The sorrowful wake of failed prayers

Sometimes being honest sucks because there’s no way to sincerely comment on something without appearing insensitive.  It sucks less than being dishonest or being silent, but it still sucks.

In this case, I have to honestly comment on this.

The parents and their three children — all age 2 or under, including one buckled in a car seat — held hands on the hallway floor of their neighbor’s mobile home, praying a fast-approaching storm would show them mercy.

The result:

Mother Nature answered with a fierce tornado, which violently swept them up, separated them and deposited them about 100 yards away.

Four of their limp bodies were found soon thereafter. But for two days, hope lived on in the form of 14-month-old Angel Babcock.

That glimmer died at 4:10 p.m. Sunday, shortly after Angel’s extended family made the decision to take her off life support at Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky.

I do not celebrate these deaths.  I’m not that callous.  The world is a an unfair place where people sometimes die before their time.

But sympathy should not prevent us from saying the obvious: if ever there was a time for god to answer a prayer, it was here.  It is an unpleasant job to describe these situations, where so many people are saddened, as they truly were.  And the truth is that these people died speaking to themselves.  There was no god to listen.

Their grandfather would go on to say…

“God will bring you and all of us out of this,” he said, speaking to those who offered thoughts and prayers. “That is what it will take.”

But god had the opportunity to prevent it and didn’t.  And yet people still rely on his benevolence after god has emphatically demonstrated that he has none.  We must stop relying on the compassion of a god who has so recently and so repeatedly shown himself to be pitiless.  Even if that god exists, he is unworthy of prayers.  Sadly, it seems there is no act on god’s part so heinous that it could mar his goodness in the eyes of the faithful.

I very much wish this was a realization people could reach without observers like me having to point it out to them.  But it isn’t.  People should assess their problems, plan to the best of their knowledge, and react.  They should realize that if anything is to deliver them from tragedy it is our own actions and reliance on others, not on the invisible hand of god.  Prayer is distinguishable from inaction only in that it’s seen as noble, not sneered at with the same disgust we generally reserve for uselessness.  This difference allows people to do less than they should while still feeling they are fulfilling their desire/obligations to act.  It’s not good.  It’s something we must do away with.

I repeat, I am not attacking the victims.  I am not attacking their family.  I am not standing in triumph shouting “Ha! I told you prayer doesn’t work!”  But the efficacy of prayer is an important subject that must be discussed, even if I regret that the discussion must so frequently come in the sorrowful wake of unanswered prayers.

The simple truth is that human beings can do better than prayer.  We can do better than faith.  We must.

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.

  • Randomfactor

    Those who point out “miraculous” escapes from disaster as proof of gods’ intervention were mortified a hundred years ago when one of the structures in San Francisco to withstand the great fire was a whiskey warehouse owned by a man named Hotaling. Or as the poet put it at the time:

    “If as some say, God spanked the town
    for being over-frisky
    Why did He burn His churches down
    and spare Hotaling’s whiskey?”

    • Morrison

      JT is using the deaths to score internet points.

      He is a little weasel.

      • Richard

        Christians using doctors to claim miracle healing to score points, christians claiming “miracles” after 20+ people die to score points, personal attacks to score points.

        JT is using the truth for his points. Suck it up.

        • Morrison

          JT is a whiny little bitch, with a girlie man “illness”.

          • leeharrison

            “And if we look over here we can see the Internet Fuckwit in its natural habitat. Hush now, we don’t want to attract its attention – just quietly walk around it and try not to step in its dung.”

          • Anteprepro

            Morrison is using other people’s unrelated personal problems to score internet points.

            He is an amoral fuckwitted hypocrite. Weasels are far superior, by contrast.

  • Andy Long

    I live very close to where the happened, so this, and similar stories were all over the local news as well.

    One man, his wife and dog sheltered under the house they were building and survived, while much of the house did not. In his interview, he naturally thought someone ‘up there’ was ‘looking after him’.

    How you can possibly think such a thing when contrasted to 1 year old child being deposited in a field only to die soon after shows a kind of malign hubris that leaves me close to vomiting.

  • charlesbartley

    In my book, if god gets credit for saving anyone, then he gets credit for allowing others to die. I think hard line Calvinism is repugnant, but they at least get that part of their system right.

    My ex-wife had severe bi-polar/epilepsy. It caused her to be suicidal every winter for the first decade that we were married (and not much better than that for the remaining 7 years). When she was hospitalized all of those times, my mom would say stuff like “god is watching over her” or “I am praying for you.” I appreciate the intended sympathy and the caring intended in the words, but was repulsed by the content… if god cared then why were we going through this FOR THE 6TH TIME. This was the core of what broke my faith (though not the only factor).

    I have read so many texts on “the problem of pain” from the Christian perspective. The only thing that ever brought me relief was dropping faith: she was in that space “because biology is imperfect and we don’t know how to treat her.” No one, and no “entity” is to blame. Suffering just is a part of life, and you just have to endure it. I talked about this more in my blog a while back:

    I grieve for these people. Their grief must be horrible (as was mine for my wife). The natural grief for their lost loved ones, combined with all of the turmoil of wondering “where was God in this?” is so hard to endure.

  • tubi

    Some might say that God did answer their prayers. He just said, “NO!”

    I wouldn’t say that, but some might.

  • ahcuah

    I wonder how the news story knew they were on the floor praying since none of them survived.

    Regarding the baby, in the earlier news stories before she died, her surviving was referred to as a “miracle”. Not much of one, I guess. People take all this just to confirm what they want to think.

  • khan

    That story also caught my eye, with all of the god crap.

  • ‘Tis Himself, OM

    My wife is being treated for breast cancer. One of my coworkers told me “if you pray then God will make the cancer go away.” When I pointed out that God could have kept my wife from getting cancer then this coworker said “God gave her the cancer for a purpose.” I then said I wasn’t going to pray for a cure: “I don’t negotiate with terrorists.”

    • Sastra

      What a great response.

      People don’t seem to think through their own scenario. My best to you both.

    • carpenterman

      Well said, sir! Therein lies the heart of the matter: leaving aside whether or not god even exists, how can anyone put any faith in his benevolence? He’s either indifferent or sadistic. A bully.
      I hope your wife beats her illness. I will not pray for her; rather, I will continue to donate money to help pay for cancer research. Some thing that might actually help.

  • Hein

    Wow! Well said! Ne’er a truer word was spoken.

  • wholething

    Yesterday, I saw church sign announcing the topic of this week’s sermon: Dealing with Unanswered Prayer. I thought, “Well, that is a problem nonbelievers never have.”

    The church is at the corner of N. High and W. Henderson in Columbus OH.

  • jfxa

    Imagine there was an impoverished child living in a terrible place, facing a bleak future. Then someone adopted them and took them to a safe place, where they would be provided for, and taken care of with a much better future. Would the person who adopted them be evil, a terrorist, or anything but good?

    We will all die, whether it is young or old, from cancer or tornados, it is only a matter of time. This place is deeply flawed and full of suffering, with brief periods of joy. The reason I think it upsets us is because it was not supposed to be this way in the beginning. Otherwise, we would think it was normal.

    If there is no God, this sucks, and thats all there is to say. Life sucks and then you die. If there is a God there is the possibility that these people are now in an infinitely happier place then they were living in their mobile home in this deeply flawed place. Perhaps they are thrilled right now, while we complain against the very one who took them out of this messed up world to a place where every tear will be wiped away.

    • Hein

      Pascal’s wager?

    • charlesbartley

      Reality matters.

      Reality doesn’t suck. Reality just IS. Reality is neutral to our suffering or to our desires. The universe doesn’t care. BUT: this is only a hopeless situation if you make it a hopeless situation by putting your hope in a fantasy. There is not one good bit of evidence to believe why the scenario you provided is true.

      Wishing it was different, hoping, making stuff up, believing stuff from a book written the distant past doesn’t change it. Follow the link I provided in my last post. I write directly about this. My hope and faith in the god/heaven that you described caused me unbelievable pain–because there is just no evidence that the world works that way. God doesn’t heal wounds. He doesn’t heal the sick. He doesn’t give you strength to stand up against that shit. He only gives you the false hope. The false hope of an invisible friend. The false hope that tears will be wiped away in a heaven that only exists in wishful thinking (not to mention horribly unjust since it is based on belief–the get out of hell card).

      I don’t want to die but I don’t think I fear it, and I am certainly not without hope… I think that life is unbearably precious. It is brief and fleeting. Sometimes beautiful. Sometimes horrible. We live and we die. My hope is to shine out as the best person I can be, to live this life as fully as I can, and to love as much as I can. This is not hopelessness. It is reality and it is to be treasured.

      Hopelessness is when you believe your god is there for you and he isn’t.

      • jfxa

        Einstein was once asked what percent of all there is to know, do we know. I think he said 2%. He was probably very overconfident. But even if we knew 2%. It takes a lot of confidence to say you know there is no spiritual world of any kind.
        But if you were to ask people over the last several thousand years, at least 85% would claim to have experienced some type of supernatural world or being. If come across a village of a 100 people and 85 said they know a guy named Bill, 5 have not met him, 5 are not sure, and 5 say they are convinced he does not exist, who do you believe.
        The Universe had a beginning, and there is no way to know exactly how it began from nothing. It is clearly just as rational to assume there is a creator as there is not one. So it is at best a 50% chance to say there is no god.
        But you have to ask yourself what is more rational to simple common sense. Nothing created something out of nothing, or someone created something out of nothing. This simple fact convinced Einstein and many others that there is someone behind it all.

        The fact is that there is “some evidence” or at least hints that God exists. There is nothing that you can call “evidence” that there is no God. What would that even look like?

        Now of course, there is a lot we don’t understand, or like about how the world is. This tornado is one terrible example. But if we assume a god made this world with laws that almost always govern what takes place, then why would we assume that they are suspended often. We are safer because the laws are consistent, so we can plan and prepare. Imagine, if sometimes the laws that govern the lift forces, sometimes did not work. Planes would randomly fall out of the sky. The laws that govern weather are consistent. The same forest fire that kills also brings new life to a forest.

        I am not sure if this is the answer to suffering. But my theory is that there is not only a spiritual good, there is also a spiritual evil. If I am correct then the “god of this world” as it is, is not the good but the evil. The world at this time is cursed and ruled by someone who desires “to steal kill and destroy” Now the world in this condition is doomed and destined to death. The good spirit is outside of this bubble universe if you will. He can intervene when invited to. But if He fully intervenes that would be the final judgement on this world. He is patient and waiting for some to call out to Him and receive His life within themselves.
        However, people are unable to connect to hIm in their pride. But if they humble themselves, they can find mercy, and then become agents of change in this flawed world.

        There is no one answer to all questions of suffering, but I think that might answer a few things. Of course, I might be wrong, but that is one way that I make sense of tragedy, beyond the hope of an eternal soul.

    • Alverant

      What a crock! First and foremost, life does not suck. Life is wonderful. We should enjoy it and help others enjoy it too. If life does suck for someone, we should work to improve it so it doesn’t suck.

      Second if there’s a God and there’s a possibility those people are in a happier place then isn’t there also a possibility those people are in a much worse place? Say a place of fire and torement for worshiping a God the wrong way? They could be in pain and there are those who are praising the God who is torturing them. Ever think about that?

      • James

        Alverant, you state, “What a crock! First and foremost, life does not suck. Life is wonderful. We should enjoy it and help others enjoy it too”.
        While I am happy that your life is so wonderful and filled with flowers and bliss. My life (experience) has been quite the opposite of your reality. I have been in chronic pain for over twenty-one years now. I have procedures and medicines that give slight relief from the pain, but it is always there. No matter what you wish or desire there are just some things that cannot be fixed or corrected. My life SUCKS!

    • Besomyka

      Okay. So dying and going to heaven is like leaving some slum for paradise. I accept that people who pray and have faith in the Christian God believe this.

      I have only one question: why did that family pray for life?

      • Sastra

        Yes. One might also ask why anyone prays for reduced suffering, instead of death and heavenly bliss.

        What would an ‘unanswered prayer’ look like, if there is no conceivable scenario, no possible event, no imaginable outcome, which should be counted as a prayer unanswered?

    • Anat

      If there is no God, this sucks, and thats all there is to say.

      If there is no god then it is up to us to make life less sucky. And that is awesome.

    • anteprepro

      If there is no God, this sucks, and thats all there is to say. Life sucks and then you die. If there is a God there is the possibility that these people are now in an infinitely happier place then they were living in their mobile home in this deeply flawed place.

      So, in other words: “If atheism is true, life sucks. If Christianity is true, life still sucks, it’s suckiness has a perfect God’s stamp of approval, but it’s all okay because if you die, you’ll get a second, better life if you properly kissed God’s ass.”

      Color me unimpressed. Doesn’t it strike you as just ever so suspiciously convenient that the only way that Christianity’s proposed truth has any effect on life is after we’re already dead? Yeah, it usually doesn’t ever raise the eyebrows of the people spewing this schlock. Just the eyebrows of the onlookers.

  • Ron Hager

    Every day I pray to god that ALL religions, their leaders and any memory of them be completely removed from everywhere in the universe. Since my prayers have not been answered, I am quite positive no one is listening.

  • Erick D Red

    Reminds me of a recent accident here in Ontario. 11 migrant workers in a van hit a semi. I don’t remember who was at fault, and it doesn’t really matter. 10 of them died, and one was severly wounded. And the headline called it a miracle that the eleventh wasn’t quite dead.

    I just don’t get that. There’s such a cognitive dissonance required that I don’t know how to reason somebody past that.

  • Mark

    Maybe it was a failure of science which didn’t give the people enough time. Or, maybe it was a failure of engineering which failed to design a safe enough structure. Or, maybe a failure of government for not having proper building codes or shelters to protect people. Bottom line, you can blame failure on anything that suits your agenda.

    If they were praying to Mother Nature, as you quoted, they were praying to the wrong god.

    • Randomfactor

      There is no “right” god.

    • anteprepro

      I was unaware of the claims that science, engineering, and government are perfect endeavors performed by those with complete knowledge of all matters in the universe and by those with absolute power. I mean, here I was under the impression that powerful supernatural creator entities were supposed to be more powerful than collections of smart mortals, but I guess wrong about that. Should’ve known, with that whole “iron chariots” thing, but I assumed I just read that wrong.

      • Mark

        It seems you are also unaware that “no” is a valid answer when a request is made of a person. I agree with your impression that powerful supernatural creator entities are supposed to be more powerful than collections of smart mortals, however the idea that powerful supernatural creator entities must comply with every mortal whim on demand is illogical, especially considering the implication that not only are powerful supernatural creator entities supposed to be more powerful than collections of smart mortals, but also far smarter, seeing a much bigger picture.

  • sailor1031

    It’s not just praying to doG that doesn’t work. For years I prayed to satan to take Dick Cheney home – it still hasn’t happened. You just can’t rely on any of them.

  • WMDKitty


    Just… *sigh*

    @sailor1031 — Man, you know the guy is evil when the dude downstairs won’t take him!

  • Pingback: Prayer | minorityattack()

  • Nance Confer

    So the neighbor survived. The one with the mobile home they were all praying in. He lived to tell this tale.

    If only they had used that time and energy to get to a shelter.

    That’s the problem with praying. It distracts from the action you should be taking.

  • Anteprepro

    It seems you are also unaware that “no” is a valid answer when a request is made of a person.

    It seems you are still unaware that the rate at which the “response” is “no” is indistinguishable from chance. As in, indistinguishable from it they hadn’t asked at all. Indistinguishable from a scenario in which God doesn’t really hand out extra favors for the well-behaved or those who believe in him. Indistinguishable from a world where God doesn’t actually exist.

    Oh, I also note that there is no conceivable reason why some people get “yes” as an answer and others get “no” for functionally identical prayers. You’d almost think that it wasn’t divine agency as much as just luck! But, that would require actually thinking.

    I agree with your impression that powerful supernatural creator entities are supposed to be more powerful than collections of smart mortals

    Great! So there goes the entire point of your snarky objection. Unless it’s to show that scientists, engineers, and government officials are far morally superior to God. Because at least when their decisions cost lives, it’s due to human fallibility, blunders, and oversights, and not just an all-powerful, all-knowing God deciding that he doesn’t feel like saving Person X’s life today. At least the humans try. God’s either really lazy or is sadistic enough that he goes out of his way to include suffering and early deaths in his “plans”. Or he’s not really omnipotent and/or omniscient. Really, whatever is most satisfying to believe.

    however the idea that powerful supernatural creator entities must comply with every mortal whim on demand is illogical, especially considering the implication that not only are powerful supernatural creator entities supposed to be more powerful than collections of smart mortals, but also far smarter, seeing a much bigger picture

    It’s not illogical when you note the following:
    1. That powerful supernatural entity supposedly loves those mortals.
    2. The majority of these “mortal whims” are simple requests for protection from harm or relief from suffering and not unreasonable/immoral requests.
    3. This powerful supernatural entity is supposedly all-powerful, and despite seeing a “much bigger picture”, is fully capable of reaching its long-term goals without accepting short-term losses (such as the untimely death and suffering of mostly innocent humans).

    But, obviously, God is too smart and has too complicated of a plan to cure every faithful worshiper’s cancer and to protect every devout follower from a tragic car accident or to relieve every prayerful Christian of some of the symptoms of their debilitating chronic illnesses. Or to even help every impoverished parishioner by having some fortuitous opportunity for earning a little money fall into their laps. I mean, he’s only God. How’s he going to let every one of his faithful followers keep bread on the table? Magic? Pfft.