Musings of a Dinosaur

A Family Doctor in solo private practice; I may be going the way of the dinosaur, but I'm not dead yet.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Power of Prayer

This is for all those fundamentalist atheists (who are just as intolerant and hateful as all other fundamentalists) who scoff at prayer. Not prayer in lieu of taking actual action; that's just stupid. Demanding logical consistency of religion, an endeavor properly undertaken (and believe me, I quite understand how frequently through the eons religion has been used improperly, to say the least!) to comfort inconsistent humans in times of pain and suffering, is trivial and irrelevant. Yes, it is possible to thank Gd for allowing some to survive, without holding Gd responsible for those who perished, just as I thank DS for taking the trash out without berating him when he forgets. Remember that bit about foolish consistencies and small minds.

What brought this rant thought to mind?

I received an open letter from a surgeon at my community hospital who was on his way back from Haiti after spending a week there, hip-deep in relief efforts. He describes hospital scenes:
Many [patients] had their original dressings on, their wounds filled with dust and debris. Some no dressing at all. Within the next 24 hours there would be 18 rooms labeled Post Op with close to 80 - 100 patients who had had their surgery but were receiving little or no care. External fixation devices everywhere. Amputation stumps with dressing that had gone unchanged. IV sites that were occluded, bottles empty. Some patients crying, some quietly resolute. Occasional screams. Post op orders written on sheets of paper, no charts. Most orders not being carried out. No way to know if someone had gotten pain meds or antibiotics. No blood pressure cuffs. Only your hands and a stethoscope to determine pulse and blood pressure. Very little oxygen, no ambu bags, no suction, no ventilators.
and this:
I can't remember all of their names, but I can see their faces. I can also see the face of the mother who had just delivered whose baby died within her sight as [an ER doc from Miami] and I tried to resuscitate him without a laryngoscope, pediatric endotracheal tube, oxygen or even an ambu bag. Or the patients in Post-op room 18 who watched as we coded a young woman who had had her femoral fracture reduced, had been lying in bed for 3 days without heparin prophylaxis, and upon her likely massive pulmonary embolus, no crash cart, not even an ambu bag and no oxygen. Then they watched as we wheeled out her stretcher, and out in the courtyard, those waiting for triage watched as we put her in a body bag and carried her to the makeshift morgue outside.
But here is his closing paragraph:
Finally, please know that I felt the presence of every single one of you each time I knelt by the side of an injured Haitian patient. Because for strength and prayers, because of the support of all of the organizations, I quickly felt that I was there on behalf of each one of you. I had the privilege of bringing care, comfort and hopefully some healing directly to these people, but in truth I was acting through you. You have touched many, many Haitians' lives. Patients and families. So please do not feel helpless. You have already done so much.
This is what prayer accomplishes. Strength and support for those who are actually doing the painfully difficult work of helping. Relief from the helplessness that comes with being able to do nothing more than write checks. Validation that caring matters.

Could he have done it without "all that sky fairy nattering"? I'm sure you atheists will point out that of course he could, since those prayers weren't actually "doing anything". Maybe; but maybe not. Who knows what heights of human endurance can be enhanced by the knowledge that others are keeping you in their hearts and minds?

I was deeply touched by the letter, only brief snippets of which I've posted.

That is the true power of prayer.


At Mon Jan 25, 02:45:00 PM, Anonymous a Random Person said...

I don't think that your post was directed at all atheists (what with the fundamental adjective at the beginning of the post) but I feel compelled to post all the same!

I personally think that religion and prayer (or perceived prayer) provides a great deal of strength and comfort to those who believe in it. It enriches people's lives, it gives them hope, it gives them a higher meaning. I personally do not benefit from that for various reasons, and while I wish I sometimes could say "I'll pray for you" because I think it is a phrase which provides more force than "I'll keep you in my thoughts", it's not something I've ever been able to reconcile myself to.

I think, though, that your post actually perfectly highlights what quite a few atheists ignore, particularly when they are just as fanatical as the worst of religious people. It is awesome that your colleague was able to draw strength from the well-wishes and prayers of others, and is exactly how religious belief can have a positive impact on others. Thansk for posting it!

At Mon Jan 25, 05:42:00 PM, Blogger Cheryll said...

Good one, both of you. :) Thank you for posting, and commenting!

At Mon Jan 25, 06:05:00 PM, Blogger Sid Schwab said...

I know you've read this and this, so I won't repeat my thoughts on prayer. Other than to say that the "power of prayer" to which you refer at the isn't really limited to the religious, or to prayer itself. It's a --dare I say it -- far more rational view than that of those who actually think it makes sense to pray to a god that just offed two hundred thousand people. People who try to do good, who want to spread the ethic, are, by no means limited to the religious. Take Rush Limbaugh as an example of the worst religion has to offer. (Well, of course, not the worst. Just maybe the most successful worst.)

But I do take exception to your using the tired narrative that "fundamentalist atheists" are as intolerant and hateful as other fundamentalists. Hateful and intolerant? Yes, there are indeed some. (Although all they want is what's already in the Constitution, and the teaching of science in science classes, and religion elsewhere.) But the constant pointing out the flaws in fundamentalist religion is hardly the same as the reverse. The one is based in reality, in the provable; the other is not. So, the strenuous insistence on the one is fundamentally (uh oh) different from that of the other.

Nor, far as I know, do "fundamentalist" atheists fly airplanes into buildings, kill doctors or gays, or go on Crusades.

At Mon Jan 25, 06:15:00 PM, Blogger Sid Schwab said...

PS: as to the knowledge that people are keeping one in their minds. Not limited, either, to the prayerful or the religious. On the other I assume you're aware of the Harvard prayer study. Three groups of people recovering from heart surgery: 1) no prayers for them, 2) groups praying for them, without the patients knowing, and 3) groups praying for them AND the patients knew it was happening. No difference between groups 1 and 2. Group 3 did worse. (I'm aware there have been other studies with differing results. This one, however, is the only one of which I'm aware that really blinded it properly.)

At Mon Jan 25, 06:31:00 PM, Blogger Alison Cummins said...

Yes, knowing that people are keeping me in their hearts and minds can be motivating... if I believe that they are keeping me in their hearts and minds. Maybe someone writes to me that their church is praying for me. Maybe I see myself retweeted on Twitter. That’s not an argument that religion is somehow true.

And it’s not an argument that I should develop a belief in God so that I can pray five times a day at home and in my cubicle and thereby bring relief to people in Haiti. The only person that kind of behaviour could bring relief to would be me. And really, should I experience relief? Should I be relieved of the burden of the need to do something? If prayer relieves one of this burden, isn’t it a bad thing?

Being an atheist means knowing that suffering has no meaning. There is nothing good or redeeming about it. And if suffering is to be relieved, there is no God who will do it for you. You have to go out and do the work yourself.

No, science is not just as fundamentalist as making up ideas that make you feel better. You could write a perfectly good post about how somebody felt about being prayed for without ascribing fundamentalism where there is none.

At Mon Jan 25, 09:15:00 PM, Blogger Paramed said...

A fundamentalist, according to the OED, is an adherent of fundamentalism. In reference to the same source, fundamentalism is inherently connected to a specific religion where a strict adherence to ancient or fundamental doctrines are followed with no concession to modern developments.

An Atheist is "one who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God" There is no mention of a religion associated with Atheist, which is the point.

Given these definitions I argue that the statement "fundamentalist atheists" is illogical. I also believe that the tone of the statement infers a large degree of intolerance, which is interesting given that the point of the opening paragraph is related to the intolerance of "fundamentalist Atheist."

If the statement in this letter is connected to a faith in God, then I ask, what is the point in God? If a group of people "pray" for an individuals strength in a stressful situation and that person "feels" these prayers- what role does an intermediate play in this exchange?

At Tue Jan 26, 08:45:00 AM, Blogger Shelby said...

thank you. here here.


At Tue Jan 26, 10:56:00 AM, Blogger Dragonfly said...


At Tue Jan 26, 03:42:00 PM, Blogger FIONA said...

Thank for sharing this.

At Wed Jan 27, 08:37:00 AM, Anonymous SHG said...

This may be a simplistic view, but regardless of religion, prayer or meditation is a way of focusing, hopefully on something positive. That positive focus can be a very powerful way of dealing with extraordinary stress. In my life I have met abused wives and recovered drug addicts who found Jesus. I had a friend who was very depressed during his internal medicine rotation in med school. He went to Israel and went from non-observant to orthodoxy. Do I believe G-d saved them – not really. I believe that finding something positive to focus on saved them.

I am not very observant, but the past few months I have been going to minyan to say kaddish for my father who passed away in November. Will that bring him back? No, but it is something to focus on that keeps him in my mind, and helps me deal with his loss amidst all the other stresses in my life. And that is a good thing

At Wed Jan 27, 03:06:00 PM, Anonymous Satanam in computatrum said...

"An Atheist is 'one who denies or disbelieves the existence of a God' There is no mention of a religion associated with Atheist, which is the point."

Denies or disbelieves...I note that your definition does not say, "...disproves...." In the difference lies your religion.

"Nor, far as I know, do 'fundamentalist' atheists fly airplanes into buildings, kill doctors or gays, or go on Crusades."

No, they tend to take over the highest levels of government and rack up kill numbers that would make the Black Plague feel like an amateur, as evidenced by (among others) Soviet Communism and Mao's People's Revolution. People that believe in nothing - especially the virulent strain that truly views human beings as nothing more than the $20 or so of chemicals that make us up - can be the most dangerous people out there. People who merely view humans as less important than whatever they are trying to achieve are right beneath them on the dangerous scale, and those people populate both sides of this argument.

That said, I have worked with devout believers of many religions (including Islam), and devout believers of no religion. Good people to be found in both groups. Alternatively, dangerous people can turn anything into their weapon.

At Wed Jan 27, 03:28:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Satanam, Of course, logically, it's impossible to prove absence. You can only fail to find evidence of or demonstrate presence. Again and again and again.

When amputees limbs start growing back on in response to prayer, let us know.

At Wed Jan 27, 07:19:00 PM, Anonymous Satanam in computatrum said...

You misunderstand me, Anonymous, if you assume I am a believer.

At Wed Jan 27, 09:21:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Dino,
I am a profoundly atheist nurse who has more than once asked patients and family if they would like to pray. Personally, I don't think it will have any effect on patient outcomes but I find it tremendously comforting to some people. I also believe you can separate prayer from religious belief.
-whitecap nurse


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