This is one of the most beautiful, eloquent, touching pieces I've read about medicine and religion. The piece is about a child in Seattle with terminal cancer, and her family's obsessive focus on healing her with prayer. (The story's been in the Seattle newspapers, and the writer of the piece, Sid Schwab, is a surgeon and writer who's commenting on it.) And it hits perfectly on the head one of the things that makes me most crazy about medical prayer -- i.e., praying for someone, yourself or others, to recover from a serious/ terminal medical condition.
...pray if you need to. Pray for comfort, for understanding, for strength. But get off this miracle healing thing. You're ruining what life your child has left. Keep up hope? Sure, as long as it's reasonable. But give her an out; give her a way to accept what's happening to her, if such a thing is possible, without blaming herself.
And rather more harsh, but very much to the point, Quote #2:
I should just shut up at this point, and let it be about the care of the poor child. But I can't. I must also say this: there's something perverse to the point of revulsion in the idea of a god that will heal the girl if enough people pray for her. What sort of god is that? To believe that, you must believe he deliberately made her ill, is putting her through enormous pain and suffering, with the express plan to make it all better only if enough people tell him how great he is; and to keep it up unto her death if they don't.
What makes me crazy about medical prayer is exactly this. If God made you sick, has the power to make you better, and doesn't, then either:
a) God is a complete asshole with the ethics of a sociopath,
There's something wrong with you.
It's your fault.
Even if you're a child.
And that's what I like about the naturalist/ atheist view of the world. In the naturalist view, the world is often harsh, and terrible things will happen to you and your loved ones for no reason -- but you don't have to fucking well feel guilty about it. You can accept it, or fight it, or do whatever combination of the two works for you.
And if you can't make it better, you don't have to feel that it's because you somehow made Daddy mad at you.
Instead, you can know that it's just the way the world works: we are an animal species in the physical world, and animal species in the physical world get sick, or get in accidents, or get birth defects, or die in natural disasters. Sometimes good people, sometimes too young. And if it happens to you, or someone you love, it's not because you/ they did something wrong.
It's because you/ they are part of the world: the physical, natural world, with all its wonders and horrors. It's a world that doesn't really care whether you live or die, whether you suffer or rejoice, and to some people that can seem bleak and cold. But it's a world of which we are a part, a world which we are intimately connected to down to our very molecules -- not a world that stands apart from us and punishes us with sickness and suffering for reasons we can never fathom.