This story surfaced (again) this week:
'Drummond's Bar (Mount Vernon, Texas) began construction on an expansion of their building to increase their business. In response, the local Baptist Church started a campaign with petitions and prayers to block the bar from expanding. Work progressed right up until the week before the grand reopening when lightning struck the bar and it burned to the ground!
After it was burned to the ground by the lightning strike, the church folks were rather smug in their outlook, bragging about "the power of prayer", until the bar owner sued the church on the grounds that the church ... 'was ultimately responsible for the demise of his building, either through direct or indirect actions or means.'
In its reply to the court, the church vehemently denied all responsibility or any connection to the building's demise. The judge read through the plaintiff's complaint and the defendant's reply, and at the opening hearing he commented, 'I don't know how I'm going to decide this, but it appears from the paperwork that we have a bar owner who believes in the power of prayer, and an entire church congregation that now does not.'
It's a great little story ... but almost certainly untrue. It first appeared here in 2007 (unless you know an earlier version) as happening in a 'small, midwestern town' and has been doing the rounds ever since. Only the details have changed. It appears on at least 50 websites and blogs that I've looked at (including Richard Dawkins') and not a single one can quote the source. Some of those sites do, at least, say that the source is unknown and that the story is most likely untrue. Most don't.
It does raise an interesting issue though.
The basis of law is that a person be considered innocent until proven otherwise. If, however, a person fervently believes that the power of prayer will cause events to happen and, in the case of this 'midwestern bar', that they did indeed cause the fire ... could they be prosecuted for the offence? The intent was there. And they believed that their actions were just as responsible as if they'd doused the place in petrol and set it alight. Surely by not prosecuting in those circumstances, the law is saying that prayer does not have the power to cause physical effects. Or, at the very least, that prayer is, in every sense, unprovable or lacking in any evidence for its existence.
As I reported here, there used to be a major loophole in English law. Up until 1981, attempted crime fell under the heading of 'common law' and test cases had created the situation that a person could not be prosecuted for attempting to commit a crime if the crime was impossible to commit. To give you an everyday example, a person who attempted to pick your pocket could not be charged with attempted theft if the pocket was empty. The crime had to be capable of being committed before you could be guilty of attempting it. The Criminal Attempts Act 1981 changed all that by, quite rightly, placing the onus upon the offender's intent rather than the possibility of their success.
The clever thing about the Criminal Attempts Act was that it created the offence of 'attempt' and could be applied alongside other legislation to anything from theft to burglary to sexual assault to embezzlement. It worked because the definition of 'attempt' meant a person doing an act which was 'more than merely preparatory to the commission of the offence'. So thinking about murdering a banker wasn't an offence, but sitting in the car outside his luxurious home with a crossbow might be. In law, attempting to commit a crime is all about intent and some degree of preparation.
So, logically, a person could be prosecuted for attempted arson if they believed their prayers would work.
There's one for the philosophers.