Religion and Medicine

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

By August Berkshire

Headshot of August.

The following essay was presented at the Day of Reason rally, hosted by Minnesota Atheists in the State Capitol rotunda on May 5, 2022.

Religion and medicine have always had an odd relationship. If you believe an all-powerful god created and rules over the universe, then how can this god not be blamed for disease? You can’t pawn it off on a devil, if you created that devil in the first place and then allow him to operate. And even in the minority of cases, where you might say that humans have brought disease upon themselves, such as getting lung cancer from smoking, who made us able to get that disease in the first place? And if disease is the will of a god — as it surely must be, if an all-powerful god exists — then aren’t we violating that will when we try to cure disease?

In 1847 in Scotland, when anesthesia was first introduced to lessen the pain of childbirth, the Scottish Calvinist church declared it a “Satanic invention” intended to frustrate the Lord’s design, because the Bible says that God commanded that women give birth in pain.

This week we have seen another attack by religious people on women. [The leaked US Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.] Our president, Stephanie Zvan, will have more to say on that shortly.

But these hypocrisies and contradictions escape the minds of the typical religious believer. And so, many of them continue to pray for healing or for protection to a god who created disease in the first place. But does this prayer work?

In 2006, a study was published detailing how six hospitals had joined together to investigate the power that prayer might have in lowering the after-surgery complication rates of 1,802 patients who had coronary bypass surgery. The prayers were administered secretly by selected groups of prayer-givers.

These 1,802 patients were divided into three, roughly equal groups: The first two groups of patients were told that they might or might not have people praying for them. One of these groups did secretly receive prayers and the other group — the control group — did not receive prayers. The results were that the post-surgery complication rates for these two groups were the same. Prayer made no difference.

But let’s not forget the third group of patients: they were told that they definitely would receive prayers and, in fact, they did receive them. Their outcomes were actually worse than the other two groups. This was attributed to the fact that they probably had more stress and anxiety, imagining that they must be especially bad off if people needed to pray for them.

The study concluded that “Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from [coronary artery bypass graft surgery], but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.”

From this we can conclude that if you want to pray for someone then you are wasting your time. But if you do pray for them anyway, by all means don’t tell them!

An article published in June 2021 in the “Journal of Religion and Health” stated: “Infectious diseases often take root in closed religious communities… Distrust of the government, science, and modern medicine renders groups like the Amish vulnerable to communicable disease outbreaks.”

The article continued: “measles, a disease once thought eradicated, ripped through Ultra-Orthodox Jewish and Old Order Amish communities in the past decade.”

And: “Their lower rates of routine and preventative health care use, reliance on natural remedies, and emphasis on face-to-face collective rituals, which involves crowding into a member’s home for religious services, have contributed to measles, polio, and rubella outbreaks in Amish communities.”

We know that death rates from Covid-19 tended to be higher in counties and states that supported Donald Trump over Joe Biden for president. We also know that non-Black religious people overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump.

During the Covid-19 lockdowns, many conservative churches defiantly remained open — and consequently became centers for Covid-19 outbreaks, which killed some of their parishioners.

With regard to Covid-19 vaccination and religion, surveys have shown that one of the lowest vaccinated groups in America is white Evangelical Christians, and one of the highest vaccinated groups is atheists.

In conclusion, if you want to increase your odds of living a long, healthy life, then you probably haven’t got a prayer.

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