Last Refuge for the Desperate
One of the most perplexing elements of religious faith is prayer—the notion that, by pleading with God, one actually can cause changes for the better in the world. Of course, we see this strange practice in a great many of the world’s thousands of faiths, meaning multitudes of God characters all are being bombarded with requests great and small. The natural question, of course, is whether prayer actually does anything. In truth, I think most people already know the answer to that question; I make this judgment not based on what people do pray for, but based on what they do not.
There is a tremendously interesting website called “Why Won’t God Heal Amputees?”, which hits upon an oft-ignored, yet universal, phenomenon: People do not pray for “impossible” things, but rather only things that possibly could happen by natural means. Essentially never do you see somebody pray for an amputee’s lost limb to grow back spontaneously. It is an incredibly rare occurrence for a grieving widow to pray that her deceased husband rise from the grave to rejoin her in matrimony. It is exceedingly uncommon for parents who wanted a baby girl, but got a baby boy, to pray that the infant’s gender changes. Why are flat-out impossible things hardly ever prayed for, when most God conceptions seem not to be limited by the natural principles under which we live?
Earlier I asked if prayer actually works, and said I have a tentative hypothesis with regard to what people truly believe about this. In the conscious mind, those infected with religious fervor are fully confident that their prayers are heard, and occasionally answered. In the subconscious, people realize that prayer suffers from the ultimate limit: It is bounded by what is possible through natural means, and pure chance. Essentially automatically and unbeknownst to them, people filter out the impossible requests and amass those that might be able to reinforce the illusion of prayer’s efficacy. A man prays that he gets a job, so he can support his family. A woman prays that her father recovers from a serious illness. Parents pray that their baby is born healthy. A community prays that an approaching storm does not wreak havoc. These are good things for which to pray; nature can do the job where God does not exist.
My dwindling religious readers might object at this point: “God can do anything, and my prayers are not limited to the mundane! Nothing is impossible for God and, thus, prayer potentially is capable of delivering any desired result!” OK, although this is a metaphysical proposition, it certainly could be tested by scientific means. Gather up Robertson, Perkins, Huckabee and 200-some other fundamentalist Christofascists and put them on an airplane. At 38,000 feet, the pilot and co-pilot will dive into the sky, with only parachutes potentially to save their lives. Autopilot will not be turned on at any point. Precisely three minutes before that happens, every fundamentalist theocrat onboard the flight will begin to pray for the plane’s safe landing and every passenger’s survival. The prayer will continue until one minute after the pilots dive out. If God’s hands guide the aircraft to a safe and smooth landing, prayer’s efficacy will be proved. If the plane crashes, prayer will be disproved. I wonder if Imam Robertson’s confidence in prayer reaches that level....
My guess would be no, considering prayer already has been tested scientifically. The Harvard Medical School Office of Public Affairs issued a news release entitled "Largest Study of Third-Party Prayer Suggests Such Prayer Not Effective In Reducing Complications Following Heart Surgery" on March 31, 2006. See selected passages below:
“For those facing surgery or battling disease, the prayers of others can be a comfort. Researchers in the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), the largest study to examine the effects of intercessory prayer—prayer provided by others—evaluated the impact of such prayer on patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery.
“The STEP team, composed of investigators at six academic medical centers, including Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee; Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts; Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma; Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota; St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, Florida; Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C; and the Mind/Body Medical Institute, found that intercessory prayer had no effect on recovery from surgery without complications. The study also found that patients who knew they were receiving intercessory prayer fared worse. The paper appears in the April issue of American Heart Journal.”
“STEP investigators enrolled 1,802 bypass surgery patients from six hospitals and randomly assigned each to one of three groups: 604 patients received intercessory prayer after being informed they may or may not receive prayers (Group 1); 597 patients did not receive prayer after being informed they may or may not receive prayer (Group 2); and 601 patients received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive it (Group 3).
“Caregivers and independent auditors comparing case reports to medical records were unaware of the patients' assignments throughout the study. The study enlisted members of three Christian groups, two Catholic and one Protestant, to provide prayer throughout the multi-year study.
“Some patients were told they may or may not receive intercessory prayer: complications occurred in 52 percent of those who received prayer (Group 1) versus 51 percent of those who did not receive prayer (Group 2). Complications occurred in 59 percent of patients who were told they would receive prayer (Group 3) versus 52 percent, who also received prayer, but were uncertain of receiving it (Group 1). Major complications and thirty-day mortality were similar across the three groups.”
Now, granted, this study explicitly was limited to intercessory prayer. However, I think it is reasonable to draw a powerful overall conclusion: Prayer is nothing more than a (wildly inconsistent) form of the placebo effect. It provides some measure of comfort to the desperate...but simply cannot supersede natural scientific principles.