Negative study on intercessory prayer

Information on the Herbert Benson-led study on the possible health benefits of intercessory prayer has begun to appear in the media. The results appear to be negative.

(Disclaimer: the actual journal article appears next week. And I’m a physicist, not qualified to comment on the details of medical research anyway. And as some of the questions raised about prior positive studies show, doing this sort of research properly is very difficult.)

It’s interesting to see that the news article I link to says “Skeptics have said that studying prayer is a waste of money and that it presupposes supernatural intervention, putting it by definition beyond the reach of science.” Curious. Why on earth should something like this be beyond the reach of science? The balance of evidence for intercessory prayer and similar alleged parapsychological phenomena being negative is just what your stereotypical scientific materialist (such as myself) expects. But expectations can be wrong, and presumably I’d have to revise my views if investigations were to produce strong evidence against my expectations. And if investigations support my views, well, I’ll be a bit more confident about them.

I take a skeptical position, yes, but I’m not happy with skepticism being portrayed as wedded to this sort of silly “by definition” form of argument. I’m sure this study is going to attract no end of liberal theological comments that showcase typically evasive attitudes and contortions to protect faith from science. Why would any skeptic want to be drawn into that swamp?

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University

  • Jeffery Jay Lowder

    Taner — On a related note, I saw a report about this last night on NBC Nightly News (streaming video of this report is on their website, click on the link, “How Powerful is Prayer?” about halfway down the page). To call the television report biased would be an understatement. They did not interview a single scientists who participated in the study. Anchor Brian Williams was questioning whether it was even appropriate for science to study this topic. By the end of the report, he was found saying, “Amen!”, to the notion that people don’t need science in order to believe in the power of prayer.

  • Mark Plus

    Theists have put themselves into this awkward position because their own scriptures show prayer working like a supernatural version of OnStar, often spectacularly so. The editors of the New Testament could have saved succeeding generations of christians a lot of grief by sneaking in the disclaimer that god allowed prayer to violate the course of nature to get christianity started, but then shut down the service after it had served its purpose.

  • Jim Underdown

    It may be worth noting that had this study confirmed the efficacy of intercessory prayer, Templeton, Focus on the Family, and the rest of the big Christian groups would have been trumpeting the results from the rooftops and snuggling up to science for confirming their long-held beliefs. But now they are forced to qualify the results, ignore them, or distance themselves from the whole scientific process.

    Similarly, the recent findings which placed the origins of Native American DNA in Asia had the same effect on the Mormons, who believe them to be of more recent, Middle Eastern origin.

    The credibility of science, for many, seems predicated on which side the latest result falls.

    Jim Underdown

  • Rodney

    In Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaaxy, God says “I refuse to prove that I exist… for proof denies faith, and without faith I am nothing”.

    This study could never prove anything about prayer, simply because the effectiveness of prayer depends on the existence of Almighty God… who apparantly chooses to not prove His own existence, or to be tested by human wisdom.

    It is also likely that the patients who were not meant to be the beneficiaries of prayers, were still getting prayers from friends, relatives or even medical practitioners.

    It just goes to show that some researchers have way too much time on their hands.