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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Prayer Rates Don't Correlate With Actual Risk

Image text: "Pikachu's ketchup broke. 1 like 1 prayer." Poor Pikachu. Image source.
I'm kind of afraid of flying. I know the statistics, I've heard how it's "the safest way to travel" and I'm a math person so I believe that and I buy plane tickets and fly domestic and internationally several times a year. (See this article and this one for some information- basically when you get on a plane, the odds of dying in a crash are around 1 in several million.)

But I still worry about it, whenever I'm on a plane. I bring books and force myself to concentrate on reading so that I don't think about the fact that I'm scared of flying. I take a lot of deep breaths and try to think about all the happy things in my life, instead of imagining the plane suddenly falling out of the sky. And sometimes I even pray. Yeah I don't normally pray, but when I'm on a plane, sometimes I'm scared enough that I do.

But logically, it doesn't make sense to pray for safety when I'm on a plane and not pray for safety when I'm in a car. Riding in a car is much more dangerous than flying (this article says you have a 1 in 98 chance of dying in a car accident at some point in your life, and a 1 in 7,178 chance of dying in "air and space transport (including air taxis and private flights)" in your lifetime.)

If we believe prayer actually has an effect on the real world- an effect outside of psychological benefits, I mean, an effect that occurs because my prayer activates some external force that can influence situations that I'm not involved in at all- then shouldn't we figure out which things are the most dangerous, and pray about those? Let's see, let's go find some statistics on the biggest causes of death in the United States. Here's an article from 2015 called The top 10 leading causes of death in the US:
  1. Heart disease: 23.53% of deaths
  2. Cancer: 22.52%
  3. Chronic lower respiratory disease: 5.74%
  4. Accidents: 5.02%
  5. Stroke (cerebrovascular diseases): 4.97%
  6. Alzheimer's disease: 3.26%
  7. Diabetes: 2.91%
  8. Influenza and pneumonia: 2.19%
  9. Kidney disease (nephritis, nephrotic syndrome, and nephrosis): 1.81%
  10. Suicide: 1.58%
So really, if we believe that prayer actually changes things external to ourselves, we should adopt the following strategy to maximize the impact of our prayers: Spend 23.53% of our prayer time on heart disease, 22.52% on cancer, 5.74% on chronic lower respiratory disease, etc. Or, perhaps, rather than using statistics about all Americans, you might want to just focus on certain demographics. For example, if you are a teenager and you want to maximize your prayers' effect on the safety of you and your friends specifically, maybe you want to pray against the biggest risk factors for teenagers' deaths. In that case, you should spend 48% of your prayer time asking God to prevent fatal accidents, 13% for homicide, 11% for suicide, 6% for cancer, and 3% for heart disease. (And maybe prayer is more effective when it's for a person you're close to, so this strategy of praying against the biggest risk factors for the demographics best represented among your loved ones may be the optimal way to go about it.)

Or, perhaps, you want to pray against other things besides death, maybe other negative things that are more likely to happen- things that, realistically, pose more of a risk in your day-to-day life. Okay, go find statistics on those, and maybe multiply each risk rate by some weighting factor according to how much it would screw up your life if it happened.

(OR MAYBE flying is the safest way to travel BECAUSE a lot of people are nervous about it and therefore it gets a disproportionately high amount of prayer, and therefore God makes it safer than other less-prayed-for modes of transportation. If this is the case, then really we need to establish some kind of feedback system for our prayers- we should expect that, if we can get enough people to focus their prayer power on one thing, then we should see a real-world response in the statistics about the danger of that thing. At that point, we should re-evaluate our strategy and re-direct that prayer power at whatever the new biggest danger is. And no, I don't believe this at all.)

If we believed that prayer actually makes a difference in the world, and sheer numbers of prayers translate into a bigger impact, this would be the way to best use that power. [I think? Any other math nerds out there with a different strategy? Show me the math and we can discuss it.]

But that's not what Christians do. At church, they share their prayer requests with each other, and those prayer requests relate to their current problems or worries, rather than the things that, from a statistical point of view, have the biggest potential to screw up their lives. They pray for God to give them safe travels on their vacations- but did you know that 69% of car accidents happen within 10 miles of a person's home? Have you ever heard anyone share this prayer request at church: "Please keep us safe all this week while we go about our usual, mundane errands, driving from place to place"? And really, if you were praying for that, I would be concerned for your mental health. (And I'm saying this as someone who has a lot of trouble with anxiety- I'm not using "mental health" as some kind of insult, like people commonly do.) If you're regularly thinking about the fact that you're not safe from car accidents as you go around to all the places you normally go to, well, dang. I really hope you can relax and not think about that. I really hope you can feel safe. I really hope you feel so safe that it never even occurs to you to pray about it.

And I really hope the God that exists isn't one who would use that feeling of safety and lack of prayer as an excuse to let bad things happen to you. I really hope the God that exists isn't one who only protects people overrun with anxiety, people who constantly imagine all the bad things that could happen and pre-emptively pray against them. I really hope living in a constant state of panicky desperate prayer is not the key to lowering your odds of dying a violent death. I really hope that God doesn't take mental health as a sign of sinful pride, like you're defiantly insisting that you don't need God every second of every day- and God's going to make you suffer in order to teach you a lesson.


People pray that God would keep us safe from terrorism. Have you ever heard anyone pray that God would keep us safe from falling in the bathtub? (This article says that 13,000 Americans died from falls in the year 2000- not sure how many of those fell in their bathtub.) Then again, here's an article that makes a case that it's not really fair to compare the number of deaths from terrorism and the number of bathtub deaths [the article is specifically about government spending], because a single terrorist attack with a "small" number of deaths can have a huge, society-wide impact. Okay, maybe you agree with that writer and you want to factor that into your prayer rate calculation.

People don't pray for the things that actually pose the greatest risk to themselves. They pray for the things that they're currently worried about.

But. I very much OPPOSE adopting this calculate-the-risks-and-pray-proportionately strategy I'm presenting here. Oh dear goodness, can you imagine the anxiety that would cause? In my normal life, I never think about things like heart disease, cancer, respiratory disease, etc- but what if I made myself think about them every day, so I could pray against those things? What if I made sure I was always aware of death rates from various causes, so that I could pray in the most efficient way? What if, every time I got in a car, I reminded myself that I have a greater chance of death from a car accident than a plane crash, and, logically, I should pray for my own safety now at a rate that's a thousand times higher than the rate I pray on an airplane? What if I continually imagined terrible things that could happen, and estimated probabilities for them, so that maybe my prayers could keep them from coming true?

HOLY CRAP that sounds like a TERRIBLE way to live.

And even if you're not a huge math nerd like me, even if you don't look up all these statistics and calculate weighted assessments of risk- even if you don't think about the math, the fact remains that if prayer has an effect on the real world external to yourself, then if something bad happened, and you didn't pre-emptively pray that it wouldn't happen, then it's sort of your fault. Or, not exactly your fault, but that you could have done more to prevent it, and in the future you should do more.

Wow, oh my goodness, wow. DO NOT try this at home. I wouldn't wish that kind of guilt and anxiety on anyone.

One way to get around this problem is to just pray very vague, generic prayers, which don't conjure up horrific scenes of death. Just pray "God, keep everyone safe" or something like that. But, is a general prayer less effective than a specific prayer? Would "God, keep everyone safe" do more than "God, keep everyone safe from fatal car accidents"? Hmmmmmm that doesn't really seem fair, seems like it's too easy. Maybe the power of a single prayer gets spread out over all the affected people. In that case, maybe you can still equal the prayer-power of the imagine-specific-awful-tragedies strategy while avoiding the anxiety, by praying "God, keep everyone safe" over and over and over again, until you've done it enough times that it equals the prayer-power you would have produced if you'd prayed for specific problems one time each.

But damn, imagine the anxiety from THAT. You'd be all like "every day I have to pray 'God, keep everyone safe' 150 times." Then you'd think "but wait, maybe I should do more, maybe every spare second I have, I should repeat that prayer." The more you do, the more you save the world. It never ends- if you're a good godly person who really wants God to keep everyone safe, there is no logical reason to ever stop repeating that prayer. OH DEAR GOD, that sounds like a horrible way to live, that sounds like a mountain of guilt. DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.

At this point, I know that good Christian readers probably have some objections with the way I'm quantifying the power of prayer. Let's try to answer some of those:

Objection 1: "No, the real-world impact of prayer is not based on just the number of times you pray! It's based on your emotions/ if you really mean it. It's based on how close of a relationship you have with God."

Okay, if it's based on "really meaning it", then add that to the heap of anxiety involved in this prayer scheme. Not only do you have to pray "God, keep everyone safe" 150 times per day, but you also have to manufacture certain emotions while you do it. Yeah that sounds healthy. (Or, if we go with the initial prayer scheme I proposed, not only do you have to spend 23.53% of your prayer time on heart disease, you also have to feel some deep sadness over the existence of heart disease and how so many people die from it, or else God doesn't "count" your prayer. Then move on to being deeply emotionally moved about the tragedy of cancer. Etc.)

Or, if it's based on the "closeness" of your relationship with God, okay fine, so each person would have a scale factor for that, just multiply their prayer power by the scale factor. The rest of the math remains the same. Still just as anxiety-producing and unhealthy.

Basically if you believe that prayer does cause real changes external to ourselves, but that my mathematical model is invalid because the amount of real-world impact is based on some other factor I haven't included, then okay fine, just add that other factor to the model. You haven't really done anything to answer my point that it would be incredibly unhealthy to live this way.

Objection 2: "No, our prayers aren't causing things to happen- things only happen if it's God's will. If you pray for something outside of God's will, then it won't happen- there's no 'rate of effectiveness' calculation to make."

Yeah, I actually think this view of prayer makes a lot more sense. It would be really bizarre if God's work in the world was controlled by a popular vote. (God is not "American Idol.") That would mean that God works harder on issues that are generally believed to be big, important problems- regardless of what the real problems are. Should God work harder to free someone who's imprisoned unjustly and gets a lot of news coverage than someone who's imprisoned unjustly but the world never hears about it? (And the team with the most religious fans would win the Superbowl.)

[Or, perhaps we could still hold the "prayer has an effect on the world" belief, but also add a scale factor for morality. Prayers for something that would have a massive positive impact on humanity are more effective. Prayers for something morally iffy might get multiplied by 0.]

But if you take the "God's will" view of prayer, then that means you DON'T believe that prayer has a real-world impact external to yourself. So don't go around saying "prayer is powerful" because nope, that's not what this view says. It says that God is already planning to do or not do certain things, and if you pray for the ones that God was going to do anyway, then good for you, your prayer came true! It should be pretty obvious that in this line of reasoning, the prayer itself did absolutely nothing in terms of causing that thing to happen.

I guess the idea here is that if you have a really close relationship with God, God will give you advanced insider knowledge on what God is going to do, and then you can pray for those things and feel really proud of yourself when they happen.

I guess I don't really have a problem with that interpretation, I just think it's kind of weak. So what's the point of praying, then? But, if you're the kind of person who struggles with guilt and anxiety, it would be MUCH BETTER for you to believe the "God's will" view rather than the "prayer is powerful" view.

However, I do have a problem with how Christians take the "God's will" view when someone asks very tough philosophical questions about how prayer works, but they take the "prayer is powerful" view when it comes to practical application. They're all like "does anyone have any prayer requests?" and they hope to get a lot of answers, they hope that everyone will share some kind of problem so that their Christian brothers, sisters, and siblings can pray for them. They don't ask people to only share things that, after careful listening to God, they have good reason to believe are in "God's will." In fact, if you refuse to give any prayer requests, Christians will judge you- maybe you're too proud and you think you don't need prayer. Or maybe you're not connected enough to the body of Christ and you're not willing to "be vulnerable" and talk about your problems. They never think maybe you're prudently refraining from claiming you know God's will.

Personally, I don't believe prayer has effects in the real world external to the person who prays. I think there can be a lot of psychological benefits- if praying on an airplane helps you feel safer, then that's great. (Conversely, if praying based on the actual statistical danger posed by various things makes you feel all kinds of anxious, then for the love of God, STOP PRAYING!) Also, it's a way that people can show that they care about each other. "I'm praying for you" can be a way that people express love. (And it can also be a way to say "you clearly don't know what's good for you, I hope God convinces you that I'm right." Ugh.)

As for the question of communicating with God and being close to God, I'm not sure about that. It doesn't really make sense to me- seems like that would mean religious people have an advantage that non-religious people don't, and I don't believe in a God who would discriminate like that.

The things we pray for are the things we're worried about, not the things that can actually hurt us the most. But I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing- if we're honest about the fact that the power of prayer is psychological, rather than God influencing situations the pray-er isn't involved in.

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