National Prayer Day Debate: Prayers do not work, but they are not useless either

On Tuesday this week President Kenyatta announced that Saturday 21, 2020 shall be National Prayer Day, where Kenyans of all faiths shall come together in spirit to plead to God to help the country fight against the coronavirus pandemic. “We cannot ignore the need to turn to God. In these circumstances as we have done in the past as a nation, we have always turned to God first to give thanks for the many blessings that He has bestowed on our nation. But we also turn to God to share our fears, our apprehensions, but also to seek his guidance and ever-present protection,” the President said.

There wasn’t much of an issue about the call given that Kenya is largely a religious nation until a prominent Kenyan Prof. Makau Mutua took issues with the President’s call for prayers. He tweeted, “PRAYERS won’t help Kenya combat the coronavirus PANDEMIC. Let’s stop this SUPERSTITION and return to SCIENCE. This PRIMORDIALISM and NAÏVETÉ could WIPE us off the face of the map.”

That obviously didn’t go well with most Kenyans as can be seen by the replies to the tweet. But the debate comes from the response by Kenya’s chief moral police Ezekiel Mutua who posted this on his Facebook Page:

I have seen a social media post by Prof. Makau Mutua mocking the President for calling for national prayers. Prof. Mutua says we should discard prayers and apply science in fighting the COVID-19 crisis. This is a classic case of knowledge without character. There’s science and there’s God and the two are not mutually exclusive. You can submerge yourself in a bathtub of sanitizers and still lose this battle. If you do not support the call for prayers just shut up and practice your paganism alone. There are many believers of diverse faiths in this country, and a call for national prayer by none other than the President should be supported by all Kenyans of goodwill.

The two competing stands raise the questions: 1. Do prayers work and 2. Is it necessary for Kenyans to collectively invoke God in the fight against coronavirus?

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Prayers do not work – at least not in the real sense

Prof. Mutua premise is “prayers won’t help Kenya combat the coronavirus pandemic”, a premise based on a claim, “prayers do not work”. Of course, if it can shown that prayers do not work, then it will be easy to assume that prayers will not help Kenya combat coronavirus, so, do prayers work?

Since the beginning of 20th century when modern scientific method took shape, a number of scientific studies have been done on the efficacy of prayers, and the results are usually “mixed”; where some studies seem to suggest that prayers work whereas others suggest they do not. Then in 2006 a more comprehensive study on prayers was conducted by Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston, that concluded that not only doesn’t prayer work, but patients who know that they are being prayed for respond worse to medical treatment. Several other studies on prayers have supported the conclusion that prayers, particularly intercessory prayers, do not work.

Believers themselves have long known that prayers do not work, and that’s why they coined the phrase “God helps those who help themselves”. In arguments against prayers I normally present these three scenarios:

  1. Prayers alone – No results
  2. Prayers plus scientific solution – Results
  3. Scientific solution alone – Same results as #2.

The above presentation is usually meant to help the opponent clearly see that prayer is not a useful ingredient to problem solving. However, believers like Ezekiel Mutua and all those in support for the call of prayers would like us to opt for prayers plus scientific solution, and since prayers do not have effect on the results of science, any results science comes up with can still be falsely attributed to prayers.

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The coronavirus scenario can also be used to argue for the claim that prayers do not work. China, an officially atheistic country, has recorded a 0.02% infection rate if we assume all those who are so far infected are Chinese. Italy which is largely a Roman Catholic hence very prayerful, has recorded a 0.06% infection rate. What this means is that the coronavirus hasn’t cared about which of the two nations has asked God to protected it from the virus. Of course protestants can easily jump into this and claim that Catholics do not pray properly – and that will open a whole new can of worms.

But National Prayer Day is still very useful

Any serious observer with ability to apply critical thinking to prayers can easily see that prayers to do not work. Does that mean that the call for National Prayer Day is ill-informed? Actually the opposite is true. National Prayer Day is still very important for two reasons:

  1. Hope
  2. Social cohesion and Mass control

In the face of something as serious as coronavirus, what we need the least is a panicked population. When people are panicked, they become anxious, and may resort to worse hysterical reactions such as demonstrations, riots, vandalism, and even mass murder. Panic reaction has already made a group of young people to attack and kill a man by the name George Kotini in Kwale county, whom they accused of being infected by coronavirus.

If the spread of the virus continues unabated, then we are likely going to face a countrywide shutdown, but such a shutdown can only be effective for a few days/weeks given that majority of Kenyans feed hand to mouth. A shutdown will therefore lead to people becoming hungry, then later breaking out of their homes to attack their neighbors for food – a situation that can lead to chaos never witnessed before.

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To avoid the above apocalyptic scenarios, a people need a source of hope. The best hope right now would be an announcement that a cure for coronavirus has been found. Before that announcement is made however, humans still need to be assured that something is taking care of the future, and if that something is not man, then an imaginary something must be invoked, and over the millenia invoking the imaginary God has worked miracles. In as far as providing the masses with something to cling on, prayers has been found to be very effective. In this regard therefore Prof. Mutua is wrong. Giving Kenyans something to hold on, real or not, will help the government to effectively fight the coronavirus pandemic.

The next best thing prayer can provide is a ground for which to call for social order. The coronavirus spread in Italy, Spain, Germany, and a number of the other European countries was orchestrated by lack of early intervention where people ought to have exercised social distancing and the governments ought to have implemented lockdowns of affected regions; actions that could have and have broken the countries’ social structure. When such actions must be called for, a government needs a society that can listen to one voice – but it is close to impossible for a country like Kenya with diverse cultures, beliefs, traditions, and ethnicities to come together and work with one purpose.

National Prayer Day can therefore be a useful tool for the government to channel people’s minds into one purpose, and after that purpose is realized, then the government can use that purpose to control the masses into obedience.

The conclusion of the debate therefore is, prayers do not materially work, but they work psychology (to provide hope) and socially (to bring people together). The psychological and social effects of prayers can thus be used for good at this time, although we must acknowledge that governments, preachers, and others in authority have used the two effects of prayers to turn masses into zombies that are manipulated and conned off their hard earned cash.

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Odipo Riaga
Managing Editor at KachTech Media
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