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Cancer Research, Prayer, and St. Jude

jude.jpgP.Z. Myers recently posted at Pharyngula a plea for more funding for cancer research. His sister-in-law (mother of three kids) died tragically from melanoma several years ago, and Myers asked Pharyngula readers to support cancer research more vigorously. It’s a sentiment with which we all agree.

Yet Myers used this tragedy to denigrate religious faith. Noting his subsequent conversation with a pediatric oncologist in which he learned about the progress that has been made in the treatment of childhood cancer, Myers claimed:

How does she [the oncologist] do that [successfully treat some children’s cancers]? With science. She sent me a whole stack of references on the amazing progress that has been made over the last several decades, thanks to clinical trials and evidence based medicine… If we want to cure … cancers…, don’t look to magic, or wishful thinking, or ancient shamanistic wisdom, or prayer — we’ve had those for millennia [sic], and they do nothing…What we need is more research, more doctors, more clinical trials, and more money.[Emphasis in original]

He points to graphs showing the remarkable improvement in outcomes of children with acute lymphocytic leukemia over the past 40 years. And indeed there have been significant improvements in the outcomes for many kinds of cancer in the past few decades, particularly in children’s cancer.

But, leaving aside his dubious tactic of using the death of a relative to advance his ideology, I take exception to his claim that prayer and religious faith had nothing to do with the improvements in the treatment of cancer.

The remarkable progress in the treatment of cancer in the past several decades had a lot to do with faith and prayer. Myers misunderstands the origins of modern medical science and the history and nature of cancer treatment.
Advances in science and cancer treatment emerged, not from science in isolation, but from a culture that made science possible and that directed the fruits of scientific work toward good and compassionate goals. The culture from which science has emerged is Judeo-Christian culture, and modern science has arisen only in Judeo-Christian culture. Why has science been so closely linked to this specific culture?

The scientific investigation of nature using the scientific method depends on the metaphysical view that nature is rational and that natural laws can be discovered and used by human beings. The Judeo-Christian understanding of God and of man’s relationship to God accords with these preconditions for successful science. The application of science to care for the sick presupposes the view that we have an ethical obligation to help the weakest among us. The atheist view of metaphysics — that the universe has no purpose and no designer and no transcendent ethical code — provides no impetus to scientific inquiry or to the compassionate application of scientific knowledge. Modern science arose in Judeo-Christian culture — a milieu of faith and prayer. It arose from Judeo-Christian culture — and nowhere else — for a reason.

Medical science is particularly in debt to a culture of piety. Sociologist Rodney Stark has pointed out the striking differences in survival rates from epidemics in cities in the Roman world in the first centuries A.D. Stark has studied mortality from two epidemics — one in the second century and one in the third century A.D. He notes that the survival rates in Christian communities were substantially higher than the survival rates in pagan communities. He cites evidence that this was due in large part to the care that Christians provided to the sick and to the refusal of uninfected Christians to flee the area with the onset of the epidemic. Many deaths in epidemics are due not to the acute effects of the infection but to dehydration, starvation and exposure of survivors of the initial infection who are abandoned. In pagan communities, healthy people generally fled, and left people who might have survived to die for lack of nourishment and shelter. Christians more often wouldn’t flee, and stayed to care for the sick, even at the risk of their own lives. The result was a markedly better survival rate in Christian communities than in pagan communities. This ancient advance in medical care wasn’t from science; it was from compassion and courage. And in the midst of an deadly epidemic, compassion and courage arose then, as they so often do now, from faith and prayer.

There is no doubt that the simple tasks involved in the care for the sick — provision of food, water, shelter, and comfort — played a major role in the history of medicine. Even in the modern era of remarkable scientific achievements, such care is still essential for good medical outcomes, as any nurse or practicing doctor will attest. People are healed by the culture of medicine, not just by drugs or surgery, and that culture includes cutting edge science and basic humanitarian care. Both have deep roots in Western Judeo-Christian culture — a culture of faith and prayer.

For a modern example of the consilience of medical science and Judeo-Christian culture, consider St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. St. Jude’s is probably the leading children’s cancer center in the world, and it has been at the forefront of many of the advances in cancer care over the past several decades.

Where did St. Jude’s Hospital come from? It was founded in 1962 by Danny Thomas, an actor popular in the middle decades of the 20th century. Thomas was a devout Catholic, and during the Great Depression he struggled financially and spiritually. He was barely able to feed his family, and in despair he prayed in a Detroit church before a statue of St. Jude Thaddeus, the patron saint of the hopeless and of lost causes. Thomas asked what God wanted him to do with his life, and he promised St. Jude that he would build him a shrine if he could help him understand God’s calling for him.

Thomas’ fortunes improved, and he became a successful actor. He kept his promise to St. Jude. He came to understand, through prayer, that the shrine he was to build was to be a hospital for children with incurable diseases. He organized donors to build a hospital for children with cancer, and in 1962 St. Jude’s Hospital opened in Memphis. Thomas had two principles that were not negotiable. The hospital would become a center for the best research and clinical care for children with cancer, and no child’s family would ever pay for any of the care. Every aspect of the care — transportation, housing, the medical care itself — would be free to the families. The hospital would be a shrine to St Jude — the patron saint of the hopeless.

Within a few years doctors and researchers at St. Jude’s were at the forefront of childhood leukemia research. Due to many factors — advances in science, advances in collaboration between St. Jude’s and other cancer centers, the development of pediatric oncology as a well-defined specialty, and the development of special hospital units and nursing skills to care for these kids — survival rates for many children’s cancers, such as acute lymphocytic leukemia (the most common form of childhood cancer) improved markedly. Before the 1960’s, more than ninety percent of children with acute lymphocytic leukemia died of the disease. Today, ninety percent of children with acute lymphocytic leukemia are cured. St. Jude’s — the hospital that began with a prayer — was at the forefront of this remarkable accomplishment.

I’ve had many personal experiences with St. Jude’s Hospital (I’m a pediatric neurosurgeon). I’ve sent many of my own young patients to St. Jude’s. I’ve had children with brain tumors for whom I could offer nothing more. I did my best with surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy, to no avail. When I can’t help any more, I call my neurosurgical colleagues at St. Jude’s.

They have never asked me if the child’s family can pay, and they have never refused a patient of mine. From the moment I call, everything is paid for. St. Jude’s pays for all of the transportation, and if the child is too sick to fly commercially, they provide a private medical jet to bring the child to Memphis. The care once the kids get there is superb. I’ve had many children for whom I thought there were no good medical options, and they’ve come back to me, in six months or a year, tumor-free. I love St. Jude’s Hospital.

Where did this miracle — and it is a miracle — come from? It can be said, without exaggeration, that St. Jude’s Hospital came from a prayer. A specific prayer, offered by a destitute man in a church in Detroit in the 1930s. Thomas’ deep religious faith founded this remarkable hospital and his faith and prayer led quite directly to the remarkable advances in curing acute lymphocytic leukemia and other cancers in children.

So, pace P.Z. Myers, where do advances in medical science and in the treatment of children’s cancer really come from? Contra Myers, what really gave us this blessing isn’t merely science but a culture, the same culture that has given us thousands of hospitals and even has given us modern science itself. It’s a culture of science, compassion, and faith. It’s a Judeo-Christian culture. This culture has many manifestations — theology (which forms the basis for our metaphysics and ethics), modern science and economic prosperity (which arose from the Christian West) which enable us to pursue these noble goals, and devotion and prayer that motivates people like Danny Thomas to create great hospitals and that sustains the families of sick children and sustains the professionals who care for them. Science grew in a culture made fertile by Christian (and Jewish) faith and prayer. When science is explanted from Christian culture and is idolized — consider evolutionary psychology and eugenics — it becomes banal and even evil.
Medical science inspired by Judeo-Christian values has given us St. Jude’s Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital (at the Mayo Clinic), Presbyterian Hospital (at Columbia, my alma mater), and thousands of other hospitals with names like St. Joseph’s, St. Vincent’s, St. Luke’s, St. John’s, St. Agnes, St. Anthony, St. Barnabas, St. Catherine, St. Clares, St. Charles, St. Elizabeth, St. Francis, St. James, St. Jerome, St. Peter, St. Margaret, Mary Immaculate, Our Lady Of Lourdes, Our Lady Of Mercy, Sisters Of Charity, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Mt. Sinai, Maimonides, Beth Israel, Jewish Memorial, Holy Cross, Scared Heart, Mercy, and Good Samaritan. Where are the hospitals founded on Myers’ atheist principles? What medical advances has hatred for Judeo-Christian values given mankind?

Judeo-Christian culture is indispensable to medical science. Yet there is a modern militant atheist movement that seeks to idolize science and that preaches hatred of Christian values and faith. Pharyngula is a particularly vile expression of that movement. Yet Myers’ atheism is parasitic on the Christian culture he despises. Look again carefully at the graph of the medical data that Myers uses to extol science and to denigrate faith and prayer.
All of Myers’ data are from St. Jude’s Hospital.

Michael Egnor

Senior Fellow, Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Michael R. Egnor, MD, is a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook, has served as the Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, and award-winning brain surgeon. He was named one of New York’s best doctors by the New York Magazine in 2005. He received his medical education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and completed his residency at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His research on hydrocephalus has been published in journals including Journal of Neurosurgery, Pediatrics, and Cerebrospinal Fluid Research. He is on the Scientific Advisory Board of the Hydrocephalus Association in the United States and has lectured extensively throughout the United States and Europe.