Get the FREE DIGITAL BOOK: The Case for Killer Robots
Mind Matters Reporting on Natural and Artificial Intelligence
Female surgeon praying in operation theater
Doctor nurse surgeon prayer praying Adobe Stock licensed

Why prayer is wise during a pandemic

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne thinks that only fools would pray about coronavirus. He is wrong and here is why

Evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne ’s undies are in a knot because the coronavirus task force, led by U.S. vice president Mike Pence, prays together. Oh my.

There’s even a picture of the virus task force praying together! We don’t need prayer; we need science! Here’s the photo, which distresses me but doesn’t surprise me… [a]fter all, one godly intervention is just as delusional as another!

Jerry Coyne, “Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Pence” at Why Evolution Is True

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with praying in a crisis. Neanderthals no doubt proffered a few entreaties to their Zeus when a sabre-tooth tiger hunt went south. It’s pretty much part of the human toolkit. The wisdom and efficacy of prayer in a crisis depends wholly on one question: is the prayer directed to Someone who is real, or is prayer based on a delusion?

If the Object of supplication is real, then prayer is probably the first thing you want to do in a crisis. A plea to the Boss is a fine preamble to the grunt work of managing a crisis. I’m a neurosurgeon, and I pray before each operation. It really helps.

If there is no real Object of supplication, then prayer is based on a delusion. But it’s interesting to note that, as historian Rodney Stark has pointed out, prayer and Christian faith during ancient epidemics saved lives because faithful Christians stuck around during epidemics. They provided care to afflicted neighbors who would not have survived except that they had kindly courageous friends to nurse them. St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital—the world’s leading cancer center for children, was founded because of a prayer. So the focus and compassion evoked by prayer saves lives, whether or not God is there to hear the prayer.

Of course, if God does not exist, Coyne is right to imply that prayer is based on a delusion. But here’s the point: if God does exist, prayer is essential.

So, I ask Coyne, does God exist? Coyne’s answers to the pivotal question have been puerile. His arguments center on an astonishing line of reasoning:

1) [S]cience is about finding material explanations of the world
2) Only materialistic explanations have been found by science
3) Therefore, no non-material explanations for nature are needed.

So Coyne uses science that expunges theism to refute theism. In short, he concludes that atheism is true by using a scientific method that presupposes atheism. Oddly, Coyne finds this logic compelling.

It is noteworthy that Coyne’s efforts to refute the actual arguments for God’s existence consist of his insistence that he really isn’t so stupid and he provides a few links. He obviously doesn’t understand the arguments, nor does he wish to learn them.

If God exists, prayer in crisis is warranted and even essential. The arguments for God’s existence are irrefutable. Aquina’s Five Ways are a handy summary:

  1. Aquinas’ First Way and a Stack of Books
  2. Irrefutable, Impeccable, Inescapable: Aquinas’ Second Way
  3. Aquinas’ Third Way: An Analogy to Moonlight
  4. Aquinas’ Fourth Way: Light in a Mirror
  5. Aquinas’ Fifth Way: The Proof from Specification

Evidence for the existence of God, as provided by Aquinas, actually consists of the same logical and evidentiary process as science itself, only with much stronger logic and more abundant evidence than any other scientific theory.

The prayer of the coronavirus task force is wise and wholly appropriate, for both theological and scientific reasons.


If you enjoyed this piece, you might also like some of Michael Egnor’s other pieces on the damage materialism does to science:

Yes, split brains are weird but not in the way you think: Scientists who dismiss consciousness and free will ignore the fact that the higher faculties of the mind cannot be split even by splitting the brain in half

and

Meat has no opinions. Why you can’t actually deny free will


Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.

Why prayer is wise during a pandemic