Prayer is the religious equivalent of alternative medicine

August 30th, 2017

Among all the news about Hurricane Harvey, I came across this story about a Texas Pastor who opted not to evacuate because “we’re just praying and believing that it’ll slow down or something miraculous will take place.” In reading the criticism of his decision to rely on prayer in lieu of action, I was struck by how similar the argument is to that against alternative medicine.

Pastor Freddy Naranjo

Like alternative medicine, we know that prayer doesn’t actually work. (By which I mean it has no measurable, external effect; it can certainly be psychologically beneficial for the person praying, and can have placebo effects.) Like alternative medicine, it’s usually harmless in itself. (Though a lack of regulations means that you don’t always know what you’re getting with alternative treatments such as dietary supplements, so they certainly have the potential to be dangerous—that is different from prayer, at least.) But also like alternative medicine, using it to justify inaction can cause real harm: this year alone, there were at least two high-profile cases of children dying when their parents opted for faith healing instead of medical treatment.

This is why the “what’s the harm?” defense fails for both prayer and alternative medicine, as well as for pretty much every pseudoscientific, supernatural, or paranormal claim out there. Leaving aside that believing false things is bad unto itself, these things do in fact cause harm sometimes. And even when they don’t, they’re still promoting the same kind of dangerous thinking, and for no real benefit.

As we know, Hurricane Harvey has turned out to be every bit as devastating as predicted to Texas’ gulf coast. I have been unable to find information about Pastor Naranjo, his congregation, or his church since Harvey’s landfall last week. I hope (but do not pray) that they are safe.



Carl Fink says…
September 5th, 2017

Update: Pastor Naranjo is safe.

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