What Does It Mean for Prayer to be Untestable?

People who are ignorant of science sometimes speak as if the scientific method was some esoteric, arcane method of problem-solving, applicable only to a few highly specialized areas of inquiry and having no relevance to everyday life. But nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, the scientific method is just a more sophisticated, more careful way of asking and answering questions about what is true, with extra safeguards built in to counteract the ways that human beings often fool or mislead ourselves. In principle, science can answer any question whose answer is a matter of empirical fact and not just a matter of opinion or subjective judgment.

This fact has implications for a broad range of religious claims, especially about the efficacy of prayer. Large, well-designed scientific studies have repeatedly failed to find any evidence that sick people who are being prayed for recover faster or more completely than people who aren’t. In response, many apologists have retreated to claiming that prayer’s effectiveness can’t be tested scientifically, such as this one:

Luckily for everyone, scientific attempts to prove or disprove God are all doomed to failure. We live in exactly the world the thoughtful Christian would expect to find. For those who believe, hints of God are everywhere. But none are convincing. Faith remains a requirement…

But this claim probably says more than its originator intended. When theists say that prayer is untestable, what they’re really saying, whether they realize it or not, is that prayer has no measurable effect on the world. If it did have a measurable, repeatable effect, we could easily design an experiment that would show it. But since believers say that this can’t be done, they must mean that prayer has no benefits that can be proven by any test. Consider some of the consequences that necessarily follow from this claim:

Sick theists who pray for healing are no more likely to recover than sick atheists. If people who were prayed for recovered more quickly or more fully than people receiving no prayer, we could easily show this with a test. That was the point of the MANTRA study I linked to above. But if prayer is untestable, then that must mean that prayer has no measurable effect on a person’s recovery, regardless of how many people are offering prayers for them or how fervent those people are in their faith.

Theists who pray for success and prosperity are no more likely to receive it than atheists. Prosperity-gospel churches often teach that the more money a believer tithes, the more God will reward them. Again, a longitudinal study tracking the amount of people’s donations and comparing it to their subsequent financial success could easily show this to be so. If prayer is untestable, however, this must mean that the amount of money you give to your church has no effect on the odds of your subsequently becoming rich.

More committed, more faithful believers have their prayers answered at the same rate as more casual, less committed believers. Even if you start with the assumption that God only grants prayers that agree with his will, it seems like a reasonable guess that more devoted, more committed believers would have at least a slightly greater understanding of God’s will than casual, apathetic churchgoers, and hence their prayers would be more likely to come true. But if prayer is untestable, there must be no such measurable effect, which means that one’s level of commitment means nothing to the effectiveness of one’s prayers.

The number of people praying for some outcome makes no difference to its probability. Even if the level of one’s devotion makes no difference, you might guess that the number of people praying for some outcome would be correlated with how likely that outcome is. But if prayer is untestable, then it must make no difference whether one, a hundred, or a million people pray for something – it would be just as likely, or rather unlikely, to come true.

The specific beliefs of the people praying for some outcome makes no difference to its probability. If there’s one true religion, it seems likely that God would only answer the prayers of believers in that religion, or at least would answer their prayers more frequently than the prayers of heretics. But that would also be an easily testable effect. If prayer is untestable, there must be no such effect, and this means that people of all religions – Christian, Muslim, Mormon, Hare Krishna, Jain, Zoroastrian, Shinto – would see their prayers come true with roughly the same frequency.

People who pray daily are no more happier, no more virtuous, and no more trustworthy than people who rarely or never pray. Some people claim that prayer doesn’t produce miraculous effects in the world, but is intended to strengthen the faith and improve the character of the believer. But even this can’t be true if prayer is untestable. If people who are otherwise alike in social standing are measurably different in any positive psychological trait, depending on whether or how often they pray, this would be a testable effect. We could measure it with the same kind of epidemiological surveys that measure the beneficial health effects of diet or exercise. If this kind of test wouldn’t work, then it must be the case that prayer produces no detectable change in the character of the believer.

Nations populated by people who pray frequently are no more socially healthy than irreligious nations. Building on the last point, if prayer has no measurable effect, this must apply to nations as well as people. This means that nations of fervent believers who pray frequently are no different from godless, atheist nations in every measure of social health: divorce rates, crime rates, number and severity of natural disasters, overall happiness of the populace, and so on.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    Large, well-designed scientific studies have repeatedly failed to find any evidence that sick people who are being prayed for recover faster or more completely than people who aren’t.

    With a couple exceptions.
    A study by Elisabeth Targ which was found to be fraudulent.
    (Long-time skeptics may recognize the surname; her father Russell Targ was into remot viewing and other psychic nonsense.)

    The Columbia Prayer Study was found to be fraudulent. (Technically it may not qualify since it ws not well-designed.)

    Thus, studies indeed have failed to find convincing evidence for the efficacy of intercessory prayer, but they have been successful in highlighting the prevalence of fraud and misrepresentation among advocates.

  • CSN

    First of all I’d just like to say: “non-overlapping magisteria” my foot!

    “More committed, more faithful believers have their prayers answered at the same rate as more casual, less committed believers.”

    In my experience the more so-called “sophisticated” believers tend to add a lot more “thy will be done” to their prayers, though of course their own will in the matter (and choice of matter to pray about) is still in there to be sure. So in a way their prayers may in fact be more likely to be answered, in so much as they’re praying for things to happen as they were going to anyway! Just another one of their tangled web of belief-self-defense mechanisms.

    I pray that we will all diligently point out that the kind of god untouchable by science is the kind that doesn’t do anything, and probably not a kind they’re interested in believing in.

  • http://she-who-chatters.blogspot.com D

    @ Reginald Selkirk: I’m just going to go ahead and say that “fraudulent” and “well-designed” are mutually exclusive when it comes to scientific inquiries. No offense or nothin’. :)

    Great post, Ebon! I especially like the closing point, as there is an inverse correlation between national religiosity and societal health. I must admit that I’ve always found prayer to be paradoxical, if not outright oxymoronic. I mean, if God’s got a plan, and he’s in control, and he well & truly knows what’s up, then what the Hell are you gonna have to say about it? I mean, do you think you’re gonna change God’s mind (like Moses)? Isn’t that tantamount to saying you think you know better than God? But even if you design your prayer to bring you around to seeing things God’s way, shouldn’t God’s plan also cover how well you’re able to square yourself with it already? And if you’re praying for what God plans to do anyway – either by chance, or by tautologically praying “thy will be done” – then what the Hell good does your prayer actually do, if that’s what was going to happen anyway? Moreover, what right do you have to claim that praying somehow makes you a better person, since God’s master plan for the entire Universe must perforce cover how much you’re gonna be praying anyhow?

    Of course, the last response could be that it’s not “about” God or the world or any part of external reality, but just a conditioning thing designed to inculcate submission to the divine will (nevermind whether we can have any external measure of what that is and how well we can square ourselves with it). I suppose that’s justified when you consider how much of prayer amounts to yammering on about God’s good-golly-greatness. Still: stupid, stupid, stupid.

  • Jeff

    Back in the ’90′s and early ’00′s, Larry Dossey wrote a series of books in which he claimed to have done a survey of something on the order of 140 experiments (at least some with reliable methodology), many of which demonstrated a positive correlation between prayer and healing.

    Now these studies come along and claim the opposite. I don’t know what to think.

  • Tacroy

    I just wanted to point out that God could just change the results (e.g, silently modify the databases, corrupt the results of your queries, etc) such that the observed effect of prayer is nil while the actual effect of prayer is significant. Thus, prayer could be effective but not provably so.

    Of course such petty douchehattery is not something most people are willing to impute to God. It’s also why any discourse about logic and reason is meaningless in the face of an omnipotent deity.

  • Wednesday

    Great post. The answering of prayers has always created an ethical question for me – if you know praying will increase your chances of getting a job, maybe even over more-qualified (and possibly more-needy) competitors, is it ethical to pray that you get the job? How can a prayer-answering god possibly be ethical, since prayer working means that in some cases people will die _only_ because no one/not enough people prayed for them.

    When it comes to untestability, though, the apologists have another out besides effectively admitting prayer never works. It’s a rather uncomfortable for most theists, though, so they’re not likely to invoke it.

    Basically, there’s an implicit assumption in these experiments it that whatever rules governing prayer and recovery/ethics/etc are constant. But it’s entirely possible that the supernatural being who answers prayers is a trickster god, or simply in a contrary mood whenever the experiments are performed, and they deliberately change their own approach to answering prayers so that the empirical data shows no effect. So this god might be perfectly happy to answer prayers so long as no human is going to be tracking data in a well-defined study. (Sort of how Santa won’t come if you stay up all night watching.)

    If you allow for sufficiently powerful trickster gods, the scientific method cannot be applied to anything to do with them, because they could always change the data just to mess with us.

  • DSimon

    Wednesday, they can use that as an out, but only if they’re willing to say that they believe in something with literally no good evidence for it, since what they’re arguing is that the very act of collecting good evidence about prayer causes prayer to fail. It’s very suspicious behavior.

  • Hendy

    The paradox is that believers want all supposed answered prayers to count toward evidence of god’s goodness/perfection, while unanswered prayers or un-averted disaster say nothing about the same being. I keep running into a wall in recent discussions as any attempt to use standard definitions on god apparently fail, specifically that of “love.”

    - Would god prevent a 5 year old from being raped and killed? No known human reasons exist why a capable bystander would be viewed as moral or loving for allowing this to happen. But god is different.

    - Would a loving god answer the requests of the desperate when he obviously has shown this ability before (manna in desert, parting of seas, etc.)? We can’t think of a reason that a human who could answer a desperate request for basic needs or healing would be loving or moral if they failed to do so (e.g. doctor who chooses to “sit this one out”?).

    I get the attractiveness of saying, “Well we just don’t know what god’s plans or reasons are, so stop trying,” but if this is so… how do we know anything about him?

    Who are you worshiping when you sing praise to god for being loving, perfect, holy, pure, wonderful, etc. if all of the definitions fail to apply when using the only definitions we know? If god fails our conception of love… he’s not actually loving. He’s something else we haven’t come up with a word for yet.

  • Tito

    Very important stuff Ebon. Please check out this very funny and Relevant Comic from Russell’s Teapot.

    In my christian experience (before seeing the light of reason)I think more “mature” christians definitely learn to tone down the types of requests and throw in more “god’s will” disclaimers. They also are more “gifted” in interpreting seeming misses as being hits (e.g. you didn’t get that job but now you get to mature through suffering, yay god rulez!)

    Also Evid3nc3′s video on prayer is the best explanation I’ve seen of the internals of how a christian learns to dilute the types of prayers made and measurable expectations, all in the context of christianity.

  • Wednesday

    @DSimon – oh, that’s definitely a problem for that particular way out. They could hedge it a bit, say that they have it on good authority that their god only does this when skeptics might be looking in. This sort of thing is a common claim of psychics, so it’s not without precedent.

    But in general, Trickster gods are not all that far off from “what you think is reality is just a hallucination and you are actually a brain in a vat” when it comes to totally shutting things down. Once they are a possibility, then you can’t know anything, because you cannot trust any source of information.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The reason they claim prayer is untestable is because they fear the results of such testing.

  • http://www.skepticaloccultism.com pendens proditor

    It surprises me how rarely theists realize that as they push God further and further out of the reach of skeptics in order to protect him from scrutiny, they push him out of their own reach as well. It always makes me picture a cartoon character sawing a tree limb out from under another character without noticing which side of the saw he’s standing on.

  • Tom

    The general pattern is that if you pray by asking for something specific, you’ll be disappointed. The book practically spells this out for you with the whole “don’t test god” thing; and any expectation of a specific result from a specific request is a de-facto test. In short, “them as asks don’t get.”

    The way a lot of prayer seems to try to get around this problem rather puts me in mind of the etiquette of bribing a policeman or other official (I’ve never had occasion to do this, but I’ve seen a few anecdotes and guides on how to do it from people who allegedly have, successfully) – you apparently have to be very careful never to do anything that could remotely be technically construed to be an offer of a bribe, whilst still making the cop aware that that’s what you’re doing.

    I gather, for example, that if you try anything so unsubtle as saying “I’m offering you fifty bucks to let me through that checkpoint,” the odds are he will go through the whole formal procedure to haul your arse into gaol for bribery, just to make extra sure he himself can’t be nailed for anything; what you do instead is drop careful hints, remarking about other things that would seem unconnected to someone not already looking for the hidden pattern, so that, by small degrees, each party can slowly inch towards the mere implication, never the outright statement, that one might be willing to, say, take a slightly longer patrol than usual away from the gate having perhaps forgotten to lock it, while the other might be so careless as to accidentally drop some money on the ground as he left, which someone else might then fairly pick up, without ever knowing where it came from.

    Prayer seems very similar; none but the completely divorced from reality say anything like “Lord, please reach down out of the sky and pluck those people on their roofs away from the floodwaters,” or “Lord, please cause the crops to give twice their normal yield next harvest to stop the famine,” because even the most fanatical theists have realised, at some level, after thousands of years of negative results that this simply never works. Instead, they take the bribery approach, a sort of remarking-in-passing-about-horrible-things-you-don’t-seem-to-be-doing-anything-about-but-we-wouldn’t-make-so-bold-as-to-tell-you-your-business: “Lord, we pray for those poor people on their roofs in the flood. We think about those who are starving. We are aware of the civil war in such and such a place; we deeply sympathise with their pain and hope that it ends soon.”

    No mention of who might end said pain, or precisely how it might be done, or anything remotely like a deadline. No imperatives, ever. No pleading or direct supplication, even. Just a very carefully passive statement of an undesirable aspect of the present, like an idle remark of no consequence, as if the reason for bringing it up in conversation (well, a one-sided one, at least) with an omniscient, omnipotent being weren’t completely obvious.

  • http://orandat.wordpress.com Orandat

    I’ve heard one philosopher claim that god is trying to communicate with humans; he’s like a perfect transmitter, but we lowly, imperfect humans with our limited intellect cannot precisely receive his message, which supposedly explains why there are so many different religions and sects with them and religious books and so on. This seems to me an excellent position for theists to adopt, although it is similar to the “god works in mysterious ways” clause. They could then claim some prayers make it to god without error, but because humans are imperfect transmitters, god, even with his perfect reception, finds some prayers garbled and incomprehensible and therefore impossible to grant.

  • TommyP

    Good post, saved it to my desktop. Gonna be very useful, my thanks!

  • http://peternothnagle.com Peter N

    I like Emo Philips’ joke, “When I was a kid, I used to pray every night for a new bike. Then I realized, the Lord doesn’t work that way. So I just stole one and asked Him to forgive me … and I got it!”

  • http://www.poopingwithoutpeeing.com Swimmy

    We live in exactly the world the thoughtful Christian would expect to find.

    I guess that excludes several New Testament authors, including Paul, from being counted as “thoughtful” Christians. They insisted, again and again, that prayer does have an effect on the world. This plain fact is just as demonstrable as the plain fact that prayer doesn’t work.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    No mention of who might end said pain, or precisely how it might be done, or anything remotely like a deadline. No imperatives, ever. No pleading or direct supplication, even. Just a very carefully passive statement of an undesirable aspect of the present, like an idle remark of no consequence, as if the reason for bringing it up in conversation (well, a one-sided one, at least) with an omniscient, omnipotent being weren’t completely obvious.

    Tom wins the thread! That comment was pure brilliance.

    I remember an old Usenet post thread on a similar topic: a young girl had been abducted off the street, and her parents went on the news to plead for her safety – asking people to pray that she’d somehow get free from the kidnappers and find a phone, or that someone would spot her and call the police. Their desperation and concern for their child is fully understandable, of course, but as someone on the thread observed: “Why don’t they just ask people to pray to God to smite the kidnappers, and then the police could follow the column of smoke to their hideout?”

    It does seem that what distinguishes moderate believers from fundamentalists is that moderate believers are very careful to only pray for things that are at least reasonably likely to happen through natural means. That way, when that thing does happen by chance, as it inevitably will on occasion, they can give God the credit for it and use it as proof that their prayers are effective.

    This could be taken as an admission that they know, at some subconscious level, that prayer doesn’t work. After all, the miracles in the Bible aren’t people standing around and saying, “Whew, that was lucky!” – they’re obvious and blatant violations of natural law. But it seems that most theists, even if they won’t admit it to themselves, know better than to believe that any such thing could actually happen in response to human desire.

  • javaman
  • Domyan

    I am constantly amazed by the lack of even the basic understanding of the scientific method apparent in a typical religious ‘study’. Both my parents are in a quasi-christian cult (Bruno Groening miracle healer) and if it wasn’t so sad it would be funny how much time and energy they spend carefully cataloguing, in great and often completely irrelevant detail, all the instances when something positive happened to one of the cult’s followers. Thousands of pages of ‘miracle’ reports have been written and carefully filed away. They range from a cured cancer to such ‘miracles’ as a “The car that used to park in front of my window that I didn’t quite like the look of (it was a really cheep and old), after my prayer, now parks a bit down the road and a new BMW started parking in front of my house!” – I kid you not!
    Naturally, no ‘failed miracle’ reports get written (as such cases can easily be explained by the lack of faith of the person asking for help or even the wrong ‘technique’ of praying for help). Also, no reports get revised once filed if the person later turns out not to be healed from the illness of which he was ‘cured’.

    Anecdotal evidence is the only ‘evidence’ they understand and no matter how many times I try to explain to them why their methodology is invalid, they keep insisting that what they have is clear scientific evidence. When I point out the real scientific studies that show no effect of prayer they note that those studies are ‘too scientific’ and as such inherently hostile to religion and unfair. I don’t think I can change their mind on that subject no mater how hard I tried, and I am a physics teacher so should be able to explain it pretty well and they are highly educated so should be able to understand. It’s enough to drive a sane person crazy, I can tell you!

    What I thought to ask you is an opinion on a idea I had. As all religions LOVE anecdotal evidence and dismiss all real scientific studies, how about we atheists start building a database of silly anecdotes of our own? Each time something positive happens in our lives we make a note of it and post it somewhere on the net. Bonus points if we can find the ‘real cause’ why the thing happened in our actions that presided it. Later we could link to the database each time someone serves us a anecdote as a ‘proof’ of their beliefs.

  • Jeff

    I’ve heard one philosopher claim that god is trying to communicate with humans; he’s like a perfect transmitter, but we lowly, imperfect humans with our limited intellect cannot precisely receive his message

    All people of faith employ this defense mechanism, in one form or another. The Buddhists – particularly the Tibetans and their Western acolytes – do the same thing. The Buddhas are, supposedly, continually raining down blessings upon you, but you can’t receive them because of the negative karma you’ve been accumulating from “beginningless time”.

    There’s always a rationalization. Always.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    @ Reginald Selkirk: I’m just going to go ahead and say that “fraudulent” and “well-designed” are mutually exclusive when it comes to scientific inquiries. No offense or nothin’. :)

    What I mean by a “well-designed study” (as opposed to a well-implemented study) is this: if the study had actually been carried out as reported, and the results really were as reported, everyone would have said, “what an excellent study! It clearly proves X.”

    This is not the case with the Columbia Prayer Study, for example. Instead, researchers reading the study said, “WTF?” (OK, I’m paraphrasing.) As related by Bruce Flamm:

    However, even a cursory review of the report reveals many potential flaws. For one thing, the study protocol was convoluted and confusing, involving at least three levels of overlapping and intertwining prayer groups. Tiers 1 and 2 each consisted of four blocks of prayer participants. Prayer participants in tier 1, block A, received a single sheet of paper with five IVF patient’s pictures (a treatment “unit”) and prayed in a directed manner with a specific intent to “increase the pregnancy rate” for these patients about whom they apparently had no information whatsoever. Prayer participants in tier 2, block A, apparently performed two different types of prayer. First, they prayed for their fellow prayer participants in tier 1, block A, with the intent to “increase the efficacy of prayer intervention.” In other words, they were apparently praying to increase the effectiveness of their colleagues’ prayers, whatever those prayers might be. Next they prayed in a nondirected manner for the study patients with the “intent that God’s will or desire be fulfilled in the life of the patient.” Similar prayers apparently took place in all of the other blocks. Finally, in addition to all of the above groups, tiers, blocks, and units, a separate group of three individuals prayed in a general nonspecific manner with the intent that “God’s will or desire be fulfilled for the prayer participants in tiers 1 and 2.” In other words, these final three prayer participants were praying to increase the efficacy of the second tier of prayer participants who were in turn praying to increase the efficacy of the first tier of prayer participants who were in turn praying for increased pregnancy rates in the study patients.

    As can be seen from this brief description, the study protocol was so convoluted and confusing that it cannot be taken seriously…

  • jane hay

    As to the last paragraph, don’t forget these classic links (I never tire of pointing this out to theists and my conservative but atheist brother-in-law alike) :

    http://www.miller-mccune.com/culture-society/who-needs-god-when-we-ve-got-mammon-5634/

    http://bn.promo.web.id/most-of-the-top-ten-worlds-happiest-countries-are-secular-nations-with-declining-christian-populations

  • purpletempest

    Recent study:

    http://geoconger.wordpress.com/2010/08/17/healing-prayer-works-us-study-finds-the-church-of-england-newspaper-aug-13-2010-p-6/

    Note the following: “A study to be published next month in an American medical journal reports that “proximal intercessory prayer” (PIP) — when one or more people pray for someone in that person’s presence and with physical contact – has been found to have remarkable results in healing the sick.” (Emphasis mine)

    I’m thinking clearly a placebo effect possibly combined with confirmation bias; if these people believe they are going to get healed, voila they see improvement. Thoughts?

  • Nurse Ingrid

    purpletempest:

    Agreed. How, exactly, could the study you describe have a control arm?

    Maybe we atheists could hire ourselves out as “placebo pray-ers” for these studies! We could recite the words but not mean them. But we’d still be there at the bedside, providing a comforting presence and physical contact. No way to control for that, at least none that I can think of.

  • http://www.daylightatheism.org Ebonmuse

    I just wanted to point out that God could just change the results (e.g, silently modify the databases, corrupt the results of your queries, etc) such that the observed effect of prayer is nil while the actual effect of prayer is significant. Thus, prayer could be effective but not provably so.

    Hah! Touche, Tacroy. Of course, if you’re going to go so far as to attribute that level of deceptiveness to God, you pretty much have to give up on the idea that empirical evidence could ever tell you anything about the world. If a Christian apologist was prepared to countenance that as an explanation for a negative result, it would be equally valid to say that any studies which do show a positive effect from prayer prove the existence of Loki, who just loves to play pranks on Christians by occasionally answering their prayers, just to keep them confused about who the real god is.

    What I thought to ask you is an opinion on a idea I had. As all religions LOVE anecdotal evidence and dismiss all real scientific studies, how about we atheists start building a database of silly anecdotes of our own?

    Domyan, you might like my post When Prayer Fails.

    Maybe we atheists could hire ourselves out as “placebo pray-ers” for these studies! We could recite the words but not mean them.

    You make me laugh, Nurse Ingrid. Loki would be pleased. ;)

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Hey, Ebon, it’s just that I really could use a second job right now…

  • TEP

    What could be done is to get the people making the prayers to voice them in a language the recipient isn’t familiar with. They could have a control group where the pray-er simply reads the text of a car maintenance manual, and several groups which pray to various gods (Ra, Yahweh, Baal Hadad, Thor, Asclepius, the Rainbow Serpent, etc). Not only would we get a good idea of whether or not prayer works, we would also find out which gods it is more effective to pray to, and consequently, which gods are the more powerful (it would also be possible to rank the gods in order of power by pitting them against each other one on one, with one person praying to one god to heal the patient, and the other praying to another god for the patient to get sicker).

  • Reginald Selkirk

    “Recent study:…”

    The study to be published in the September issue of the Southern Journal of Medicine is part of a larger research program conducted by medical and religion scholars funded by the John Templeton Foundation Flame of Love Project, on the cultural significance and experience of spiritual healing practices.

    The Southern Journal of Medicine, which I have never heard of, is not quite as prestigious and the New England Journal of Medicine, or the Lancet. With such a breakthrough study, one wonders why they didn’t go for the most prestigious journals.

    Templeton funding? Kiss of death. I shan’t be able to take it seriously.

  • Lion IRC

    Stress is a cause of disease.
    Prayer (AKA meditation) lowers stress.
    Therefore – prayer lowers disease.

    Some evolutionary biologists claim that religion has prevailed because it confers a survival advantage – namely the placebo effect.

    Religion is a marker of “longevity” – the definitive word for health.

    Lion (IRC)

  • Harle

    p.s First time poster long time lurker. I love this blog its like Adam is taking all my incoherent thoughts/feelings and writing them down in a way that makes sense ^__^.

    Lion
    I seriously hope you are not in a position to care for the sick. If I can have a guarantee that I’ll only live to be 50 and not be sick( CFS & osteoarthritis sucks) I’ll take it and so would any sane person suffering a serious non terminal illness. Get a hold of a dictionary and look up the word health again or for the first time… Whats is it with Religious people redefining words and stretching it out of all meaning?

    Stress is a cause of disease.
    Prayer (AKA meditation) lowers stress.
    Therefore – prayer lowers disease

    Wow what a load of ….. So according to this my very religious grandmother who died of cancer was praying wrong or not enough. Mediation is one thing, praying for some sky daddy to magically heal you instead of going to the doctors and following their advice is tantamount to suicide by ommission. Yes its strongly worded but thats a close as I can get to writing down how I feel.

    Prayer does absoutely jack! Theist use it as an excuse not to bare their responsibilities, washing their hands of it saying “its in gods hands now” not trying to solve their owns problems like adults, they wait around for daddy to come and fix it. Then they make more excuses when he doesn’t show up.

    grr rant over

  • Harle

    Religion is not a marker for anything except the terminally childish.

  • Scotlyn

    I absolutely love the picture Tom at #13 evoked, of believers slyly proffering the equivalent of the “brown envelope” at a divine “fixer.” Wonderfully put!

    Lion IRC says prayer is AKA meditation. It is not. Prayer is understood by most people as a communication directed at a divine being. Meditation does not presume the existence of any divine being, but rather involves the use of tried and tested techniques (including breath control, specific body postures, visualisation, use of intense or “white-noisy” sensory experiences such as rhythmic drumming, etc) to alter the brain’s experience of itself. Such techniques have been shown to alter brain chemistry, which logically may also alter the “qualia” that is a person’s sense of self.

    My own problem with intercessory prayer was initially a moral one. To pray for rain here would be to ask God to fail to care about a drought there; to pray for our team to win would be to ask God to fail to care about the other team. To ask for any “favour” at all for myself, it seemed to me, would be to ask God to fail to care about all his other creatures – and I once assumed that God cared equally for all his creatures. When I worked out the implications of this, I could not bring myself to pray for anything at all. Eventually, for other reasons, I also came to the conclusion that there was nobody there, anyway.

  • John Nernoff

    Re: D: I mean, if God’s got a plan, and he’s in control, and he well & truly knows what’s up, then what the Hell are you gonna have to say about it?

    N: Look up George Carlin on You Tube re the matter of God’s Plan. Hilarious!

    Also, Muslims, a billion of ‘em pray 5 times a day, versus maybe a billion or so Christers, maybe once or twice a week. Dr. Zawahiri (mass murderer) even has a forehead callus from banging his head on the floor. Any studies showing the advantage of Islam? Ahem, I think not.

  • John Nernoff

    Wed: If you allow for sufficiently powerful trickster gods, the scientific method cannot be applied to anything to do with them, because they could always change the data just to mess with us.

    N: This is ad hoc.

  • John Nernoff

    Domyan: What I thought to ask you is an opinion on a idea I had. As all religions LOVE anecdotal evidence and dismiss all real scientific studies, how about we atheists start building a database of silly anecdotes of our own? Each time something positive happens in our lives we make a note of it and post it somewhere on the net. Bonus points if we can find the ‘real cause’ why the thing happened in our actions that presided it. Later we could link to the database each time someone serves us a anecdote as a ‘proof’ of their beliefs.

    N: I had a renal cell carcinoma, grade 1 (-2), 10cm in diameter, with metastatic spread to both adrenal glands, in 1992, with 7+ metastases to my left pleural space in 2000, with a near fatal hemorrhage (3 1/2 liters); chemotherapy for 2 years thereafter. I remained all the while a militant atheist, did not pray for a second, and remain so today. I am stable with slightly smaller tumors (or by now scars) in my left lung region. Theists who know me are going to say I survived because of their prayers. Renal cell carcinomas are known to have weird behavior occasionally (but only occasionally!). I am a retired pathologist and have examined many specimens of them in the course of my profession. Boy was I amazed at my experience with one of my own!

    Thus I present my silly anecdote.

  • Lion IRC

    Hi Scotlyn,

    You claim meditation and prayer are not the same? Does a voice inside your head “hear” your meditations? When you contemplate your own thoughts, is that internal dialogue not a “conversation”? You surely arent going to tell me that a divine Being is UNABLE to hear the “meditations” going on inside the head of a mere mortal.

    Many monotheists hold prayer to be synonymous with meditation hence Psalm 19:4
    “…let the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight.”

    If you admit that meditation has health benefits, you have basically agreed that mind over matter (placebo) is real. (Tried and tested)

    Lion (IRC)
    PS – Harle – I looked up the definition of health. There is no redefining of words needed to make the claim that healthy people live longer. HEALTH/LONGEVITY
    I am sorry about your Grandmother. I do not say she was “praying wrong or not enough” Exactly how long did your Grandmother expect to live with or without prayer? Most Christians have read that Jesus Himself qualified His own prayer with the proviso…that Gods will be done NOT our own. It’s all fine and well to pray to live to be 350 years old but the person praying might want to consider the unknown consequences of such a prayer. Moreover, what type of Christian lacks trust in God to grant the eternal life being prayed for. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps your Grandmother would be glad her prayer wasn’t granted. I have often thanked God (belatedly) for answering many of my prayers with a firm “NO” and this has always been with the benefit of hindsight.

  • Thumpalumpacus

    Lion, that’s pretty unfalsifiable, your comment about prayers being answered “NO”. Given that this thread is about prayer being untestable, I’d say you just confirmed Ebon’s point.

    Nicely done.

  • Lion IRC

    Hi Thumpalumpacus,

    It doesnt bother me that you cant “falsify” my comment. It’s a problem for you not me. I dont think there would be many Christians who would see any problem with God saying “no” to a prayer.

    My point was more directed to Harle to remind him of the proviso that Gods will takes precedence and makes all prayer conditional.

    I might earnestly pray for something with a pure heart but I would always bear in mind that God might have a reason to say “no” or “not yet”.

    Christian theology certainly defers to God’s prerogative to reject prayers made with the intent of “putting God to the proof” or prayers which really do come from the ignorant or the selfish or the thoughtless heart.

    Just as my Christianity doesnt rest on God answering my prayers in the affirmative (if at all) you can take it as a matter of fact that there would be some people who
    wouldnt accept Gods existence even if prayer cured 10,000 people in a “science experiment”.

    Lion (IRC)

  • http://www.whyihatejesus.blogspot.com/ OMGF

    If you admit that meditation has health benefits, you have basically agreed that mind over matter (placebo) is real. (Tried and tested)

    Um, we know the placebo effect is a real thing – we also know that it has nothing to do with prayers being answered by some deity.

  • Scotlyn

    Hi Lion,
    I agree that some people “pray” in a meditative way, but usually when they do they are not asking/interceding for a specific request. The subject of the OP is intercessory prayer – is it a testable proposition that a divine “prayee” 1) exists and 2) will provide what is asked for by human “prayers.” In this sense the question is whether specific person X will be cured by specific person Y asking God to make it so. And tests of this proposition have failed to show any effect.

    Meditative practices such as those which have testable, measurable effects on brain and body chemistry, neuroelectric activity, blood pressure and so on consist of a set of learnable, repeatable, testable techniques. None of these techniques consist of asking for divine intervention. One of those techniques is visualisation, and if you happen to use your image of your God as the focus of your visualisation, then you might, just about, call it a prayer. But your visualisation would work just as well if you focus on the image of your pet rabbit, your eraser or a peculiar shade of the colour blue. You could also focus on any other anthropomorphic personification of your choice – Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, etc. The technique is what is important, not whether there is anyone “out there” to listen.

    And is there a real division between mind and matter? I for one do not have a disembodied mind. If I did, it could know nothing about the world without the information brought to it by my physical senses. Nor could it have any discernable influence on the world without my arms, legs, mouth and face to physically manifest its intentions. Take away my body and you take away my mind. Simple.

  • Harle

    You thank god when your prayers are answered, you thank god when its not..When this is pointed out, you then claim that he knows better and its all in his plan. Circular reasoning at its best. Thank you for proving the point about this post!

    actually if god healed 10,000 people in a science experiment I would believe in his existence. I just wont worship him cause he’s a sick sadist homidical, genocidal monster.
    ps Im a that rare creature that lurks unseen on the interwebs..a girl.

  • Dan L.

    If you admit that meditation has health benefits, you have basically agreed that mind over matter (placebo) is real.

    This is terrible philosophy.

    Definitions:
    -Physically caused (PC): Necessary and sufficient conditions for the phenomenon can be formulated in terms of naturalistic observations
    -Mentally caused (MC): Necessary and sufficient conditions for the phenomenon require some recourse to mental or otherwise non-naturalistic observations

    So to reformulate your argument:
    1) Meditation causes X (where X is some “health benefit”)
    2) (1) -> X is MC

    As a materialist, first of all, I believe that there is nothing that is MC — that mental processes are emergent behaviors of the operation of at least some biological organisms possessing nervous systems. But showing that one can reduce the mental to the physical is a very difficult unsolved philosophical problem. A direct attack along these lines isn’t going to get very far before you can make some very salient objections. Nonetheless, this state of affairs is certainly a possible alternative to your argument. In other words, (2) is false. (1) can only imply that X is MC if there is such a thing as MC. But if it is true that all mental phenomena can be reduced to physical phenomena, then (1) can’t imply that X is MC because there is no MC.

    Alternatively, we can consider the following formulation:
    3) Y is PC
    4) Y is a necessary precondition for meditation
    5) Y causes X

    That is, I don’t have to assume mental phenomena are ultimately reducible to get around your argument. I can simply assume that certain PCs are preconditions for MCs — necessary but not sufficient. This makes sense; I (usually) need photons of a certain frequency (PC) before I can see the color red (a mental phenomenon), but the photons aren’t sufficient for me to see red (I also need my eyes open, to be conscious, etc.). Then we can posit that X is PC by Y and that Y is necessary for meditation.

    As far as the “sometimes He says ‘no’” copout, that fails too. If God only says “no” sometimes, then presumably he says “yes” the rest of the time. But these studies show no effect. In general, we don’t see the believers of any one faith suffering less or coming by good fortune more than non-believers or believers of other faiths.

    Maybe God never grants prayers when those prayers are part of a systematic study. But this is just Russell’s teapot. Like an object that’s real only when you don’t observe it or a statement that’s true only when you’re not thinking about it. Combine these hypotheses with a big bag of dope and you might be able to make a boring afternoon a little more bearable. But you’re not going to justify religious belief that way.

    This prayer situation is completely alien to science. We’re positing a cause (God) for an effect (prayer) that we can’t measure. In other words, we don’t even know that there is an effect. We are hypothesizing an effect to justify hypothesizing a cause for that effect. There is no scientific reason for doing such a thing. There is no logical reason for doing such a thing. There is, in short, no rational reason for doing such a thing.

  • Robster

    Prayer makes some people feel a little bit special, like they’ve got a personal communication with the god thing. People at my office quite often get to work saying that they got in on time because gawd created green lights all the way, just for them. “I was running late and prayed for a clear run”. This makes them feel a wee bit better and gives them a feeling of superiority, which is the whole reason for subscribing to the prayer nonsense. I live in northern Australia, we had a large cyclone heading towards us earlier this year, it missed my city but flattened towns further south. My next door neighbour, a minister with a strange little protestant cult proudly announced that his prayer was responsible for the storm heading south. He was unable however to explain how the people who lost their homes or their health in the storm would feel about his claim. The man’s an idiot, obviously.

  • John Moriarty

    I love this pithy limerick by Laurence Perrine which really says all that ‘s needed to be said:
    Our God, some contend, is immutable,
    And their faith is, indeed, irrefutable:
    When He does what He should,
    It’s because “He is good,”
    When he doesn’t, “His ways are inscrutable.”
    -Laurence Perrine

  • Florian Blaschke

    Does praying the rosary count as prayer for these purposes? This seems the closest that prayer gets to meditation, but it’s completely undirected as far as my understanding goes: if anything, there should only be immediate health benefits to the person who prays himself. (By the way, is there a single word for “person who prays”? “Prayer” obviously already refers to “that which is prayed”, paradoxically.)

    So, comparisons to quantum mechanics, where the act of observing itself influences the outcome of the experiment, wouldn’t help the apologists, either, right?

    I’ve heard one philosopher claim that god is trying to communicate with humans; he’s like a perfect transmitter, but we lowly, imperfect humans with our limited intellect cannot precisely receive his message, which supposedly explains why there are so many different religions and sects with them and religious books and so on. This seems to me an excellent position for theists to adopt, although it is similar to the “god works in mysterious ways” clause. They could then claim some prayers make it to god without error, but because humans are imperfect transmitters, god, even with his perfect reception, finds some prayers garbled and incomprehensible and therefore impossible to grant.

    What does that remind me of? Oh yeah: “Syntax error!”. So god is a computer? Hmm. Sounds very SF-like. It would also reinforce the point of not asking for anything specific, as god might take it in a way that you did not intend – although taking requests overly literally or anyway in a sense not intended would make god a trickster god, or at least seem like one. Be careful what you pray for …


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