June 18, 2019

Pray For The Miners

coal mine

In 2007, a coal mine in Utah collapsed, trapping 6 miners inside. The story was all over the news, and several broadcasts showed local residents displaying large banners that said something like "pray for the miners." I remember finding this a curious spectacle. When I see signs like this following tragic events, I wonder what those holding them are hoping to accomplish. We all hoped that the miners would be rescued, but why would anyone call for prayer when there is so much evidence that  intercessory prayer is ineffective?

Many religious believers find evidence irrelevant. They believe what they believe because their parents believed it, and they've likely never really questioned it. They believe what they believe because it makes them feel good to do so. They believe what they believe because they are rewarded by their communities for doing so.

But even if we acknowledge that they do not care about evidence, that does not get us around the problem of their "god" already being aware of what happened. A being with the characteristics most Christians assign to their god would have been aware of the mine collapse. Such a being could have prevented the collapse but apparently chose not to do so. And following the collapse, such a being could make sure the miners were rescued. Why would the mind of such a being be swayed by prayer? And perhaps an even more important question: why would the mind of such a being need to be swayed by prayer?

If I had a loved one who was trapped or killed in a mine collapse, I would not want to see any of these signs. I'd rather see my neighbors doing anything that would have had a reasonable probability of actually helping. And when it became clear that there was nothing that they could do to help my loved one, I'd appreciate their emotional support. Prayer offers none of that.

Some day prayer will go the way of the evil eye or other curses (at least in industrialized nations). Until that day, I'll just try to pity those who use tragic events to promote prayer. Perhaps they don't know any more appropriate ways of expressing themselves. I'll also continue to hope that stories like these have happy endings. What I won't do fool myself into thinking that my "thoughts and prayers" make any difference or participate in the delusion that some spirit is involved.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2007. It was expanded in 2019.