The Futility of Prayer Studies

If you are interested, here is a web page where someone has summarized many of the scientific studies of intercessory prayer. I have not read any of these studies in order to tease apart the methods.  Luckily for me, Dr. Candy Gunther Brown from Indiana University has done such work and is familiar with the methods.  She writes:

Researchers have attempted to design double-blinded, controlled trials of distant intercessory prayer. Intercessors are typically given the first name and condition of someone they do not know and told to pray for a complication-free recovery. Researchers base conclusions on the efficacy of prayer solely on whether subjects in the experimental group exhibit better health than those in the control group.

At this point, I have a very serious theological problem with such studies.  From a Christian perspective, I would not expect God an answer such prayers.  Give some people the first name and condition of someone they do not know and tell them  to pray for a complication-free recovery and, presto, God is forced to act?  I previously mocked Stenger’s approach to science here. Is there anyone who can make the case that such prayer studies are substantively different from my parody?

Look, in order to get a scientifically valid conclusion, the research must assume that God is like some magical force that can be compelled to act with the right incantation.  From a scientific perspective, a study which replaced prayer and instead focused on saying a magic formula would be exactly the same.  Yet from a theological perspective, we Christians do not think God is a magical force and we do not think of prayer as a magical formula that gives us the power to manipulate this force.  This is why it is irrational for atheists to ignore theology when they claim science can pass judgment on theology.

So it would seem that if we decided to favor the studies that show negative results, all that science has done is to determine that God does not behave like a Magic Genie.  But that is what Christianity has always taught.  Does this then mean that negative prayer study results are scientific evidence for the truth of Christianity?

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11 Responses to The Futility of Prayer Studies

  1. Bilbo says:

    You make a good point, Mike. If I were to agree to be involved in such an exeriment, and then tried to pray, I imagine God would just look at me and raise an eyebrow, as if to say, “So you’re putting me to the test. Really?”

    On the other hand, I think God would be much more willing to listen to a non-believer who had a genuine desire to know if He was there.

  2. Bilbo says:

    The more I think about it, the more it might make sense. Have all the Gnu Atheists participate in a double-blind study, where they are given the names of people to pray for. I don’t know if God would look kindly on such an experiment, but I’m sure the Atheists would have more luck persuading God to heal people than supposed believers who knowingly participated in such an experiment would have. For us believers, I suspect God would be tempted not to heal the people we prayed for in the experiment, just to teach us a lesson.

  3. thinkingchristian says:

    The very concept of a double-blind prayer study is laughable. It needs to be triple-blind, and the researchers need to blindfold God, to make sure his knowledge doesn’t confound the results.

    Unless he’s a vending machine God, of course–one who acts impersonally. Maybe we can say validly that these prayer studies have disproved that kind of God.

    Well, that’s news. (Yawn.)

  4. Bilbo says:

    So TC, here’s what I’m wondering: If supposed believers are conducting the experiment, God makes sure that the names of people to pray and not pray for are distributed in such a way that no correlation will be scientifically detected between prayer and healing.

    But if the experiment is conducted by praying non-believers, might God distribute the names is such a way that a correlation is scientifically detected?

  5. eveysolara says:

    The problem is if God doesn’t exist , the results of these studies is precisely what one would expect.

  6. Crude says:

    That’s silly, and Mike’s corrected that line of thinking before. He corrects it right in this post, in fact.

    You should read it – it’s enlightening.

  7. d says:

    Well, in my experience, most Christians certainly believe that God does respond to prayer in perceptible ways, sometimes by fulfilling some request. None of those people really believe he is a magic genie, but they do believe he freely responds to prayers out of compassion, mercy and love.

    And prayer studies have, for the most part, debunked that view (the view that most Christians hold). Sure there could be other factors (perhaps God feels like he is being tested, or wasn’t swayed to intercede by the people praying) – but that makes it rather hard to view testimonials for prayer among the faithful as anything stronger than confirmation bias and anecdote.

    For those of you with a more sophisticated view of prayer, maybe the study seems off base. But that just leaves in the position where we have at least two types of worldviews (non-theism and Christian theism), predicting the same reality, in at least one respect – which is that of a hidden God.

  8. Michael says:

    D: Well, in my experience, most Christians certainly believe that God does respond to prayer in perceptible ways, …..out of compassion, mercy and love.
    And prayer studies have, for the most part, debunked that view (the view that most Christians hold).

    No they have not. The prayer studies (if we choose to ignore the ones with positive results) only debunk the notion that God is a magical force that can be compelled to act by reading off some words on a card. None of those studies debunk the notion that God could answer a particular prayer out of compassion, mercy, and love. Part of the Lord’s Prayer is, “Thy will be done.” Whether or not a prayer is answered in the way we would like it answered depends on whether it conforms to His will. As such, I think serious Christians will tell you that prayer is more about getting closer to God than it is in getting things from God.

    For those of you with a more sophisticated view of prayer, maybe the study seems off base. But that just leaves in the position where we have at least two types of worldviews (non-theism and Christian theism), predicting the same reality, in at least one respect – which is that of a hidden God.

    As such, Stenger is wrong when he cites prayer studies as scientific evidence that has falsified the existence of the Christian God.

    Tell me, d. Some of those prayer studies did produce positive results. If they all produced statistically significant positive results, would you conclude “God did it” and abandon your atheism?

  9. d says:

    Michael,

    Well, it would be something interesting to consider, that’s for sure.

    Further investigation would certainly be needed before drawing any serious conclusions. What we found that prayers worked without context to any particular deity, for instance? It could be humans, rather than God (its rather peculiar that he would only do some moral good’s on account of humans asking for it), as being the source of healing (or whatever was prayed for).

  10. I’m somewhat skeptical/disillusioned about prayer in general, but I don’t see why we would not expect an answer to intercessory prayer when it’s someone we do not know, as opposed to someone we do. If someone asked you to pray for [whoever], would you tell them “Sorry, find someone who knows [this person]?” Seems to me that a first name and a condition is exactly the kind of information many Christians are limited to in intercessory prayer. You can criticize a study on these grounds, of course, but my guess is they took their queue from Christians themselves.

    —“Look, in order to get a scientifically valid conclusion, the research must assume that God is like some magical force that can be compelled to act with the right incantation.”—

    Like it or not, this is exactly the impression that many Bible passages convey – including quotes from Jesus Himself.

    I think reactions to these studies is very enlightening. My own reaction is similar; I wouldn’t really expect an answer to this kind of prayer either. But then I ask myself, what kind of prayer *would* I expect an answer to, then? And I have to confess: at least on many days, I just don’t.

    Of course, there’s the usual reply of “Well, God answers, but sometimes He says no”. Which is fair enough. But while this may provide comfort to some that their prayers are, in fact, being answered, it certainly provides no comfort in that we can *expect* our prayers to be influential, which is definitely the impression the Bible conveys.

    Along those lines, I would think that a summary of 13 studies providing positive results, and 7 not, to be encouraging – yet that’s not what I see. And despite these results, the general consensus does seem to be that studies on prayer don’t support a conclusion for effectiveness. It’s all very curious to me.

  11. eveysolara says:

    God will do what he wants to do anyway, but I think that prayer in and of itself is an act of faith and worship.

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