Today we have a story from Newburgh, New York about the power of prayer, and the untoward results thereof. [Source]
David Jimenez, a devout Catholic, prayed every day in front of a giant, 600-pound marble crucifix in the Church of St. Patrick, asking god to heal his wife Delia, who was suffering from ovarian cancer. Doctors told the couple that Delia's cancer was in remission in 2010. Elated, David offered to spend hours meticulously cleaning the crucifix, as a sign of his thankfulness that his prayers were answered. Unfortunately, what neither he nor (apparently) anyone else in the church knew was that the crucifix was held to the wall by only a single screw, and when he started scrubbing it, the screw popped loose, and the crucifix fell over on top of Jimenez, crushing his leg. He was rushed to the hospital, but doctors were unable to save his injured leg, and it was ultimately amputated.
Last week, Jimenez's lawyers announced that they have initiated a lawsuit seeking $3 million in damages from the church.
This story has elicited a lot of sardonic laughter on atheist websites. I understand why people responded that way -- irony always seems to generate laughter, even when it involves injury or death (look at "The Darwin Awards"). Me, I feel sorry for the guy. After all, he was throughout the incident only acting from the best of motives; care for his ill wife, thankfulness for her recovery, gratefulness to the church for their support. Whether the church owes him $3 million is not for me to say; but clearly if what he claims is true, that the 600-pound statue was only secured by a single screw, he might well have a case.
What I don't get here, and (honestly) probably never will get, is how anyone gets caught up in that kind of magical thinking in the first place. It is undeniable that Jimenez and millions of others seem to take "the power of prayer" as a matter of course; "pray every day" is commanded from pulpits all over the world every Sunday. And there are thousands of accounts of times that the "power of prayer" resulted in cures (or as they call them, "miracles"). My question is: do these people really not get cause-and-effect? Delia Jimenez was cured by doctors, presumably through chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or some combination; David's kneeling in front of a crucifix had nothing whatsoever to do with it. Before you can make the claim that the "power of prayer" really works, you have to explain all the times it didn't work with something more than "god has a plan" or "god works in mysterious ways." If you pray for Uncle Frank and he recovers, and I pray for Aunt Betty and she doesn't, you can't just say that Uncle Frank's recovery proves that prayer works and wave away what happened to poor Aunt Betty.
Of course, the toppling over of the crucifix adds another surreal element to the whole thing. If you believe that god really was behind Delia Jimenez's recovery, don't you find it odd that god walloped her husband with the very object of devotion her husband had been praying in front of? One of the commenters on the story stated, "God healed Delia Jimenez and then punished David Jimenez for idolatry. Catholics always have had trouble obeying the Second Commandment." This kind of made my head spin. Do you really think that a deity, especially one of the kind Christians worship, would work that way? "Through my power, and because of thy prayer, I have healed thy wife, but now I'm going to smush thy leg because thou didst pray the wrong way." Really? That's what you believe, that's the god you worship? A god who would do such a thing would beat the Greek deities in simple capriciousness. In fact, I think that given a choice, I'd rather worship Hermes. At least he knew how to tell a good joke.
I guess the bottom line is, I will never understand magical thinking. I honestly do try to be tolerant of others' beliefs, however I sometimes come across as an arrogant know-it-all. But stories like this make me realize that there is a wide, probably unbridgeable, gap between the way I think and the way most of the religious think.