I’m a medical student, and my classmates and I have an exam coming up. It’s not uncommon for students to send out study guides, flashcards, mistakes in lecture notes, etc to the entire class via our listserv – we’re generally a cooperative bunch and like to help out fellow classmates and save each other time. There are also occasions in which different school organizations send emails to the class advertising meetings, events, etc. Some of these organizations are strictly medical (interest groups related to every medical specialty imaginable), and others are religious or political in nature – “Catholic Medical Students Association”, “Med Students for Choice”, “Jewish Medical Students Association” – you name it, we’ve probably got a group for it. I’m an atheist, but generally am not bothered when these religious groups advertise to the entire class. They’re an organization, and it’s the easiest way to reach everyone until you have your first few meetings and narrow down your list of interested individuals.
But the most recent email I received was different. It was from a few of my Christian classmates who were advertising an hour long “prayer session.” I’m not sure how to explain it, but the email felt weird. They weren’t trying to be exclusive – indeed they specifically mentioned it didn’t matter whether you were “Christian or not” – but it still came across that way. It still made me feel like an outsider – a reminder that the majority of this country (some of my family members included) think I’m destined for hell, or that I’m the equivalent of a murderer or rapist. Maybe it wasn’t the tone of the email, but the fact that these classmates in particular like to conspicuously “advertise” themselves as Christian – one frequently has the word “Jesus” displayed quite prominently when he comes to class. When I see that, I can’t help but think he doesn’t want to pray with anyone “Christian or not”, but rather for them – to save their soul. Is this true? Maybe I’m wrong. They’re very nice people, but I still feel like they are judging me for my (lack of) beliefs.
Moving on from my initial impression, what also bothered me was what they wanted to gather and pray about. We’re in the middle of an infectious disease course, learning about all of these viruses and bacteria that cause death and destruction around the world. We learned about rotavirus, which kills around 650,000 children every year. Were they praying that children in developing countries could have access to sanitary water or a vaccine to prevent this infection? No! Part of our local patient population includes many poor and homeless people. Were they praying that these families would not have to worry about paying their next bill? No! Were they praying that the homeless man on the corner could get access to mental health-care and a safe place to sleep? No! They were praying so they could do well on our upcoming exam. That may reflect more on their personalities or the fact that they’re medical students rather than their religious background, but it came across as incredibly selfish.
I don’t even believe in the power of prayer to change outcomes (most recent evidence here), but I do think it can be beneficial for the person praying (as a form of meditation) or a person who knows that loved ones are praying for them (as a form of emotional support). However, regardless of whether it works or not, I must ask my classmates – seriously? Out of all the things you pray for, and you choose an exam?! Are you an idiot?! Do you not care about other people in the world?! Are you really that selfish?! And now, until they prove otherwise, my answer is…yes. They are that selfish. They would rather pray for a good grade then for a decrease in human suffering around the world. They would rather spend an hour praying to do well on an exam, than an hour studying (which is guaranteed to help them on the test). They would rather pray for an hour than spend an hour volunteering at a local homeless shelter and making a tangible difference in the life of a person. Maybe I’m crazy…but it seems like they’ve got their priorities wrong.