I was reading an article in Christianity Today and one of the paragraphs made me do a double-take. I couldn’t believe anyone was actually writing it… it was incredible how much fact-twisting was going on.
First, a bit of background.
It’s no surprise that prayer can have a positive effect on those who believe in it. If you pray, it can relax you and make you feel better. If you know others are praying for you — that others care about you — you feel better and your body might actually respond to that positivity. None of this has anything to do with a god answering (or even listening to) the prayers. It functions more like meditation. Prayer can have a calming, healing effect for those who buy into it.
But what happens when others pray for you and you are unaware of it? To no atheist’s surprise, this has never been shown to work.
This idea has been tested repeatedly — usually, the studies have flaws. And even when the results show that the intercessory prayer has no effect on anyone, those who believe in it will look at the hits and ignore (or rationalize) the misses.
Three years ago, a multi-million-dollar, controlled, double-blind study was conducted to test intercessory prayer.
The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) found two major results:
1) “Intercessory prayer had no effect on recovery from surgery without complications.”
2) “Patients who knew they were receiving intercessory prayer fared worse.”
Fared worse?! Even I was surprised by that. So were many Christians — this didn’t sit well with them.
This new article from Christianity Today, though, offers a rationalization I’ve never heard before. You can tell they’re really straining to find a silver lining…
Ironically, STEP actually supports the Christian worldview. Our prayers are nothing at all like magical incantations. Our God bears no resemblance to a vending machine. The real scandal of the study is not that the prayed-for group did worse, but that the not-prayed-for group received just as much, if not more, of God’s blessings. In other words, God seems to have granted favor without regard to either the quantity or even the quality of the prayers. By instinct, we might selfishly prefer that God give preferential treatment to those who are especially, deliberately, and correctly prayed for, but he seems to act otherwise.
True to his character, God appears inclined to heal and bless as many as possible.
So the fact that the prayers had no effect on the sick? Don’t think about that, say Gregory Fung and Christopher Fung, the authors of the article. Instead, they want you to consider that prayer works because the un-prayed-for people didn’t die a horrible death.
That’s one way of ignoring the evidence when it’s staring you in the face.
There’s gotta be a perfect analogy for this somewhere. What comes to mind?
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