Former Christian evangelist turned-atheist Dan Barker has composed over 200 songs, and one of my favorites is "Nothing fails like prayer." Even so, I take some issue with the title because I can think of worse failures than prayer.
For instance, I'm pleased Exodus International has acknowledged that its "pray the gay away" campaign was an abysmal failure and that their "reparative therapy" patients have suffered psychological damage. However, looking at the bright side, praying was preferable to criminalizing homosexuality, which all 50 states did until 1962. And praying for homosexuals is certainly preferable to killing them, as prescribed in Leviticus 20:13.
George Washington likely would have lived longer had he requested prayer for his throat inflammation instead of bloodletting, a standard medical practice of his era. Usually performed by barbers, bloodletting was the most common medical practice until the late 19th century. The traditional red and white striped poles outside barbershops represented red for the blood drawn and white for the bandages used to soak up the blood.
Perhaps Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Christian Science religion in 1879, initially attracted some reasonable followers because prayer usually worked better than bloodletting. She taught that the sick should be treated by a special form of prayer rather than by medicine. Eddy may have inadvertently adhered to the advice Hippocrates gave 2,400 years ago. He coined the phrase now repeated in the Hippocratic oath: "First do no harm." Doing nothing instead of doing harm is as valid today as it was then.
I think that prayer, at its best, serves as a placebo. People may improve because their expectation to do so is strong. Whatever your theology, there is power in positive thinking. Focusing on the half-full glass might put you in a better frame of mind to accomplish your objectives, but the placebo effect does have obvious limitations. Though doctors are fallible, we appreciate the enormous strides that have been made in medicine. Along with scientific advances comes the recognition that prayer alone is a harmful alternative decision for many maladies.
Continue reading at the Washington Post's On Faith.