What’s the Use of Praying? September 18, 2014

What’s the Use of Praying?

My friend Benjamin Corey, a fellow Patheos blogger and Christian author, recently wrote that

[P]rayer is often the most effective tool a Christian has.

Effective? He’ll be visiting in a couple of weeks, and I intend to ask him, over beers, what that means. I don’t doubt that prayer can be a means of quieting or soothing your mind, like meditation. In that sense, it’s perfectly benign, even positive. (Evidently, prayer can mean many things to many people, as this fairly insipid advice from Andrew W.K. shows. Hemant wrote a very good response to it here.)

But what Corey seems to be talking about is intercessory prayer. You ask God for stuff (material or not), and if He feels like it, He’ll give it to you. Neat. I’d be a Christian too if there really was a Great Invisible Wish-Granter who, if I asked Him really nicely, could bring my parents back to life, or at least return a lost sock to me.

The efficacy of intercessory prayer is a cornerstone of Christianity; but as with almost anything else in that religion, you shouldn’t examine the premise too closely and critically … unless you’re prepared to have your faith shaken.

Eight years ago, a team led by Dr. Herbert Benson, a prominent cardiologist and researcher, published what looks to be the definitive study of intercessory prayer. The New York Times noted that

One reason the study was so widely anticipated was that it was led by Dr. Benson, who in his work has emphasized the soothing power of personal prayer and meditation. … Most of the money [for the study] came from the John Templeton Foundation, which supports research into spirituality.

Long awaited, the decade-long study concluded that intercessory prayer produced no measurable results — but if it did, the data implied, the effect was a negative one.

The large-scale experiment was pretty straightforward. The researchers asked religious people from three U.S. congregations to pray (by name) for more than 1,800 coronary-bypass patients.

The patients were broken into three groups. Two were prayed for; the third was not. Half the patients who received the prayers were told that they were being prayed for; half were told that they might or might not receive prayers. …

Analyzing complications in the 30 days after the operations, the researchers found no differences between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not.

In another of the study’s findings, a significantly higher number of the patients who knew that they were being prayed for — 59 percent — suffered complications, compared with 51 percent of those who were uncertain. The authors left open the possibility that this was a chance finding. But they said that being aware of the strangers’ prayers also may have caused some of the patients a kind of performance anxiety.

“It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?” Dr. Bethea [a co-author of the study] said.

In a rational world, that ought to probably have been the end of it, but the world isn’t a rational place by any stretch. For instance, one of Corey’s commenters writes that s/he knows, with great certainty, that intercessory prayer works, no steenking studies needed.

I know for a fact that my sister, who is a devout Catholic, has had prayers answered many times. For example, when her daughter was pregnant with her 8th baby and had several serious complications in her pregnancy, and my sister had been praying for her daughter, the problems disappeared without doctors having to intervene. When my sister needed to find a home for a dog, she prayed to St. Francis of Assissi, and a relative called to say she wanted a dog. When her son wanted to attend a specific college in another state, but his grades were poor and he had very little chance of being accepted, she did 12 (!) novenas (prayed to 12 different saints, for 9 days). On the last day, the college called her to say that they had decided to accept her son.

Sampling error, anyone?

Wow — God got this person’s low-performing nephew into the college of his choice! That’s so amazing! I suppose He was so busy helping undermotivated students get degrees that he couldn’t or didn’t lift a finger for parents who prayed tearfully for their leukemia-stricken child to be cured. And He let her die.

The Almighty also granted the prayer about an unwanted dog needing a new home, and still had time in His day to kill a few thousand ardent believers, despite their fervent prayers, in an earthquake or a tsunami. Praise God!

Anecdotal evidence is fine as far as it goes, but it means nothing if it isn’t confirmed by proper data, scientifically collected and interpreted, from very large samples of people, with a peer-review mechanism in place. Those studies have been done, and the most rigorous ones say that intercessory prayer produces no (or negative) results.

There are two positive outcomes of prayer that I can see. One is, as mentioned, that prayer can put you in a contemplative, even meditative mindset. (So can gazing at the stars, taking a warm bath, daydreaming, and yoga.) That’s the inward effect. It’s possible that there’s also an outward effect: people who have inner peace and calm, attained through prayer, may well radiate some of that calm, potentially infecting/influencing others by lowering situational stress or aggression.

But there are also negative effects of prayer, and they go well beyond what Benson, Bethea et al found. There’s the lost time spent on one’s knees, rather than being productive and actively trying to bring about the wished-for results. There’s also the regrettable inclination of way too many Christians to not only do their praying so that others may see their religious observance (contrary to what the Good Book instructs), but also to insist that public prayer ought to be injected in situations where it constitutionally has no business.

I don’t find it to be true that atheists are hostile to prayer. Most of us don’t care if you talk to God. If you say it helps you, we’ll shrug and go about our business; no harm, no foul. But if you insist that prayer is effective, you’re going to have to show us how; and if you foist prayer upon us in schools, in council meetings, et cetera, we’ll be glad to tell you that we’re on to you, and that your efforts to tear down the Establishment Clause really don’t have a prayer.

(Image via Atheist Meme Base)


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