Prayer Can’t Fight Ebola

Prayer Can’t Fight Ebola September 1, 2014


The worst-ever outbreak of Ebola virus is still raging in West Africa. There are over 1,500 confirmed deaths so far – including, heartbreakingly, doctors and nurses treating other sufferers – though the real number is probably much higher, since widespread fear and mistrust means that many of the sick never come forward.

The epidemic has also been helped along by traditional herbalists who claim they can treat Ebola, but only end up spreading the virus. Some people don’t even believe it exists.

Foreigners and aid workers have also fallen ill, including two American medical missionaries, Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, who worked for the evangelical group Samaritan’s Purse. Both of them were flown home so they could receive treatment in the U.S.A., which was successful: last month, both Brantly and Writebol were declared recovered and discharged from the hospital. Brantly called it a “miraculous day” (warning: link has autoplay video) and made a statement which included this:

“I did not know then, but I have learned since, that there were thousands, maybe even millions of people around the world praying for me throughout that week, and even still today. And I have heard story after story of how this situation has impacted the lives of individuals around the globe – both among my friends and family, and also among complete strangers. I cannot thank you enough for your prayers and your support. But what I can tell you is that I serve a faithful God who answers prayers.

Through the care of the Samaritan’s Purse and SIM missionary team in Liberia, the use of an experimental drug, and the expertise and resources of the health care team at Emory University Hospital, God saved my life – a direct answer to thousands and thousands of prayers.

My dear friend, Nancy Writebol, upon her release from the hospital, wanted me to share her gratitude for all the prayers on her behalf. As she walked out of her isolation room, all she could say was, ‘To God be the glory.'”

I don’t wish harm on anyone, and I’m glad they’re both recovered, however it came about. But reading this statement, I couldn’t help noticing how little credit it gives to the people who deserve it the most.

Brantly credits his recovery mainly to God and the people praying for him, and only secondarily to his doctors. Yet both he and Writebol were beneficiaries of the most advanced medical treatment in the world: a private flight on a specially equipped medical plane, state-of-the-art hospital care, and a dose of ZMapp, an experimental transgenic antibody designed to combat Ebola. Yet Brantly’s statement is written as if the prayers on their behalf were the true curative agent, and all these therapies developed by human research and ingenuity just happened to be the means by which those prayers were realized. (It reminds me of an old essay by an atheist Coast Guard officer, “The Work Gods Are Too Busy to Tend To“, about how he and his crew would brave the dangers of the ocean to rescue people in distress at sea, only to have them thank God instead.)

I guarantee there’s no shortage of prayers being offered up in panic-stricken West Africa. Yet, somehow, the cure rate among African sufferers is much lower than it is among Western beneficiaries of prayer who also happen to have access to high-tech medicine. What conclusion should we draw from this?

And then there’s the inherent absurdity of believers praying for a cure for Ebola, since if their beliefs are correct, God was the one who created the virus in the first place. Do they believe that the all-knowing creator of the universe didn’t realize it was a threat to human life until we told him so? Or do they believe that God unleashed this virus on humanity, knowing it was lethal, but might be persuaded to relent in a few rare cases if we plead with him? Is that the behavior of a being whom anyone would deem worthy of worship?

Image credit: Sergey Uryadnikov /

"> At a different level of cruelty, only a fiend would create foxes to rip ..."

Unitarians Are Mostly Skeptics
"They can do as good research with pigs. See Dr Verena Tunnicliffe at the University ..."

The Great Continuity of Nature
"> they continue to insist that the ashes should be buried in a funeral plotFor ..."

The Great Continuity of Nature
"And in almost every case, being an asshole."

Revelations, Visitations, and All That

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • As a sort of “panentheist believer”, I find the best prayer is compassionate action.
    Frantic blathering doesn’t solve anything, if it doesn’t lead you to act.

  • TBP100

    I’ve said for a long time that if I literally risked my life to pull someone out of a burning building, or the ocean, and the first thing they did was to call it a miracle and thank God, I would throw them back in.

    I don’t know if anyone actually risked their life in this case, but for sure lots of people put in a lot of effort to save these people, with no discernible supernatural help.

    I’m sure most firefighters, lifeguards, cops, EMTs, etc. aren’t in it for the praise to start with (at least not primarily), but I imagine this kind of thing rankles from time to time.

  • L.Long

    I find it amazing how gawd is so awesome only after the doctors used science, and gawd aint worth a pile of steaming vomit from a 1000 dims praying with no doctors using science.
    Ever wonder why these psychotically delusional dims don’t just pray and not use doctors and just die!!! Since they are using FAITH it aint suicide and they get to go to heaven, they want it bad enough, so stop fighting it.

  • Seomah

    Some people just don’t use doctors and pray, and die and that’s sad, but then other people do that with their children, and that’s just outrageos

  • J-D

    Prayer and A$2.50 will get you a samosa. (I don’t drink coffee.)

    Also: compare Daniel Dennett’s thanks to goodness, not God, after advanced emergency surgery saved his life.

  • L.Long

    That’s why I said THEY not THEIR KIDS.
    But then the religious are very good at sacrificing their kids for their gawd and religion. And one big problem is where does the gov’mint step in??? Since the line must be drawn somewhere I will step in if I see a parent causing MEASURABLE PHYSICAL HARM. Messing with the mind is a fussy area.

  • InDogITrust

    I’m willing to bet that the per capita rate of prayer in Europe skyrocketed after 1347, and increased at an almost vertical rate for the next decade or so.
    And very effective it was.

  • FuzzyDuck

    “Yet, somehow, the cure rate among African sufferers is much lower than
    it is among Western beneficiaries of prayer who also happen to have
    access to high-tech medicine. What conclusion should we draw from this?”

    Satiricial statement in 3…2…1…

    …maybe God just doesn’t like brown people?

  • Lark62

    Maybe it’s just that rich prayers count more than poor prayers.

  • BeaverTales

    There are so few doctors in the hardest hit areas, and little education about contact/isolation precautions, as well as few financial resources to implement them. Few safety gloves, people afraid to interact with each other (including handling money) and there is a sense of panic.

    It’s an evolving disaster…easier to ignore in the Western world while it’s contained to Africa. I’m sure there are lots of inappropriate and wildly ignorant religious interpretations of (and con men exploiting) this outbreak around the world.

  • Martin Penwald

    In a small town in south of France, the rain hasn’t stop since 1 week. The town has been evacuated because of the risk of flood. Yet, the town’s priest stays in his church. The firemen come and tell the priest he should evacuate.

    « No, god will provide, leave in peace »

    Later, the flood has begun, and the church is full of water. The priest is on the autel, praying, when firemen came in a small boat to evacuate him. But again :

    « No, thank you, but god will answer my prayers »

    Hours after hours, the rain keeps falling, and the village is almost under water, except for the church’s steeple, where the priest sought refuge. Firemen come in a helicopter, and tell the priest to come with them. And again :

    « No, I strongly believe that god will answer my prayers and save me, you can leave in peace. »

    A few hours later, everything is under water, and the priest drowns. He then arrives to the gates of heaven, in front a St-Peter, aghast, and asks :

    « God, Ô god, why didn’t you answer my prayers ? »
    And then, god :
    « Hey ! I send you 3 times the firemen ! »

  • Jim Jones

    > It’s an evolving disaster…easier to ignore in the Western world while it’s contained to Africa.

    So, somewhat like HIV/AIDS? And we’ll ignore it at our peril? While the Republicans dismantle Obamacare and tell us to pray it away?

    Wonder how that will work out?

  • TBP100

    Gosh, no one here has ever seen that one before. (/sarcasm)

    Seriously, what’s the point of this oft-repeated story?

    What about the people who aren’t sent rescuers by divine providence when they need one (the vast majority)? Does God dislike them for some reason?

  • Jeff

    This joke is a fine demonstration of how the god of christianity, if he’s real, goes to ridiculous lengths to make it look like he doesn’t exist.

  • Martin Penwald

    The point is that people believing in whatever deity are completely blind to reality, and think that prayer is the answer to all evil. Pray for rain in Texas, pray for a cancer cure, pray for having success.

    There is a Sainte-Rita church in Vandeville, France. She is the patron saint of hopeless causes, and the parish was one of the wealthiest in France. The walls of the church are covered with thanks to Sainte-Rita for various reasons. Confirmation bias is a powerful thing.

    That is what we are talking here : treatment worked, and despite the fact that people who don’t get the treatment have a very high level of mortality, a non-existent being is thanked instead of the scientifics.

  • OurSally

    Come on, if your god wants you to suffer and die, it’s going to have a good reason for it. Trying to change this by prayer must be blasphemy of the worst kind.

  • TBP100

    Sorry I didn’t get it that you weren’t offering this little story seriously. I’m with you about confirmation bias.

  • Martin Penwald

    However, you’re right, I never thought that this joke could be interpreted as the sky daddy is behind every human act. I’ve always seen it as an example of extreme stupidity of some believers.

  • David Simon

    I find the best prayer is compassionate action.

    Why call it prayer then?

  • Charis

    Rich prayers obviously have higher church tithes attached to them, after all.