The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: Throwing Cold Water on the Power of Prayer

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I have a dear friend whose mother was diagnosed with Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) about a year ago. It’s a tragic disease, and one that has existed for a long time in relative obscurity compared to other diseases and disorders. This is due, in part, to pure statistics: ALS patients have an 80 percent mortality rate within a few years of diagnosis, and so only about 30,000 people have ALS in the United States at any given time. This provides a very small potential market for treatment, and thus little financial incentive for drug companies to invest in research. Charitable contributions and government investments provide nearly all research funding. Enter the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, whereby someone is filmed being doused with a large bucket of ice water, posts the video to social media, and then challenges friends to donate to ALS research or get the same chilly reception. (Many people apparently opt to do both.) As campy as the ice-bucket challenge craze is, I for one am glad it’s happened and that it has raised awareness of and funding for ALS research.

The ice bucket phenomenon has served as a stark reminder for me of the ultimate failure of the supposed “power of prayer” and supernatural influence in our existence. I would like nothing more than to believe that there is hope for my friend’s mother, and that she could somehow be spared her fate if enough people merely had enough faith. Unfortunately, this is just wishful thinking. There is no god or supernatural force that has the power to cure ALS. Only science has the potential to do that, and if and when that happens, it will be far too late for her. If I could just be wrong about this, I would gladly jump back on the theistic bandwagon. I will not be holding my breath.

The truth is medical miracles don’t happen. Progress in medicine comes from people—from hard work, countless hours researching and chasing false leads, and millions upon millions of dollars invested, until finally the biological puzzle is cracked and a solution is developed. Progress is not, nor ever has it ever been, the result of mystical influences. Every person of faith who has dumped a bucket of ice on their heads to raise awareness of and funds for ALS has unwittingly agreed with this statement.

Back when I was a believer, I would have countered this statement with “God not only determines the end, but also the means to that end” and I would have pointed to the money raised via the ice bucket challenge as proof of his working through us. I also would have silently yearned for the Christian God to show his power and, through my faith and prayers, heal my friend’s mom. And I would have been woefully disappointed.

I worry about my friend. He has a 50 percent chance of having inherited the genetic anomaly that causes ALS, and could have passed it on to his children as well. I’m potentially a marked man but in a different way; my family has a history of heart disease, with folks who make it to age fifty before their first heart attack seen as doing well. But the reality is we are all going to die. Whether it be ALS, heart attack, stroke, cancer, car accident, meteor, or whatever, none of us living today are likely to escape that fate (although scientists may well prove me wrong—c’mon scientists!) I may have five days, five years, or five decades, but whatever time is left I have been extremely fortunate to have had it. I do not fear the end.

The sooner we accept our fate and realize just how precious this life is, and the sooner we get past this wasteful notion of an afterlife and start focusing on the one life we know we have, the sooner we as a society will stop spending billions of dollars supporting puppet gods and false prophets. The sooner we start directing those resources towards things that can make a difference for people like my friend and his children, the better off we’ll all be as a global society.

Prayer isn’t going to do a thing for anyone beyond a placebo effect, and that won’t win the war against ALS or any of the other things that ail us on a global scale. An ice bucket has infinitely more potential for change.