willing to sacrifice their health is that it’s clearly bullshit. I don’t care how devout you are, when you get hungry, you don’t pray for god to fill your belly–you go eat. Even the devout look both ways before they cross the street, because they have a lot more belief in blunt force vehicular trauma than they do in the saving power of Christ.

      So no, the devil’s advocate position here is still bullshit. If they really believed that all your need is prayer, then they’d have been dead long ago from starvation or neglect. No, these people decided somewhere in their kid’s illness that THIS was the line; this is the point where it’s out of our hands and into god’s. It’s a shameful tragedy that they drew that line in a way that allowed this to happen to their child.

      • jaranath

        Sorry, but I still disagree. The claim isn’t that religion dominates everything to the point of total apathy in the belief that god will provide. Just that it can, and often does, assert dominance in some areas. I’m sure psychology and public display come into that.

        You seem to be suggesting that none of these people Really Believe what they’re claiming, that they’re all hypocrites like those…well, in an anecdote I can’t recall well, but who had let a child die while pursuing real medicine for their own serious illness. That seems unlikely to me. There are plenty of anecdotes of people dying due to their own insistence on alternative medicine or, yes, religious belief. While I’m sure denial is a factor in some of those cases, and while I’m sure hypocrisy is in others, I think the results of such madness are so enraging as to tempt one to read malice into the situation.

        I don’t care to defend this kind of behavior, nor do I suggest we pull punches in criticizing it. But I do think it’s worth knowing that religion is capable of doing this to some people.

        • Rory

          To be clear, I don’t disagree with you that anyone who could let this happen Really Believes–hard to imagine otherwise they’d stand by and let a child die. I guess my point was more that such belief seems internally inconsistent to me–these folks decided that faith healing was an acceptable response to what they thought was either food poisoning or the flu, but I suspect that if their son had been hit by a car they wouldn’t call for a laying on of hands.

          So my point, however inaptly expressed, is that religious folks seem to have a remarkable capacity to pick and choose how they apply their doctrine, which is what makes it hard for me to understand why anybody would make a choice like this. You’d think that if there was going to be a gray area, it would be on the side of not letting your child die in pain.

  • jaranath

    That is, I don’t think the child CAN make that determination on their own…

  • RdeG

    “Prayer does not work. For anybody insisting it does I offer the following rebuttal:”

    Is that anecdotal evidence I see? Tsk, tsk. You know better than that, JT.

  • Epinephrine

    That just shows that prayer doesn’t always work. They may have been praying wrong, anyway. After all, the BMJ even published an article on the effectiveness of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer. You don’t even have to pray prior to an event, you can pay afterward and have an effect!

  • Alex P.

    Human beings: praying for rain but digging for water for as long as we’ve had farming. Alone, prayer still can’t boil water.

  • Mark

    Saying that prayer doesn’t work demonstrates an ignorance of what prayer is and what it is for. By “doesn’t work,” what exactly do you mean? The person requesting didn’t get what they wanted? Do you think prayer to God is supposed to be like some sort of vending machine? Since you were once a Christian, I am sure you remember that prayer is a tool for understanding God’s will, not a spell to manipulate His will to ours.

    • Richard

      As I went to catholic school for my first communion, my teacher once said to me, “We must say ‘Jesus Mary and Joseph’ every time an ambulance passes”
      I frowned and asked, “Does it help the people in the ambulance? Is that phrase supposed to be like a magic spell?”

      Needless to say, I was thrown out of the class. I doubt you even know what prayer is “supposed to be for” or “god’s will” or some other nonsensical drivel.

      Such arrogance, that any human could imagine a being so powerful that it made the universe, and that by thinking loudly that someone that powerful would give two shits or communicate.

      Message to Mark, those voices in your head means you need medical care.

      • Mark

        Richard, it is not so much arrogance, but unfathomable love on the part of God. I would probably get kicked out of a Catholic class also.

    • RowantVT

      No… no, I remember quite well when I was christian that I was told if I prayed that God would answer my prayers. It then later turned into “If you believe hard enough that he will answer your prayers, then he will give you what you prayed for”.

      Well… never happened.

      • Mark

        RowantVT, as far as God answering prayers, you seem to be discounting that “No” is a valid answer. And as far as believing “hard enough” as a way to manipulate God, that is patently unbiblical. Jesus gives his disciples instructions about how to pray in Matthew 6:5-13. Note that in verse 10 in the example prayer, the phrase “Your will be done.” “Your” meaning God’s, not the person who is believing really really hard.

        • Richard

          Doesn’t stop various Christian sects from teaching the wish giving attributes of prayer, rain for Texas and other such bullshit. It doesn’t stop children from dying from the ignorance and religion of their parents. Prayer, faith healing, and Christ are the excuses the parents have given year after year as their kids are dying.

          There is no excuse for the behavior that you can give that justifies prayer in any light that has any value in the perspective of the deaths of these children. Your way out of the argument is hole filled with absent deistic love, as children die out of ignorance and neglect, seems pretty heartless to me. When you got on the comments, you defended prayer. Over the kids. Yeah. -1 for you.

          • Mark

            The parents, as represented here, were not justified in what they did. The atrocity of their negligence was adequately represented on this blog post. What was improperly represented was the role of prayer. There seems to be a misunderstanding among both the parents at fault and the author of the blog. At best, this is ignorance, at worst, it is a dishonest straw-man argument against prayer. I have seen JT corrected regarding his posts on prayer in the past, however, just as he accuses theists, he reuses the same baseless arguments despite being shown the truth. As I stated previously, if he used to be a Christian as he claims, he probably already knows that this is a misrepresentation of prayer.

          • Richard

            I strongly disagree, this is an accurate representation of prayer! Just because it doesn’t match your personal definition, does not mean that their prayers were any less valid than your own. The no true Scotsman defense doesn’t work here very well. I disagree that this is a strawman attack, because these are accurate descriptions of what happened and what they believed.

            They prayed their child to death.

            This is what happened.

            Prayer, and religious ignorance, were the motivating factors. Prayer and religions should be criticized and examined, especially after atrocities like this. Prayer has no place in emergency medical care, period, and that is the point of this blog post and the moral of the story. Not that they were “doing it wrong”, or “prayer isn’t supposed to be used this way”, no, it’s that a few religious parents use prayer as an excuse to watch as their children die slow agonizing deaths that are very likely preventable.

            No dishonesty occurred on JT’s part, and it’s dishonest on your part Mark, to say that there was especially without any citation or evidence of any kind save a bible verse, which as a currency in these parts isn’t worth jack. Religious belief does not mean I will cede you by religious default any of the moral high ground here, I’m standing on that hill, with everyone else whose first impression was horror at the parents and at their beliefs.

            Prayer gets no pass in this atrocity, it should also bear the blame.

          • Mark

            Richard, JT is describing these people as Christians. A Christian is a follower of Christ. I have pointed out that Christ’s instruction concerning prayer can be found in Matthew 6:5-13 which is in conflict with what these parents were doing. In this case they were not following Christ’s teaching. You state that this is a No True Scotsman argument. While I am no expert on the objective criteria for being a true Scotsman or if there really is any; there is, in fact, a detailed description of Christianity in the form of the Bible. It is not mine to judge the eternal status of these parents, however I can measure their actions (aws described here) against the plumb line of the Bible and point out the inconsistencies. You do not have to be a believer to see that there is an inconsistency between the actions of these parents and Christ’s teaching. JT, instead of noting the discrepancies, is incorrectly assigning their actions as representing Christian doctrine concerning prayer, i.e. that of a follower of Christ as laid out in scripture. Prayer working or not working in this case is like trying to use a plastic spoon to cut paper and then making the very broad statement that plastic spoons absolutely, positively do not work.

          • DevinMacGregpr

            Wow, Mark is amazing. I would take then that there are very few Christians in any of these Christian churches if any. So the gist is to Mark that prayer works because he has finagled the meaning of your to mean his godhead and thus prayer is just asking for guidance on any such request but not asking for a favorable outcome like a winning touchdown or doing well on an exam. If it is god’ will for any such event in anything that happens then why bother praying? It certainly is not for god to give you the correct answers on a test but to what? Tell you that you should had studied harder? It as well certainly is not to make you run faster, jump higher, and catch that ball to score the winning points for your team but for god to tell you hey you should not had eaten that burrito before the game or that you should had gotten more sleep the night before. What Mark has created is a get out of jail for free card that is attempting to make the fallacies of Christianity ironclad. It is obvious that a true Scotsman is a follower of Scotland by wearing a kilt and any such person who does not wear a kilt is obviously not a true Scotsman. I just had a friend tell me she prayed over these recent layoffs and she survived. She believers herself to be a true Christian and uses that qualifier btw. With my company since 2001 I have been in no less than 17 layoffs. No prayers at all. On the 6th one I got laid off and rehired to another location 3 weeks later. Again no prayers involved. We have another layoff pending. She is on Linked In but due to her prayer earlier believes that the company that contacted her about a possible job is her god answering her prayers and believes that her god is telling her to take this job even though she has not had a second interview other than a brief talk on the phone. A month or two ago she wanted me to attend a seminar at her church about why god allows evil in the world. LOL.

        • Cindy

          If “God’s will” is going to be done, then what is the point of praying for something? Matthew 18:19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven.”

          I grew up in a Christian home and saw many believing people gather and pray for something good… to help someone… to save someone… to heal someone….. Often, however it was NOT done….

          I used to believe in prayer… not anymore.

    • Pam Young

      Mark, did you ever read Matthew? “Whatsoever . . ..” There are also verses about commanding healing in Jesus’ name–LOL. What are you, 12?

    • pencil0007

      rationalization is a thing of beauty . . .

  • WMDKitty

    Holy hell.

  • Ace of Sevens

    I get why they are charging the parents, but why 2nd degree murder? That requires intent, but not premeditation. It doesn’t seem they intended for their kid to die, so voluntary manslaughter would seem more appropriate.

    • LadyBlack

      I think the 2nd degree is because apparently the father “knew 10 to 15 minutes before” that the kid was going to die. So effectively they sat around waiting for him to die. It’s negligence and it’s appalling.

      The issue is that there is a difference between “We were still praying for him, but he died whilst that was happening” and “We gave up and didn’t call an ambulance ourselves”.

      • LadyBlack

        Sorry, should add that my comment comes from personal opinion, not as an expert of the law!

  • P Smith

    That’s not the only religious-based anti-medical nonsense making the rounds at the moment. Some clown at the US’s National Institute of Aging is claiming that religious fasting slows alzheimers and prevents mental decline. Clearly, it’s not working for him.

    If you read up on it, it’s really just another call for eating more greens and less fat and sugar. “Fasting” has nothing to do with it – and may do the reverse. People who go on starvation/denial diets end up fatter.

    I’m not suggesting this is anywhere near as bad as people murdering their kids with religion, I’m just pointing out that stupidity is still widespread.


  • anteprepro

    Saying that prayer doesn’t work demonstrates an ignorance of what prayer is and what it is for. By “doesn’t work,” what exactly do you mean? The person requesting didn’t get what they wanted?

    Well, here’s something you couldn’t be arsed to deal with. The actual stats on the matter :

    -Popular prayers regard health, safety, relationships, and “strength”, which is consistent with petitions for divine intervention. But the other popular are pleas for more faith, divine guidance, forgiveness, and using prayers to give thanks, which is more consistent with a view that prayer is not about getting tangible gains in the physical world.
    -Consistent with the view that it is not all about intervention, most people say that prayer is important due to giving intimacy with God, gaining guidance from god, or giving thanks to god.
    -However, 70% say that prayers are “answered” often or always.
    -Only 5% say that God does not ever answer specific prayers, with the majority saying that unanswered prayers are not part of God’s plan.
    -81% say that friends and family have prayed for them in the past week.
    -76% believes that being prayed for has helped them.

    So, here’s the jist: The majority of Christians believe that prayers can be and are answered, prayers can be about the real world, the majority believe that prayers are not answered when it runs contrary to God’s will (rather than prayers being unanswered by default), they direct prayers towards certain people, and believe that being prayed for actually helps. See also.

    So, even noting that people say that the “most important thing” is just connecting with God: How is JT’s conception of prayer a straw man, as you suggest it to be? Is the only problem that you have with it is that Christians accept that prayers can go unanswered, even if they still believe that they can be answered? Because that’s all well and good, but this point remains: Prayer is indistinguishable from chance. Christians may accept that prayer isn’t guaranteed to be fulfilled by God, but most still believe that prayer can be fulfilled in theory and actually has an effect on the world, which is not the case.

    • Mark

      Anteprepro, thank you for digging up those statistics. As I am sure you well know, you being part of a minority movement, popular opinion does not change truth. I want to point out as I did to RowantVT that “no” is a valid answer when making a request of someone. The Bible describes God as a personal being and also as sovereign with the right to make unilateral decisions regardless of petition. Nothing ever runs contrary to God’s will; so those prayers described as “unanswered” are not only answered “no” but are in fact opportunities for a believer to reflect on his/her perception of his/her understanding of God’s will and the role he/she is intended to play in carrying that out.

      To answer your questions: For the first, JT is redefining Christian prayer as manipulating God for our own purposes citing an instance of misuse/misunderstanding of prayer as evidence that prayer absolutely, positively does not work. Similarly, a straw man argument is where the opposition position is misrepresented as something that is easily toppled over without a fight, like a straw man. In this case it is by the use of death of a child, which no moral person will defend. For the second question, I do have a problem with the fact (as you represented) that some who claim to be Christians believe prayer can go unanswered. It is more toward, they ARE getting an answer, but one they won’t accept.

      You point out that “prayer is indistinguishable from chance,” however I would tweak that to read “the results of prayer are indistinguishable from Providence, except in development of our understanding of God and His work and our behavior resulting from that understanding.”

      • Anteprepro

        As I am sure you well know, you being part of a minority movement, popular opinion does not change truth.

        So, with that pathetic statement, you admit that JT is right? Because the popular opinion of the matter is exactly fucking relevant to whether or not JT’s potrayal of prayer is a straw-man. His portrayal of prayer is consistent with the popular view of prayer, therefore it isn’t a straw man.

        Also: If you believe, as you suggest, that JT is saying that the only evidence one needs to believe that prayer doesn’t work is this case, then you are the one dealing in straw men here, and assuming the worst simply for the sake of making your complaints easier. His saying that this case is itself a “rebuttal” to the idea that prayer works is obviously a little trumped up; a rhetorical device. It is actually just one data point out of many showing that trend.

        Also also: If you believe you can dismiss every Christian that doesn’t have a full Biblical justification for every one of their Christian beliefs and those that ignore several passages of the Bible in adopting those set of beliefs, you will have a small set of Christians left.

        • Mark

          “If you believe you can dismiss every Christian that doesn’t have a full Biblical justification for every one of their Christian beliefs and those that ignore several passages of the Bible in adopting those set of beliefs, you will have a small set of Christians left.”

          Matthew 7:13,14

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