About Prayer

A young American died recently while a captive of the Islamic State. Before they knew she was dead, her family asked people to pray that she was still alive. This isn’t an unusual prayer when someone is missing, but it is surely a strange one because how is God to grant it if the person is already dead, and why, when the missing person is found to be dead, does no one ever pray that he or she will be restored to life? Jesus raised Lazarus; Peter resurrected Dorcas; and Jesus promised that his followers would perform greater miracles than he, so it’s surely consistent with Biblical teachings to ask God to raise the dead.

My boyhood church—the Church of Christ—claimed that God stopped performing miracles after the apostles died because further miracles weren
’t needed to establish the divinity of Jesus. After I left the Church of Christ, I discovered that most churches think differently, and that some even have phone-trees so that if a person needs help, the faithful can be quickly asked to pray. I don’t know if such churches believe that the more people who ask God to do something, the more likely he is to do it; or that some people’s prayers work better than other people’s, so it’s better to ask a lot of people to pray in order to improve your odds of finding someone who is especially good at it. I’ve read many such prayer lists without once finding a request for corpse resurrection, leg restoration, deformed baby normalization, quadriplegic ambulation, or even fire damage reversal. I think that church people are almost as unbelieving as atheists, so they try to hold onto what little faith they have by not asking him to do anything that might not happen anyway.
Last year, when the Ebola epidemic was in full swing, an American missionary-doctor came down with it. He was flown to the States on a private jet and given the best treatment that America had to offer. After he recovered, he appeared on national TV to thank God for healing him (it had never occurred to me that
God watches TV). As to why he didn’t thank the hundreds of people who worked to save him, or why, if he really trusted God to do it, he hadn’t stayed in Africa and spared everyone a lot of trouble and expense, I can’t imagine. Most importantly, he didn’t explain why God healed him while allowing so many others to die. Was it because God like him better than all those children who perished or were orphaned, or was it because their names weren’t on a phone-tree?

I had an elderly friend named Mina who was a Methodist lay minister. Mina got lung cancer and was told she would die. When I visited her and her husband, Gordon, she told me in a matter-of-fact way that God had healed her. Astounded, I looked over at Gordon to see if he were similarly startled, but he simply nodded as if such miracles were an everyday event. A few days later, Mina appeared on the evening news and told the whole town about her miraculous healing. Within a month, she was dead, but no mention of it was made on TV.

Mina’s death probably shook the faith of some her believing friends, but I’ve observed that most people grasp their religion even more firmly when they’re threatened by the terror and emptiness of losing it. To protect their faith, I’m sure that some such people took the position that Mina had done the work that God had given her to do, so he called her home. Others probably speculated that, just as Peter sank into the tempest-tossed sea when he took his eyes off Jesus, Mina must have also doubted God. Still others might have concluded that her death was in punishment for sin.*

When the atheist Manya Skodowska (better known as Madame Curie) was 19, her cousin’s baby died. The cousin comforted herself by saying that God had called the baby home, and while Manya envied her cousin this comfort, she wrote the following about those who have such faith: “The more I recognize how lucky they are, the less I can understand their faith, and the less I feel capable of sharing their happiness.” She added that she respected “sincere” religious feelings “even if they go with a limited state of mind.”

Atheists would argue that a limited state of mind makes for a fertile field when it comes to religious conviction, and Jesus would concur: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.” In contrasting his followers with the wise and learned, Jesus apparently had reference to the fact that children are so ignorant and gullible that they
’ll believe any damn thing, including his claim to being one and only virgin-borne son of God. One of the commenters to my last post was typical of far too many Christians in that he exemplified a child’s credulity but not a child’s sweetness, the fruits of his faith being hardness and intolerance. Yet Jesus said, “By their fruits, you will know them.” Indeed you will.

*I tried to find Mina’s TV appearance in which she said that God had healed her, but I wasn’t surprised that it no longer exists. I did find one that preceded it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QA8DQa85v6s. The fact that she was feeling so much better after being taken off chemotherapy might have been what led Mina to believe that God had healed her. She died in 2012, and Gordon in 2013, also of cancer. I miss them terribly. Just as Christians claim to "love the sinner but hate the sin," I love the Christian but hate the religion. What saddens me when I remember Gordon and Mina is that their love for me might have turned to loathing had they known I was an atheist because I've seen it happen too many times to ever trust that it won't. The main reason that I, an atheist, write about religion so much is that I've been so often and so deeply hurt by it, and the second reason is that I've seen how much it has hurt others.