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Austin Cline

Prayer Doesn't Work; Knowledge of Prayer Makes Things Worse

By April 3, 2007

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Researchers keep trying to test to see if prayer has any measurable, predictable impact on helping sick people recover ó and they keep finding absolutely no evidence to support belief in the efficacy of prayer. The most recent research was financed by the Templeton Foundation, an organization that is dedicated to finding some measurable, scientific backing for traditional religious and theistic beliefs. Thus far they've proven to be nothing more than a black hole into which donations are poured ó and this most recent project is no different.
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" for specific patients, for whom they were given the first name and first initial of the last name.

The patients, meanwhile, were split into three groups of about 600 apiece: those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren't prayed for but were told it was a possibility.

The researchers didn't ask patients or their families and friends to alter any plans they had for prayer, saying such a step would have been unethical and impractical. The study looked for any complications within 30 days of the surgery. Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.

Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center, who didn't take part in the study, said the results didn't surprise him. "There are no scientific grounds to expect a result and there are no real theological grounds to expect a result either," he said. "There is no god in either the Christian, Jewish or Moslem scriptures that can be constrained to the point that they can be predicted." ...Science, he said, "is not designed to study the supernatural."

Source: MSNBC

These results won't be the least bit surprising for any atheist ó indeed, I can imagine that most atheists might regard this entire study as a waste of money. Given how every other such study has come to negative results, couldn't the money have been better spent on measures for improving the health or treating sick people? I have to wonder, though, about religious theists who are surprised and/or disappointed in these results. Why are they surprised? Why are they disappointed? What did they really expect and why?

I must also comment on the last statement by Harold G. Koenig. It says something positive about him that he's unsurprised at the results, but his comment that science "is not designed to study the supernatural" is radically out of place here. Technically he is correct because the supernatural is typically defined in ways that would make it immune to scientific study. Practically speaking, though, we are dealing here with precisely the sort of situation where supernatural claims are scientifically testable.

Take a step back and note carefully what the study is looking at: whether heart surgery patients recover faster under particular conditions. It would be difficult to come up with a situation which is more amenable to scientific study, wouldn't it? If we assume for the sake of argument that some sort of god exists, then perhaps the means by which this god detects prayers, decides on which prayers to answer, and then goes about answering prayers might all indeed be beyond scientific study.

None of that was part of the study, however ó the study was focused narrowly on something unambiguously within the realm of scientific measurement. Saying that "science is not designed to study the supernatural" carries some technical truth, but sometimes it's just used as a weak excuse to avoid taking seriously the empirical claims which religious theists make and putting those claims to the test. After all, if we do take a closer look at those claims, we might find out that they are completely wrong, and then where would religious theists be?

Comments
April 4, 2007 at 11:42 am
(1) Forrest Prince says:

Koenig’s remarks are unsurprising: typical Christian apologetics and rationalizing, i.e. “explaining away” rather than actually offering an explanation.

He’s also off the mark when he says “There is no god in either the Christian, Jewish or Moslem scriptures that can be constrained to the point that they can be predicted.” But this study was not predictive-based — it was RESULTS-based. The study recorded what happened *after* the prayers. It did not ask for what the people (the prayer groups) thought would happen, it only reported on what did happen. It showed that the “power of prayer”, in this case at least, was either null or somewhat negative.

Any open-minded person, after reading this study, ought to be inclined to think twice before ever saying to another person, “I’m praying for you, brother.”.

April 10, 2007 at 4:44 pm
(2) J.R. says:

Some recent studies by the Nouveau Tech Society (whose studies are based purely on logic and rationale)suggests that the said ‘supernatural’ or ‘spiritual’is basically an emanation of the right-brain hemisphere, which is the part of our brain that is responsible for our creativity, inspiration, intuition, and what is perceived in many cases as the supernatural and/or metaphysical.

April 10, 2007 at 6:08 pm
(3) GrandmaVickie says:

If prayer worked we would not need doctors, now would we?

April 10, 2007 at 10:19 pm
(4) skep says:

BETTER STILL IF PRAYER WORKED WE WOULD NOT EVEN NEED PREACHERS, RABBI’S,IMAMS. WE COULD GO DIRECT.JUST THINK! NO MORE TITHEING.

SKEP

April 15, 2007 at 2:17 pm
(5) Gerald E. Moore says:

One doesn’t neet to perform an experiment to prove prayer works. The data should already exist. Data mining. Examine the survival rates of people who are prayed for. The rates should be vastly different from others not prayed for. This would also clearly point to the “true” religion. The religion praying to the real god would have staggeringly better survival rates to various operations/illnesses.

May 13, 2007 at 7:44 am
(6) God Isn't says:

For a good read on the subject of “prayer” see:
http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/

“When we pray to God to restore an amputated limb, there is only one way for the limb to regenerate. God must exist and God must answer prayers. What we find is that whenever we create a non-ambiguous situation like this and look at the results of prayer, prayer never works. God never answers prayers if there is no possibility of coincidence.”

“The fact that prayers are never answered when the possibility of coincidence is eliminated meshes with another fact. If we analyse God’s responses to prayers using statistical tools, what we find is that there is never any statistical evidence for prayer. In other words, when we statisically compare prayer to coincidence for explaining any situation, they are identical.”

February 2, 2008 at 1:26 am
(7) Amanda says:

I have experienced answers to prayer along with miracles. God has plans we can never understand. He only answers prayers that fit into his plan. Always pray “Thy will be done.” If it is not HIS will, the prayer will not be answered. Every prayer is answered…either “Yes” “No” or “Wait”. The third answer is the most difficult for us to accept. That is because we are humans with very little patience. Only after reading and studying the Bible..His Word..will you ever understand. Never by some structured “test” or “experiment” as you have described. A prayer for a new limb to grow for an amputee is absurd. You can’t possibly know why God permitted the amputation in the first place. He had a purpose that we can never understand. Why should he grant our prayer and grow a new limb when it is not in his plan for the individual? As a very wise man said to me once long ago, when he was stricken with a paralyzing stroke…God put me on my back so I could see Him. If not for the stroke, I would never have found Him. For every tragedy that comes into our lives, God has a purpose. We will understand some day when we are with Him.

July 18, 2008 at 10:39 am
(8) FactsPlease says:

Some statements need to be clarified. When you wrote “Given how every other such study has come to negative results, couldn’t the money have been better spent on measures for improving the health or treating sick people?” That is simply false. There have been studies with results that show positive results of prayer. Were they solid and reliable? I don’t know, but they do exist – so let’s no be deceptive or bury our heads in the sand and say they don’t exist. Secondly, there are numerous studies showing a healthier and happier existince for those who proclaim a faith. Is this due to their faith, a generally more positive outlook, or some other factor? Again, correlation and causation are two different things. If you chose to use science for your argumant pleaee use good science and proper interpretation techniques rather than biased reporting. Otherwise you end up looking just like those who you say are blinded by their faith. Your faith in there being no god becomes the same as other’s faith in a god – an opinion based on nothing more than your opinion. You have not proved a lack of God’s existence anymore than they have proved His existence.

July 18, 2008 at 10:52 am
(9) Austin Cline says:

There have been studies with results that show positive results of prayer.

Please cite them. If you’re going to sign your comment with the name “Facts Please,” why don’t you offer any actual, verifiable facts in your comment?

Were they solid and reliable? I donít know

Why don’t you know?

If they werenít reliable, then there results are worthless and can’t be used as a reason for yet another study.

Secondly, there are numerous studies showing a healthier and happier existince for those who proclaim a faith.

Feel free to explain how this might be a reason to spend money on a study of prayer rather than on treatments for sick people which have been shown to work.

If you chose to use science for your argumant pleaee use good science and proper interpretation techniques rather than biased reporting.

I believe I do. If you think otherwise, please show how.

Your faith in there being no god becomes the same as otherís faith in a god – an opinion based on nothing more than your opinion.

You have a seriously mistaken notion of what atheism is.

You have not proved a lack of Godís existence anymore than they have proved His existence.

The burden of proof lies with the theists making the claim, not with atheists who have yet to be given a reason to care about your claims.

July 25, 2008 at 2:51 pm
(10) Warrior for Christ says:

To Austin and you other atheists.
I pray that you will burn in hell and cry for forgiveness from God for all eternity and never get it. I have no doubts that this will happen because this is God’s will and plan for your simple minded, disbelieving people. Another prayer that I am sure will be answered is to be able to hear your screams of agony. Repent to Jesus and he may save you.

July 25, 2008 at 3:57 pm
(11) Paul says:

Any believer I talk to is convinced that their god is all-powerful, all-knowing and everywhere. If these are all true, how can any mortal, fallible human being have even the faintest clue what such a being wants. For that matter, if such a being exists, shouldn’t it have long since gotten what it wants? Claiming to know what is by definition unknowable is the height of arrogance, on top of the obvious contradiction. Our Warrior for Christ could be a little more honest and go by Warrior for Self or maybe Warrior for Ego.

July 25, 2008 at 9:48 pm
(12) John Hanks says:

Prayer seems to be a pleasant activity for those who engage in it. However, like all pleasant and good activities, prayer can easily be a set up for cons. Many pray for riches, but few learn that you can’t get rich without being a crook.

July 26, 2008 at 3:08 pm
(13) Zack says:

Secondly, there are numerous studies showing a healthier and happier existince for those who proclaim a faith. — FactsPlease @ July 18, 2008 at 10:39 am

A drunken man may be happier than a sober one — do you recommend drunkenness?

July 26, 2008 at 3:14 pm
(14) Zack says:

Another prayer that I am sure will be answered is to be able to hear your screams of agony. Warrior for Christ @ July 25, 2008 at 2:51 pm

With you Christians, it’s always jam yesterday and jam tomorrow, never jam today. Here’s something you can pray for right now to show how well your god answers your prayers: pray for the vowels on my keyboard to stop working.

How powerful is Warrior and his Christ? Let’s find out: AEIOU and sometimes Y.

Stay tuned for futher developments.

July 27, 2008 at 3:07 am
(15) Zack says:

AEIOU and Y.

Just checking.

July 28, 2008 at 10:37 am
(16) Marc says:

Hey “warrior for christ” – I always thought xians promoted the “golden rule”? Exactly how does that fit in with “praying” for others to burn in agony, and experiencing glee from hearing the torment of others? Just wondering how sick you and your god really are! Hey Zack, AEIOU still working? :-)

July 29, 2008 at 12:51 am
(17) Zack says:

AEIOU and Y

Nothing fails like prayer!

October 12, 2008 at 1:41 am
(18) Zack says:

AEIOU and Y

Wow, if any gods exist, they sure are impotent.

January 4, 2009 at 9:35 pm
(19) Zack says:

AEIOU.

Just sayin’.

January 6, 2009 at 6:41 pm
(20) Caleb Bennets says:

I don’t know where the twenty of you got these false ideas, and I can’t explain them off of you, but I know that prayer works and that Jesus loves all of you enough to have died for you and to answer your prayers.

April 28, 2009 at 11:13 pm
(21) Christians should be exterminated. says:

Caleb Bennets, you’re an idiot. Saying “GOD IS REAL BECAUSE GOD SAID SO” is not proof that god exists. It’s like using a Harry Potter book to prove Hogwarts exists. But believe me, Harry Potter is more provable than god and jesus.

October 13, 2009 at 6:12 am
(22) Patrick Oden says:

Interesting study, and nice article. I don’t think the study was a waste of time. Hypotheses that are testable should be tested. It’s the way we learn.

June 7, 2011 at 10:55 am
(23) Michael says:

I’ve been a Christian for my entire 21-year life. I’ve been to a variety of churches and seen and heard many strange things. When I study the Bible for myself, I find a very different religion than I do in church. Prayer and healing is one such thing.

When Jesus healed people, He didn’t say “I’m praying for you” and hope they got better. He would often ask them if the believed that he could heal them or give them some task to perform to receive healing. He also never told his disciples to pray for the sick. As a matter of fact, he simply told them to heal the sick. Furthermore, Paul, who had not been in the company of Jesus, held a similar ministry so that people sought him for healing, not prayer.

It would seem that healing depends solely on the belief of the one who receives it and not on a legion of people asking God to heal someone. My dad has received such a miraculous healing. He had Ulcertive Colitis. If you know what that is, you know that you can’t say “had” with it. In fact, my dad still has regular colonoscopies and is classified as “in remission”, but he has only had the scars of the disease for more than a decade.

Regarding prayer, I find prayer works personally when you are in a situation you can’t control, such as losing your job, and you’re scared about it. Not only does faith in God through prayer make these situations easier to weather, but you’ll often find the situation “sorts itself out” in the best way possible.

May 5, 2013 at 3:30 pm
(24) Alicia says:

I’m skeptical of prayer, but I think prayer studies are flawed because they cannot control for outside prayer. How do the researchers know that no one, like family members, friends, church members, etc, was praying for he subjects in the control group?

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