Questioning Prayer

Prayer came up in conversation on another post the other day, so… This small excerpt comes from my book The Little Book of Unholy Questions (please grab a copy!):

Prayer is an integral part of any Christian’s life. It is the connection between life on earth and God, wherever he might reside. A divine conduit. People fill their prayers with all sorts of different genres of communication. There are prayers of praise and worship, prayers of thanks; often, and particularly for the not-so-religious, there are prayers of request, asking for something that the asker doesn’t have, or pleading for some action or suchlike. Then there are prayers that are simply comfort blankets for those in need of the feeling of something else out there with the power and will to do good.

Whether or not prayer works is another question altogether. The words could fall from our lips, or from our inner thoughts, like a couple of drops of dispersant in an ocean of oil spill. Alternatively, intercessory prayer, where God intervenes (intercedes) in the world’s events on behalf of the person praying, has been claimed to be effective throughout the ages.

Where prayer gets really fascinating is when it starts crossing over to the realms of science. You see, the results of prayer are naturally existing phenomena. If Mary prays for her cancer to go into remission, or if Bob prays for his football team to win, then these things are natural end results. Being naturally existing phenomena they are answerable to the scientific method and are empirically testable. Thus prayer, in all its supernatural wonder, is just as testable as the rainfall in Venezuela in August.

Ever since 1872 when a chap called Francis Galton conducted a famous prayer experiment, people have been testing prayer for its efficacy. In the Galton experiment, the all-round intellectual hypothesised that since everybody in church in Britain prayed for the wellbeing of the Royal Family every Sunday, then the Royal Family should have a longer than usual lifespan. However, when the statistician compared data, he found that the millions of prayers had not made the blindest bit of difference.

Although Galton’s test was probably an attempt to satirise prayer, it formed the basis for many analyses that followed. For decent clinical studies into the effects of prayer, the experiments need to be rigidly carried out and methodologically sound, such as double-blind protocols and randomisation. Unfortunately, a good number of prayer studies have been either poorly designed, methodologically flawed or even downright fraudulent. Of the well-conducted experiments, results have consistently showed that prayer has a statistically ‘null’ effect. One of the most comprehensive pieces of research, “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP)”[i], tested the effectiveness of prayer on patients undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery. Of the groups, the group not receiving prayer had 51% complication or mortality rate, the prayer group had 52% and the group that knew they were being prayed for had a 59% complication or mortality rate! It seems that knowing about being prayed for can give you the jitters when preparing for major surgery.

Prayers in Christianity can also vary wildly in format as well as what they set out to achieve. Whilst personal prayer can be spontaneous, churches throughout the land come together on Sundays to chant rote passages, passed down from generation to generation through ritual. There are not many people that couldn’t have at least a good go at reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Whether they know what it means is another matter. I know from teaching children that they’re not even saying the right words half of the time. If you added up all the time people spend in the world praying, and if God does not exist, that is a lot of time people could devote to charity work, or to actually achieving the things that they are pleading for…

[i]  Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, et al. (April 2006). “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer”, American Heart Journal 151 (4): 934–42.

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