Many aspects of religion are required to be taken on faith. Elements of the religion are inherently untestable or unmeasurable. The call by President Russell M. Nelson of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for a worldwide day of fasting and prayer provides a rare opportunity to measure the impact that faith has in real world events with real data. Results indicate that the fast did not cause any positive deviations from predictions by scientists.
Fasting has been shown to reduce the immune systems ability to fight viral infections. Unless clear benefit can be demonstrated by fasting, it should NOT be encouraged even for asymptomatic individuals. Fasting could be increasing the spread of the disease and subsequent death toll of the greater society.
The Call for a Worldwide Fast
During April 2020 General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson asked the Church to “unite in pleading for healing throughout the world.”
“I invite all, including those not of our faith, to fast and pray on Good Friday, April 10th, that the present pandemic may be controlled, caregivers protected, the economy strengthened, and life normalized,”President Russell M. Nelson, April 4, 2020
Using data about the pandemic and economy, we can look for indications that these four objectives were met, and how effective fasting and prayer are compared to other practices like social distancing and hand washing.
The effects of the pandemic were within the ranges of those predicted by experts on the eve of the fast. Certainly fasting was not nearly as effective as washing hands and social distancing.
Impact of the Fast
Control of the Pandemic
We can use the case of South Korea as a control, to see how the epidemic moves through a society without fasting and prayer. The wave of COVID-19 had pretty much moved through South Korea before the worldwide fast, and South Korea has excellent data collection. A COVID-19 wave that is muted by mitigating factors such as social distancing will look this. Death toll curves will look similar, but lag by a week or so.
|Country||Predicted date of peak deaths||Predicted daily deaths at peak||Actual date of peak deaths||Actual daily deaths at peak|
|United States||April 10||1,983||April 21||2,693|
|United Kingdom||April 17||1,674||April 21||1,172|
|Italy||March 27||969||March 27||969|
|Spain||April 2||961||April 2||961|
|France||April 7||1,417||April 15||1,438|
|Netherlands||May 4||468||April 7||234|
|Belguim||April 7||403||April 10||496|
|Sweden||May 4||379||April 21||185|
|Germany||April 8||333||April 8||333|
|Switzerland||May 4||124||April 4||75|
The following chart shows the death count from COVID-19 worldwide in black, and the top 5 most infected countries below. The dark blue vertical line is April 10, the day of the worldwide fast.
Each individual country has followed a predictable pattern. Rapid exponential growth, followed by a leveling off and slow decline a week or two after each country implemented social distancing measures. France and Italy began to see a peak and decline in late March.
Worse than what was predicted, the United States daily death toll actually reached its peak on April 21st, about a week later than projected. The peak daily death toll was also higher than predicted, coming in at 2,683. The total daily death toll of the first wave will also be far higher than the 60,415 projected on the eve of the fast.
There is no indication that the fast was successful in achieving its objective of controlling the pandemic. If anything, things became worse after the worldwide fast. Given the COVID-19 dataset and no context, no researcher would be be able to determine the date that the fast occurred. Behavioral changes like washing hands and social distancing have far greater measurable impact than fasting and prayer, at least in this instance.
Protection of Caregivers
It is clear though, that caregivers have born the brunt of the COVID-19, and their infection rates are higher than the general population. If there has been an impact, I know of no research that indicates a significant change on or around April 10th. There are no reports of worldwide healing or reduced infection of caregivers. The effects of the fast on caregivers has not been noticeable.
Is the economy better off because of the worldwide fast? Data shows that outcomes were not different than predictions. One indicator is jobless claims.
|Week Ending||Predicted Jobless Claims (million)||Actual Jobless Claims (million)|
By the time the fast occurred, the downward acceleration had already begun. In nearly every week after the fast, the actual jobless claims were worse than predicted. Just two weeks after the fast, continuing jobless claims hit a new record of 22.647 million in the week ended April 25th. For reference, the peak weekly job losses during the great recession was never more than 1 million. These are horrific numbers by any measure.
On April 9th, at the same time that jobless claims were increasing, the stock market was also going up. Stock investors are paid to predict the future economy, clearly they though things would get better in the future, despite the jobless claims.
There is little indication that the fast had a positive impact on the economy. The economy has responded well within the range of what was predicted.
Even when the black plague hit Europe, it could be argued that life eventually became normalized. Without a time frame, or stronger definition of what exactly “normalized” means, this is objective is impossible to measure.
I am not aware of any prediction anywhere that feels life will not eventually normalize.
Interestingly, on June 2nd, the Church announced that the October General Conference would be closed to the public. It seems that life is not expected to be normalized by the first week of October.
Problem with the fast – specificity
Although the objectives are mostly measurable, they lack specific details that would help determine what success means. There is no timeline for fullfillment. Perhaps in the Prophet’s mind the fast was meant to be fullfilled at a later date.
Without specificity, the Church opens itself up to to the same criticism leveled at Horoscopes. Astrologists are able to convince their readers by creating predictions so general or obvious that they will always come true.
Because the experiment is not repeatable (hopefully!), we cannot decisively state that the fast worked or not. What we can do is state definitively that there was no difference between the predicted outcome without the fast, and the actual outcome after the fast.
Response by the Church
The lack of impact of the fast should indicate to the Church that something went wrong. Either fasting in general does not work, or miracles have ceased due to a lack of faith. If fasting does not work, then it should be stopped. If there is a lack of faith, it should be acknowledged, with probably a call to repentance.
Seven days after the fast, President Nelson apparently felt it was successful, writing on Facebook:
“I wish to express my deep gratitude to all who participated in the recent fasts. … Fasting reminds me of the supreme sacrifice that our Savior, Jesus Christ, made for each of us. As we look forward to a recovery from this worldwide pandemic, I pray that we will find a stronger relationship with our Savior, Jesus Christ. He is our Master Healer. He will heal our broken hearts. He will bestow upon us personal peace and comfort.”President Russell M. Nelson, April 17th
Certainly fasting can be a spiritually fulfilling experience, and this is the aspect of success that President Nelson focused on. However he conspicuously neglected to comment on whether the stated objectives of the fast were fulfilled, only vaguely mentioning that he looks forward to a recovery.
On April 20th 2020, 10 days after the worldwide fast, Elder Dale G. Renlund posted on Facebook about the 1918 influenza pandemic,
“The only things that really made any difference were the same simple things that we can personally do to avoid infection: washing our hands, not touching our faces, social distancing, disinfecting surfaces, and not going to work when sick.”Elder Dale G. Renlund, Facebook Post, April 20th 2020
It is striking that fasting and prayer are not on that list so soon after the global fast. I don’t want to twist Elder Renlund’s words. He is not explicitly stating that fasting is not effective nor is it the point of his post. That said, his response and attitude are typical, and unconsciously, an unintended recognition that fasting and prayer are not effective on blunting the spread of COVID-19.
If fasting and prayer really made a difference, the logical response would be sending missionaries to give blessings at hospitals around the world, similar to when malaria plagued the Church in Nauvoo. As with any other treatment, the effectiveness of prayer and fasting could be observed and measured.
On May 7th, a a Church news release titled “Global Fast Touches Many Lives” talked about the uniting impact of the fast, but again neglected to address the the stated purpose.
– Don’t call for any more fasts. It is reckless. Cancel first Sunday of the month fasts. Research indicates that fasting is dangerous for those with viral infections. Although the Church noted that people should only fast if their health permits, most people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic and should not be fasting. The worldwide fast might literally have killed people.
– If you are going to fast, fast with greater purpose. The first two worldwide fasts in the Church’s history were called for by President Spencer W. Kimball In the 1980s, as a result of an awful famine in Ethiopia where millions died. The fast was called to raise money to alleviate the suffering, and the church raised $11 million, a significant sum for the Church in those days. This is an unambiguous, measurable, positive impact. There is lots of suffering that could be helped with money raised by a fast. The church has donated just $5.5 million as of April 30th, 2020, a truly pathetic number compared to the resources the Church has available to donate. This is so disappointing.
– Be more specific. Fast and pray for a certain percentage to be healed in a certain amount of time. There is nothing doctrinal that prevents this, nor is it immoral to do so.
– Gather data from priesthood blessings and compare it to a population who did not receive a blessing. Doing this over time would provide Church leadership with a useful metric for tracking faith. Assuming God is changeless, the percent healed will go up and down with the people’s faith. If done with the right motive, this would not be a sinful act.
– If data indeed shows that fasting, prayer and priesthood blessings are effective means of stopping the spread, it will show up in the data and be a useful missionary tool, be convincing evidence of God’s existence, and encourage others testimonies. Missionaries should be sent to give blessings at hospitals around the world, similar to when malaria plagued the Church in Nauvoo. By doing so the effectiveness of prayer and fasting could be observed and measured.