Does Prayer Work?

Does Prayer Work? November 25, 2018

“Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.”

—- Ambrose Bierce; From “The Devil’s Dictionary”

“I will pray for you.”

We have all heard religious believers make this promise to someone who is confronted by a difficult or hazardous situation…an impending heart bypass operation, a loved one going off to war, or even a confrontation with a cantankerous relative or friend.

As a nonbeliever, I decided long ago how to respond to well-meaning religious friends or family members when they offer to ask the Almighty to help me. I smile and thank them. It makes them feel good to do it, and it would be ungracious of me to say, “Don’t bother. It’s a waste of your time.”

Religious folks are convinced that prayer works. They quote Jesus, who said, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.  You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:10)

The featured article in the latest issue of Free Inquiry magazine addresses the question of “intercessory prayer.” It tells the story of a young cardiologist at San Francisco General Medical Center named Randolph Byrd who decided that he wanted to show that praying to God actually worked. I give him credit for having the courage of his convictions. He identified himself as a born-again Christian, and he was convinced that a legitimate scientific study could be performed that would demonstrate, once and for all, that prayer had real consequences. In 1982, he proposed to perform a double-blind randomized clinical trial that took about four hundred cardiac patients and divided them into two groups. One would be prayed-for, the other would not. He was certain that the results would show that prayer increased the probability of recovery and survival for the prayed-for group. Unfortunately for Byrd, the study showed only a small, statistically insignificant difference. Furthermore, the study had been conducted with two major violations of experimental protocol, which cast the whole result in doubt. In a double-blind study, neither the participants nor the researchers are supposed to know which is the “treated” group and which is the “placebo,” or control group until the results of the study have been published..

  1. The results were not announced until after the data were unmasked.
  2. The study coordinator knew which patients were assigned to each group when she coordinated with them.

Furthermore, the coordinator and other workers on the study were evangelical Christians, so they “had a dog in the hunt.” Now that is not equivalent to the fox guarding the henhouse, but it suggests that the fox was made aware of the location of the henhouse.

Nevertheless, the results showed only a small advantage for the prayed-for group. Four other studies were subsequently performed with more rigorous protocol, but with similar results as you can see from the table:

  Prayed-for patients Not-Prayed-for Patients
Study Total Died Percent Total Died Percent
Byrd 192 13 6.77 201 17 8.46
Harris 466 42 9.01 524 46 8.78
Aviles 383 31 8.09 379 34 8.97
Krucoff 371 14 3.77 377 13 3.45
Benson 604 16 2.65 597 14 2.35
Total 2016 116 5.75 2078 124 5.97

In all the studies, the principal investigators and most of the workers in the studies were committed Christian advocates of the healing power of prayer. Nevertheless, as the data show, the results of the studies were uniformly negative. Prayer didn’t help. Three of the studies actually show a slight advantage for the not-prayed-for group, but the differences in all the studies are not statistically significant.

Now, here is where the fun starts. Do you think that devout Christians who learned about these studies were satisfied that prayer is a waste of time? You know better than that! Of course not, and the excuses and evasions they came up with vary from absurd to hilarious.

  1. The research is premised on a misconception of how God responds to prayer. (Oh really? The scientists who performed the studies were all believers, and they didn’t think so.)
  2. God is outside the domain of science and therefore is not amenable to experimental evaluation. (In other words, don’t bother me with facts. My mind is made up.)
  3. It is not possible to randomize God or truly understand his will. (The standard apologist bailout…we mere humans cannot understand the infinite mind of God)
  4. Research can neither prove nor disprove the validity of divine intervention (Same as above.)
  5. It is a corruption of faith, if not willful blasphemy or sacrilege to test God. (I like this one the most. How dare you apply science to God!)

A final note: All of these studies were performed more than ten years ago. The results were so devastating to believers in intercessory prayer, that nobody has tried to do another study since then. It seems they would all like to just forget about it.

There is a lot more in the article that most people here would find interesting. The article is in the December/January issue which is not yet on the Free Inquiry magazine web site, but should be soon.


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