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Would I Ever Pray for a Miracle?

by Michael Shermer, Apr 06 2010

Watch ABC 20/20 Special on Miracles to Find Out…

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Elizabeth Vargas hosts 20/20 special on miracles

Last night ABC 20/20 aired a one-hour special on miracles (such topics are common faire on television during Christmas and Easter week) hosted by Elizabeth Vargas, this one featuring the usual array of “unexplained” recoveries from injury and disease, in this case a brain injury, cancer, and Parkinson’s disease. (See my interview segments at 26:34, 28:35, 38:15, 39:05.) The producers called me on Wednesday and asked for a skeptical perspective, outlining for me the details of the stories. It was good to know the details, but it doesn’t really matter what they are because the explanation follows no matter the specifics, because of the statistical analysis I provided applies to all such cases.

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If you drop enough balls some will fall into the highly improbable outside slots. Such “miracles” are statistically guaranteed with large enough numbers.

Let’s say one million people have cancer in America (it’s much higher than this), and only one-tenth of one percent experience a spontaneous recovery (it’s actually higher than this). 1,000,000 x .001 = 1,000 people. Out of that cohort of 1,000 people, what are the chances that half a dozen of them have compelling narrative stories worthy of broadcast television? Pretty good! Here is a show you will never see on any television series: “Next, we examine the remarkable fact that 99.99 percent of people who were diagnosed with incurable cancer and were prayed for died anyway. Stay tuned, for you won’t want to miss these stark statistical realities.”

Of course you will never see such a show because of the confirmation bias, in which we look for and find confirmatory evidence for what we already believe and ignore or rationalize the disconfirmatory evidence. This is naturally what any religion or television production team is going to do when telling a story about miracles: they will pick and choose the most compelling cases that seemingly defy science and reason, and present those to the public, while blindly (and cruelly) ignoring all those devoutly religious people whose loved ones prayed in earnest for them and who died nonetheless. Why do religions and television production companies not call attention to them?

(In point of fact, recently the story broke that one of the “miraculous healings” featured on the show is now being challenged by the attending physician of the nun who was allegedly healed after a night of prayer to Pope John Paul II shortly after his death).

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The real miracle here is Maureen's courage to live a full life with a husband, children, and career.

Well, to their credit ABC 20/20 did just that in allowing me to be the voice of science, reason, and skepticism, and to state the above…and more. It’s the “and more” that seems to be troubling some of my hard-core atheist readers, who were dismayed that I seemingly gave some ground at the end. Watch it yourself at the 39:05 point. After a fairly lengthy interview, Elizabeth Vargas began pushing me to find out if I understood the emotional need people have for religion, faith, and belief in miracles, and she wanted to know if I ever prayed.

Of course I have, when I was a born-again Christian, and I even recounted a story for her that didn’t make the show because it was a little long (I tell the story at length in my next book): shortly after I became an atheist, my girlfriend at the time, Maureen Hannon, was in a horrific automobile accident and was paralyzed from the waist down, and one night in the ER in the midst of reality sinking in of what this meant for her life, I took a knee and asked God for a miraculous healing of the sweetest, smartest, most wonderful woman I ever knew for whom if anyone deserved a miracle it was her. Nothing happened, and Maureen is to this day a paraplegic.

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Being a parent is miraculous enough.

Elizabeth then surprised me by asking, as a father, would I ever do anything like that for my daughter, and I said what aired on the show; that is, that setting aside my role as a scientist and speaking purely as a father, “it is possible that I would do anything” and “as a person who loves someone else, who knows?”

So, take what you will from that. Anyone who is a parent knows exactly what I mean.

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Rating: 4.8/5 (36 votes cast)
Would I Ever Pray for a Miracle?, 4.8 out of 5 based on 36 ratings

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56 Responses to “Would I Ever Pray for a Miracle?”

  1. Walter Y. M. Chang, M. D. says:

    Please read my paper on “COMPLETE SPONTANEOUS REGRESSION OF CANCER, FOUR CASE REPORTS, REVIEW OF LITERATURE, AND DISCUSSION OF POSSIBLE MECHANISMS INVOLVED”, published in the October, 2000, issue of the HAWAII MEDICAL JOURNAL.

    The literature review from 1900 til 2000 indicate that COMPLETE SPONTANEOUS REGRESSION OF CANCERS would likely be in the order of 0.0000071.

    Incidentally, these personal cases have never been described as ” miracles” a term used by “the TRUE BELIEVERS”. The “TRUE SKEPTIC” would call these cases random events.I have always used the proper medical phrase “COMPLETE SPONTANEOUS REGRESSION OF CANCERS”.

    • Dennis says:

      Walter, Based upon your numbers,(admittedly) Wiki’s numbers of cases of death caused by various cancers multiplied by the number of people in the US, we should expect ~3 “COMPLETE SPONTANEOUS REGRESSION OF CANCERS” per year.
      Although Michael’s numbers were wrong, his thinking about outliers would seem to be correct.

  2. Sheldon says:

    I see nothing wrong with the statement that you would do anything for you daughter, maybe even pray. (I am an atheist)

    • David S. says:

      Being an atheist does not mean you are immune to despair. You are not giving ground, actually, you are showing the public that calling yourself an “atheist” is not an auto proclamation of “heartless bastard”, in the end, we are humans, prone to the same feelings. We just take care of our own problems instead of relinquishing them to a higher power.

  3. dtrg says:

    If people jump on that final comment as “giving ground” in a statement clearly made in the context of being a parent, that to me would seem the same as being like the people who jump all over minor statements and not look at the whole picture i.e the usual conspiracy theorist/hardcore evangelical crowd. Wouldnt the hardcore atheists then seem like the hardcore theists if they did that? Seems a reasonable enough statement under that line of questioning to me. If people start to rage maybe they should consider mellowing out :D

    • Max says:

      The big picture, dtrg, is that some people go through extremes, from born-again Christianity, to new age woo, to Objectivism and atheism, and sometimes they relapse into old habits.

  4. The Jmopper says:

    Great post. Religion, unfortunately, give believers a pass on believing what they want to believe in regardless of any factual evidence. There aren’t enough public voices that are given the opportunity to challenge this free pass.

    I’m sure you’ve read (or have heard of) the below link that poses the very fair question: Why Won’t God Heal Amputees: http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

    This is a question (and potential segment) we’ll never see on the major networks because of the backlash it would generate from the religious community. You can be sure that the first response would be “God does not work that way” which would then beg the question: Why Not?

  5. Max says:

    Speaking as someone who was never religious, I never had the urge to pray for ailing relatives or anyone, just as you never had the urge to perform voodoo rituals. Or maybe you did, I don’t know.

  6. AUJT says:

    I’ve prayed a lot. Didn’t help.

    From the perspective of a “true believer” the only worthwhile prayer would be that god’s will be done. So, even from that perspective, why bother? An argument could be made that if one has enough faith that praying for anything other than god’s will would be a sign of lack of faith.

    Religion is far too complicated for me.

    • As an ex-Christian I can give a partial answer that one, at least on behalf of an ill-defined subset of Christians. Basically, prayer (as I always understood it) is to a large extent like tuning the aerial of your telepathic connection to God. In prayer you try to listen to God, so to speak, and pray for the things you think he wants you to pray for, and supposedly, through this process, you become better at reading God’s mind. In other words, you’re right: it’s exactly about “your will be done“.

      Which doesn’t addresses the concept of prayers being answered, but this comment isn’t the place for a comprehensive theology lecture.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        Enter stage left: Autosuggestion.

        People who pray aloud unknowingly reinforce their own beliefs by hearing themselves praise their deity on a routine basis.

    • P K Narayanan(Dr) says:

      Hi AUJT, You are hundred per cent right: A true believer of god should never pray for anything, for that would amount to interference with the scheme of god. Every thing in this world, any movement, any thought, any act that happens and sustains is according to the will of god and as ordained by god. Therefore one should never pray to god and act against the will of god. The urge to pray ought to have to be recognized as a tricky ploy introduced by Satan to induce god’s creation to act against what is ordained by god. Remember, it is only Satan who is free to use such tricks!

  7. Robo Sapien says:

    I gave up on prayer young. When that sonofabitch Santa didn’t bring me a slingshot, I turned to God, and he screwed me too. Then I asked the dark lord Satan, who also ignored me. After facing yet more rejection from Odin, Shiva, Ra, Buddha and Xenu, it turned out to be my big brother who finally came through for me.

    • Jim Shaver says:

      You said it, Robo, big brothers are a way better bet than gods. (You listening, little Bro’?)

  8. Thomas says:

    I knock on wood every time I predict a favorable outcome. I know perfectly well it won’t change anything. If I had to stay the night by myself in an abandoned insane asylum, I would be frightened and I don’t believe in ghosts. Emotions will, more often than not, cause people to behave illogically. It doesn’t change reality for the rest of us and so long as your beliefs do not harm others, do what makes you feel better.

  9. Lisa V says:

    I saw bits and pieces of the show, including your response to that question. I appreciated your answer as being honest. In situations where my emotions have been pushed to the limit, I behave in ways that do not make sense, even to me. My brain tries to focus on what is rational, but it keeps getting pushed aside by the tidal wave of emotion.

  10. AUJT says:

    Robo said: “it turned out to be my big brother who finally came through for me.”

    But doncha see? God answered your prayer through your big brother.

    That’s one of the huge things that bugs me about religion, that “god” often gets credit that *people* should get.

    And, religion cheapens life. I suppose it’s easier, or a good excuse, to send people to war when you think it’s god’s will and that they’ll do well in eternity. Religion cheapens life.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      You’re right. It could have been that I just have a cool brother, but since I prayed to so many different deities, then there should be a higher statistical probability that one of them did answer my call by proxy.

      • Jim Shaver says:

        Higher than what? :) (Or, adding more weak data does not change the null hypothesis.)

  11. JVW says:

    I don’t believe in god(s), but there are times when I will “talk to the universe”, so-to-speak. I don’t believe the universe will hear or answer, of course, but sometimes I think people just need to express their sorrow or anger or confusion to something that feels bigger than themselves. So in that sense I understand why people pray.

    Naturally the problem is when we pray instead of acting, and when we really believe the prayer will have an affect on reality.

    • Jim Shaver says:

      JVW, you mean that prayer will not have an effect on reality, which is of course rational. BTW, I go to most of the meetings, and the universe is indeed out to get you, so please stop bothering it.

    • Tom says:

      Robo, you didn’t just pray to deities. If a guy who looks vaguely like Robert De Niro comes looking for you and introduces himself as Louis Sifer, I recommend that you toss your principals aside and run for the nearest exit.

  12. The Mice says:

    I took a long road from deep religious faith to atheist conviction. One of the most difficult things towards the end was willing myself not to pray when distressed. The urge to reach out to the divine for intercession was so strong… and yet felt increasingly dishonest as time went on. Prayer is a powerful opiate and sometimes I miss it even to this day.

    • grumpy_otter says:

      Why not “pray” if you miss it? Non-religious people the world over do it and call it meditation. But since we believe in no deity, we “pray” to an object of focus. (Just a single thing to think about to keep your mind directed)

      Whatever you call it, it’s just a method of relaxing the body–go for it! I do a few stretches at the end–it’s a great way to start the day!

  13. Amen to your comment about being a parent.
    :-)

  14. MadScientist says:

    I hope for miracles every single day. None ever materialize. Life seems to be one big proof that miracles do not happen. Of course people need to be able to understand that coincidences or rare occurrences in general do not constitute a miracle. Mundane occurrences are definitely not miracles (though you can see many claimed as miracles). A friend of mine happened to mention that jesus toast sells for a fortune on eBay – I told her I’d mail her a toaster and a pen blowtorch and she can make as many jesus and mary toasts as she wants to sell on eBay.

  15. Majority of One says:

    Michael, I think what you said was great. You showed that us communist-puppy-kicking-atheists are actually human. Great job…and hopefully, you’ll have gotten through to a few people with your logical analysis. Well, I can hope, can’t I.

    I always liked George Carlin’s bit about praying to Joe Pesci. He said Joe answers his prayers at about the same rate as Yaweh did.

    I also had a friend who after learning her husband had been severely injured in a car accident (turned out to be fatally injured) she told me she offered to sell her soul to the devil in exchange for her husband’s life being spared. She said the SOB didn’t show up and she added that because he didn’t take the offer, she hasn’t bothered to pray since.

  16. Catherine says:

    I know what you mean, but I would never pray a god for my son’s life. Neither would I do a rain dance if it gets too dry or bathe in virgin’s blood just in case it would make me immortal.

  17. Neighbour says:

    Well, I know of one definite miracle.

    An uncle of mine took part in the D Day landings, and just before he got ashore, he lost his dentures in the surf.

    He returned to Normandy recently on a camping trip, and seeing as he and my aunt were going to cook for themselves, he decided to buy a large cod for dinner.

    Imagine his surprise that when he slit open this large fish to gut it

    HIS DENTURES WERE NOT INSIDE!

    Now, is that amazing or what?

    I wonder if there are any other readers who have any such stories of similar miracles. If they have, I would really like to know!

    J Neighbour (D wing, Broadmoore Mental Hospital, East Sussex.)

  18. billgeorge says:

    “… as a person who loves someone else, who knows?”
    Shermer’s reply is the insight to know that rationality can escape us all under certain conditions. It is more in the form of desperation than a delusion.

    • Robo Sapien says:

      I think it all comes down to Shermer not wanting to kick himself for not trying something just because it was unproven, when his loved ones are on the line.

      • Max says:

        Same reason desperate patients turn to medical quackery, and desperate parents of missing children turn to psychic detectives.

        You could argue that prayer can’t hurt, but then it’s like Pascal’s wager. What if you pray to the wrong deity and only piss off the real God?

        And as long as an unproven thing stays unproven, you won’t kick yourself for not trying it.

      • Robo Sapien says:

        I guess we can speculate on it all we want, but we’re not the parents of deceased kids. Not me anyway, so I’d keep my 2c out of it as a matter of respect.

      • Max says:

        I speculate that the irrational behavior is less about helping and more about coping with anxiety. A recovering alcoholic may start drinking again, and a recovering Christian may start praying again.

  19. Michael (not Shermer) says:

    We share more than a first name; I’m a father, raised as a Christian, and chose atheism. I can remember a handful of times that I prayed, not because I wanted an answer, but because it was part of the religion. When my late wife was diagnosed with cancer, it never occurred to me that I could pray for a cure, because that had never “worked” for me in the past.

    That’s the whole point of training emergency workers, to give them options that are more likely to help than dropping down and asking God for help. I’m sure there are plenty of requests sent up at every natural disaster, but that has never caused a victim to materialize from inside a collapsed structure.

    In your experience, prayer was one way to cope with life’s problems, so naturally you tried it when your girlfriend was injured. Likewise, you were just being honest when you said you might pray for a child of yours, not endorsing the effectiveness of the technique. There’s more than a few True Believers out there that could benefit from the same honesty when asked whether their prayers are useful.

  20. Stan Levin says:

    In “The Devil’s Dictionary” Ambrose Bierce said it best in defining prayer … A request, by a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy, that the laws of the universe be changed in his behalf”

  21. M. Bruce says:

    Seen on a bumper sticker:

    I don’t believe in miracles -
    I rely on them!

  22. Neighbour says:

    On perhaps a more serious note…

    So what little miracles do you pray for? Good grades? A new car? Promotion? Fine weather for your vacation? A pay rise? Pray that your hair doesn’t fall out? That you won’t get cellulite? Come on – they’re often the things to be found on the righteous and religious gift list. Please tell me if I’m wrong; I am open to debate.

    I once spent a whole night praying to God for my father to allow me to build a camp-fire in the garden. My prayers were answered! (Mind you, it might have had something to do with The Power of the Mother – “He’s been up all night praying for chrissakes! Let him make a blasted fire!”

    It confirmed to me that I had been given a little miracle by a bounteous deity! Mind you, I was only about twenty-five at the time. OK already, I was a little kid, but I neither burned the house down nor injured myself, those being the initial objections. I managed to get hurt quite a bit later, but what can you expect after twenty years in the Fire Dept? Nobody told me that it was going to be SAFE! Having said that, it is surely a miracle that I survived, such was my chronic stupidity.

    And as for the power of prayer, the few properly researched and conducted experiments with prayer and its power to make sick people get better seemed to have shot itself in the foot. During this experiment, when people in hospital were prayed for, they actually got worse. I kid thee not. I can see the logic in this. If someone’s praying for you and you KNOW that they’re praying for you, then it probably suggests to you that you are really sick. I have no doubt that my reader is aware of the medically proven power of placebo. Placebos can actually work in reverse, making you feel worse – and actually worsening your condition when you believe that you are given something that you know is going to be a big negative.

    “They are praying for me! This is serious! I’m going to die!”

    However, the control group who did not know that prayers were being said for them showed no significant change one way or the other. (See Prof Richard Dawkins for further reading.)

    Great. Prayers for little miracles. It looks like ‘answers to prayers’ are given out by the All Seeing, Loving and Caring Almighty like poker chips.

    But what about the millions of people dying in agony of war-wounds, living in squalor? Wasting away with terrible diseases in some hell hole? Those who don’t know the meaning of clean water? Or ANY water? I wonder if they pray. Do they get any poker chips? Are they worried about the weather so much that they feel inclined to pray for clear skies and no rain? If they pray for rain, do they get it? I don’t see too much of it in Darfur.

    I strongly suspect that I am preaching to the converted here. I just wanted to make a couple of points.

    Actually, before I forget, I have a story about a miracle at Lourdes.

    An old guy, severely disabled and unable to walk, was lowered in his wheelchair into the holy waters.

    When they hauled him out, he was still crippled and unable to walk but his wheelchair had four new tyres and a fresh paint job.

    A miracle!

    (Sorry.)

  23. Loughlin says:

    The strange thing about this entire matter is that believers are so certain that there IS a God who communicates with them.But reason tells me that where there is certainty there is no need for faith. Yet faith is a necessary ingredient for entering heaven. So follow me here: If I know god exists, I no longer need faith, but without faith it is impossible to please god, and I cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
    To this their answer is “Great is the mystery of godliness”.
    We just can’t win.

  24. tmac57 says:

    If you have someone in your life whom you love dearly, you might be surprised at what you might do for them, even if you know deep down that it is irrational. And yes Michael,I know exactly what you mean.

  25. Vandemeer says:

    Last year my siblings and I kept a vigil at my mother’s bedside while she slowly bled to death, a complication of cirrhosis of the liver. She was a life long tea totaler. My mom, a human being with a fine mind and strong heart yet she was dying in front of me and there was nothing I could do. The doctor told us it was in god’s hands. It occured to me while sitting at her bedside that I understood why people pray for miracles. However, I never once contemplated praying for a miracle myself. It’s simply wishful thinking and only helps to make the one that prays feel better. I loved my mom dearly but to me prayer is just a cop out. I think about her often and miss her terribly but the living must carry on.

  26. andrew ronson says:

    You hear on tv that the plane your beloved was on just crashed and most of the passengers were killed. That fact has been established. The corpses are there. it is over and done with. But how many religious people would pray before getting the details, that their beloved was not among the dead. If he was then they are asking not only a non-existent entity, but asking that it somehow reverse his death. Why shouldn’t they pray that NONE of the dead were killed? Why don’t they ask God to bless the whole world and not just America? And why should an all-powerful, loving, benevolent god need to be asked to bless us. And why should we want a NATIONAL day of prayer for help? Wouldn’t one prayer from the president be enough?

  27. Kenneth Polit says:

    When you truly love someone, all bets are off. I am an atheist, and I’m also a pacifist, but I would kill a stranger with a soup spoon if it would save the life of a loved one.

  28. Kenneth Polit says:

    Well, maybe not, but you get the point.

  29. USARonin says:

    I wonder if Madeleine Murray O’Hare (or her son or her gran’daughter) found God when she was on her knees in those last few moments.

  30. Michael Kingsford Gray says:

    Vargas is scary.
    She reminds me of Michael Jackson.

  31. Tim says:

    I prefer John Stossel to Elizabeth Vargas. He did a 20/20 on “The Power of Belief” and discrimination against atheists.

  32. P K Narayanan(Dr) says:

    Belief, Prayer, Miracles et al are very commonly used and heard words across the world: Except for a handful of true Rationalists and Atheist community, almost every one around crave for miracles to happen to save certain painful situations for which they would have prayed to their god. There is therefore no meaning in degrading the act of the believing community in its actions of prayer soliciting miracles for rescue. A person who is virtually convinced that there exists no god, there exists no miracles, there does not exist anybody or anything that could hear and respond to prayer shall never be able to resort to prayers for gains either through miracles or by the grace of a non-existent god. Conviction of facts and truths of the physical plane where one has his/her existential survival is the crucial issue in matters of belief and its attributes.

    God resides in the thoughts and imaginations of believers.

    Belief is holding in thoughts and imaginations anything that has no objective reality in the physical and material world.

    Miracle is an event or occurrence or experience beyond the level of being objectively understood or deciphered by an individual or a group of individuals at a given time or situation. [Psychosomatic Structure of Miracles by Dr. P K Narayanan].

    Where do Atheists stand in the above context: Certainly not in the row of religionist believers!

  33. Godfather says:

    The love of my life is my 3 year old daughter. I can’t even stand to think of any harm befalling her to give myself the emotional context to write this comment. However, I know one thing for sure. There’s no event possible, of any kind (other than multi-observable, verifiable, repeatable evidence of an interventionist superbeing) that would cause me to speak into thin air.

    Would I hope like hell that I might happen to catch the long odds of a good outcome? Hell yes! Maybe some people that “pray” know deep within that they’re doing the same as me. They just use the word they’ve been taught to use in order to exemplify their humility and perhaps be more “deserving” of catching a statistical break. I’m no psychoanalyst, just thinking out loud.

    And yes, Michael, one of two things happened:

    1) You wanted to soften your image to make it more likely your larger message may seep into someone teetering on the rational edge. Fair enough. The Neil Tyson approach, eh? I don’t like it, but I suppose I’m all for brainwashing the professed brainwashable.

    or

    2) You truly are slightly “broken” and susceptible to believing what you want to – even if only the extremest of circumstances. I was raised Christian in a multidenominational environment (Baptist and Catholic) in every way that it should have been completely digestible for me. But my scientific brain wouldn’t allow it at any age despite a complete lack of formal scientific training and an utter lack of any logical minds surrounding me. The only “religious” thing I was interested in at age 13 was finding Jesus in the pants of a Christian girl. So I gladly faked it and ran with the youth group herd.

    The fact that you allowed yourself to be “born again” (what a self-loathing concept) tells me that you might not belong to the hardest group of atheists. Wherever you lie on the spectrum, I’m sure you’re happy there. I just wish you wouldn’t tell the lemmings that a real atheist is capable of prayer. It’s a moral victory for them and their certitude. But if you’re doing it because of #1 above, then could you at least wink at us?

  34. Jonathan Penley says:

    I think the read-between-the-lines message is that he is not heartless, for that may cause more distress to people in need.

  35. mary says:

    People that believe in miracles are grasping for straws to prove what doesn’t exist.