Can Prayer Cure Cancer?

After visiting the hospital yesterday to get my oedema looked at, I sat for a while in the small church of St. Bartholomew-the-Less, conveniently located on the way out of the hospital on the way to the bus stop. I am not a religious person, and I can not even claim that it was an oasis of calm, as the sound of construction work blasted past the big wooden doors and bellowed around the nave. But I fancied a ponder on matters theological.

Barts-the-Less is a chapel of ease, meaning a church building that is accessible to parishioners who can not make it to the proper parish church (in this case, St. Bartholomew-the-Great). The clients and residents of Bart’s hospital, and their visitors, surely qualify. For clarity, there was one St. Bartholomew, who had one great church and one lesser one; rather than two St. Bartholomews, one greater in some important respect than his lesser namesake.

It is, as are most places of worship, rather beautiful – unusually light due to its strikingly large windows, and its walls adorned with resolute plaques memorialising some of the Bart’s hospital staff through the centuries who saved many lives and then lost their own. I sat on the crimson cushion on the wooden pew. The only other person there was, I think, praying.

I can understand why people pray, particuarly in dark times of their own, or their loved ones’, ill-health. Quiet contemplation and reflection can bring perspective, peace of mind, hope that recovery will come or acceptance that it will not. I also appreciate that knowing that other people are thinking of you and wishing you well is good for your morale and therefore possibly for your prognosis, and when people call that ‘praying’ I find it a bit awkward but OK.

The problem comes when people think that they are communicating directly with an actual being who will actually cure my cancer. On the day that my oncologist told me that my cancer was gone and likely not coming back, one person messaged me claiming that they had prayed to their god and that He had cured me. Even religious friends of mine – including clerics – see such claims and are not pleased.

Thinking about a person facing The Big C, cheering him/her on, hoping for recovery with all your mental effort, is one thing (OK, it is several things, but bear with me). But claiming a magical cure delivered by the intervention of a divine entity is something very different. I often ponder this when, for example, US athletes thank God for their victories in races or matches. Seriously, God the all-powerful intervenes in sports contests? While self-evidently neglecting his duties elsewhere?

A decade ago, the most scientifically-robust study thus far reported on its investigations into the power of people’s prayers for sick people. For six years, scientists studied 1,802 heart patients, dividing them into three groups: those not prayed for; those prayed for and told so; and those prayed for and not told so. Members of three church congregations unknown to the patients prayed for their recovery by name. The outcome? Those prayed for made no better recovery. Indeed, the patients who knew they were bring prayed for had a significantly higher (59% vs 51%) rate of complications. The report’s authors thought this might have been down to a form of performance anxiety – a stress-inducing concern to live up to the expectations of ‘prayer pressure’, perhaps.

I would like to ask prayer advocates this: If your god cured my cancer, then did he not also cause it? If God does the good stuff, surely he does the bad stuff too. David Attenborough rightly insisted that if you credit God for the beautiful things, then you must also attribute to Him the African child being turned blind by a small, God-created worm in his brain. Stephen Fry once said in an interview that given the chance, he would ask God, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? … what kind of God would do that?”

I also have to ask myself why, if God chose to cure my cancer, he also chose to let all those other people die from it – and why you would worship a God who did that. Did enough people not ask him nicely enough? Is there a quorum? You see, either God can not intervene to prevent appalling suffering, in which case He is not all-powerful; or He can and chooses not to, in which case He is not all-loving.

I think of my good friends and comrades Rob and Brian, who died of cancer thirteen years apart, both at the age of 45. Neither blamed God nor believed in Him. And while I understand why approaching death may draw some people to embrace the idea of an afterlife, Brian insisted to me that I did not let anyone say he had gone to Heaven, even – perhaps especially – to his two young daughters.

Challenged by these questions and contradictions, religions have stock, smart replies: God sent these things to test us; God works in mysterious ways; God gave human beings the ability and responsibility to make choices. But, for me, none of these answers have ever squared the circle that good things that happen to you are God’s doing but that bad things are either your own fault or sent by God to test (or perhaps punish) you.

Brilliant tennis player Serena Williams attributes her success to her relationship with God. After winning the Australian Open, she explained that whenever she found things tough, she prayed and God helped her. This seems to me to mean that whenever she found things tough, she thought, concentrated, considered, steeled her resolve, redoubled her efforts and thus got her game back on track. It is her choice to conceive of this as asking for and receiving divine assistance, but to me, it is a shame to believe that an external deity has helped you when your own toughness, spirit and sheer talent has achieved that.

And so it goes with the claim that God cures (some people’s) cancer. Why do some folk have so little confidence in their own and their fellow humans’ values and skills that they feel the need to attribute good news to the Invisible One even to the point of what I hope would be self-evidently ridiculous – for example, that God would pick the winner of a sporting contest or personally cure my cancer? Somehow, our society denies people this confidence, this consciousness of their own power and the power of human solidarity.

So, credit where credit is due. The National Health Service cured my cancer: the health promotion staff who made me aware enough to notice its signs; the GP who referred me; the radiographers who confirmed it; the surgeon who removed it; the anaesthetist who kept me asleep while she did; the nurses who tended my wounds; the pharmacists who gave me my medications; the radiotherapists who zapped my boobs; and the receptionists, administrators, cleaners, caterers and others who facilitated them to do all this. Praise be to the NHS!

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