The National Day of Prayer that some Americans will celebrate today (May 1st) not only violates the establishment clause of the Constitution but represents an act of negligence on all our parts. Among large populations within the United States, magical thinking persists despite all evidence against its efficacy. The common acceptance of traditional intercessory prayer and the success of non-traditional supernatural movements like Scientology or The Secret demonstrate that rationality has failed at eliminating our tendencies toward confirmation and selection biases even among those who reject fundamentalist and literalist wings of mainstream religions. While occasional lapses into magical thinking often have no negative effect, it can lead to tragedy when left unchecked.
Recently in Wisconsin, two parents were charged with second-degree reckless homicide because they failed to take their daughter to a doctor for her undiagnosed diabetes. Despite their daughter’s severe physical symptoms, the parents thought she was suffering from a “spiritual attack.” Throughout the weekend leading up to her death, they lovingly stood by her as any parent would, but they did not believe modern medicine would be more effective than prayer. If they had believed otherwise, their daughter would still be alive today.
By continuing to accept magical thinking as innocent or reasonable, we are all partially responsible for this girl’s death. Our culture needs to become actively critical of to whom or what we ascribe success and failure and how we think about probable and improbable events. Supernatural diagnoses and treatments should be evaluated with the same standards we use to judge modern medicine. With Scientologists, The Secret, and faith healers preying on our friends and relatives, we must develop rational defenses against the sorts of magical thinking that we know to be false or else more children will die from our negligence. Worst of all, though we know medicine could have treated this girl’s diabetes, many of us would have ascribed even that outcome to the grace of a supernatural agent. With our capacity to reason, we owe our children more than this. We owe them a culture that is well-informed on known cognitive biases and openly critical of suspicious claims, no matter the sensibilities that might be offended.
Please, join the many around this country asking for a National Day of Reason to replace this Day of Prayer. We believe we can do better than wishful thinking, and the evidence is on our side.
Sunday, May 4, 2008
The belated Day of Reason post
This was intended to be submitted to a local paper for May 1st, but finals got in the way. So here it is: