Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The ineffectiveness of intercessory prayer

These interesting articles (see here, here and here) outline the results obtained from a recent study on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. 1802 patients, undergoing coronary bypass surgery, took part in the study which spanned almost a decade. The patients were split into three groups, two of which were prayed for by various Christian congregations. The study’s aim was to find out if intercessory prayer had any affect on the health and recovery of the patients.

As it turns out, the results showed no statistically significant differences between the prayed for and non-prayed for groups. In other words, the intercessory prayer seemed to have had no noticeable affect on the health or recovery of those patients who were being prayed for.

Now this obviously raises the question on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. If there are no measurable affects of such prayer, then why bother?

A theist might come in at this point and argue that the primary use of prayer is not to ask things of god, but to build a relationship with god. I accept this. Aspects such as praise, love, meditation and confession are all important parts of prayer. Prayer can be an incredible spiritual experience and can even have positive affects on the health and well-being of the individual who is praying. It is not with prayer in general that I have an issue with; it is the intercessory aspect that is in question here.

The results from intercessory prayer are not consistent. Some people who are sick are prayed for, and they are healed; other people who are prayed for die. Some people who are not prayed for are healed; other people who are not prayed for die. Wouldn’t it be better to do something constructive with the time and energy used for intercessory prayer? I’ve often heard the expression: “Two hands working do more than a thousand clasped in prayer”.

So what does this study mean for intercessory prayer? I think that it would be wonderful if more experiments were done on this field of study, but at this time it seems that intercessory prayer has no impact on the health and well being of medical patients. It cannot be used in conjunction with known medical cures. With prayer having so little effect, it would be best for everyone, for the time being, to rely fully on the scientific cures that actually show consistent results. As Carl Sagan noted in his book, The Demon-Haunted World:

We can pray over the cholera victim, or we can give her 500 milligrams of tetracycline every twelve hours . . . The scientific treatments are hundreds or thousands of times more effective than the alternatives. (Pg 13)


Dar said...

Hi Kevin,

I've heard these statements: "God/Jehovah/Allah/Buddha/Vishnu/etc... will tell me what to do. He will guide me." And then those same people will laugh at someone who relies on their local astrologer for guidance. To me, it's all the same supernatural dependency keeping people from thinking for themselves and taking action.

Heavy prayer reliance (not all prayer) can be a lazy way out of a situation that only simply makes the kneeler feel better. Problems can then roll off of them and onto a god or given to astrology - so when/if the prayer goes unanswered then it was either just god's will or written in the stars - but not because the kneeler didn't do anything about it. If the prayer is answered, then it was a miracle and it was a good thing that the person prayed, because if it hadn't been for the prayer then all would have turned out badly.

I have found that many people who rely on prayer or astrology tend to be irrational and have a really difficult time making solid decisions for themselves and their families. They do not seem to possess much common sense, and are at a much higher risk of getting themselves involved in really stupid financial and illegal deals, as well as getting physically hurt or letting themselves or loved ones fall ill.

I feel that these type of people especially endanger themselves. No matter what they pray for or what the planetary alignment is, they're going to win some and they're going to lose some. I've seen more winners come from rational and ethical thought combined with action.

Anonymous said...

*SIGH* I don't even know where to begin with this. There is so much you don't understand...which I guess is really the point. God's ways are not man's ways and you can't go around second guessing why He heals this one and not that one. You just have to believe He's got it all under control. God is all-knowing...man is not.

Dar said...

Then why pray? Isn't the act of prayer really a hope to sway god's will?

eddie said...

Uhm, and what about this one straight from the horse' mouth:

If you will ask anything in my name, I will do it.
John 14:14

Dar said...

Eddie: Do you really believe that? Have you ever lost a child to leukemia? Have you ever stopped a war?

I know one could debate that god has a plan, and that even though we may not "understand" it, all prayers are indeed answered, even if it isn't the outcome we'd hoped for (i.e., child dies, innocent people murdered by weapons of mass destruction) and that we just have to find the meaning in god's "plan". But don't you think the outcome would be the same whether you prayed or not?

Jason Hughes said...

I find that people who engage in this type of prayer usually do so as a means to make themselves feel better, under the guise of intervening for said "victim" or "cause." It is a means of helping them cope with a situation where they feel powerless, that there is nothing they can do physically, and some have become so used to this self-soothing method it is the first thing they run to when something they can't control (or feel they can't control) happens. Of course, some studies have shown that prayer for the self and to heal the self can be helpful, but I'd have to look them up and see what they realy have to say, or whether it was just "nice spin."

And as for Anonymous, Christ himself said where two or three are gathered in his name, it will be done. And that's not spin, that's straight fact. There's so much you don't understand, it's very scary. You think you understand the mind of God, but Kevin can't? Why? What's your reasoning? Don't just say "he doesn't understand" and then not take the time to spell it out or give reasoning or something... that's cowardly and lazy. No offense intended, unless the offense gets your lazy butt in gear enough to make a point, instead of bemoaning someone else's point...

Another great post, Kevin. Sorry if I dragged down the civility of the boards...

Kevin Parry said...

Thank you all for your comments. And don't worry about your comment Jason - it's great to get all kinds of comments on this board.

Hi anon

Thank you for popping by. The goal of the article was not to discuss what we don’t understand of God, but to tackle the question of whether intercessory prayer actually works. God might have his own reasons for healing some and not others, but the pattern that he is following (suggested by this study) does not seem to differ from pure chance. In other words, if we pray for a sick man in hospital, he has the same chance of dying, or recovering, as a person in similar circumstances who is not being prayer for. God’s choices seem pretty random (in this case, at least).

And this has led me to a follow-up thought: if intercessory prayer does really work, one would expect Christians to be much better off, health wise, and heal much faster from injury than those from other religions and faiths. The problem is that those of other religions also claim that their own prayers have been answered by their own respective gods. How do you account for that, anon?

As an atheist, I haven’t prayed for health, wisdom, guidance or assistance from God for over four years now, and there has been no difference, as far as I can tell, to the amount of failures, successes, sickness, happiness and sorrow that I’ve experienced since I stopped being a Christian.

All the best

eddie said...

Eddie: Do you really believe that?
No, I don't believe that, because it's clearly not the case, and one reason why I reject Christianity. The point I attempted to make was in addition to your comment, meaning that Jesus said that, but it clearly isn't the case. I know theists have all sorts of creative ways to tap-dance themselves out of that one. In any case, Jesus turns out to have lied, no matter how much you justify it.

I like the slogan from www.losingmyreligion.com:
26,000 kids will die of starvation today, why should God answer your prayers?

Cori said...

Although I understand a lot of frustrations people have around the issue of prayer that are expressed here - one's I often have shared - ones that lead one to the conclusion that prayer, and thus also Christianity, tends to border on the absurd, I wonder if there isn't more to the story.

If prayer is as absurd as it seems at face value, then why do so many people engage in it for so long?

A response to this would be, just because so many people do it/believe in it doesn't mean it works. And here's the second thing I'm wondering: what do we mean by 'works'. When has a prayer 'worked' and when hasn't it? Say two people pray for contradictory things, who's prayer should 'work'. Does the idea that whatever we pray for happens not sort of make God our puppet?

Is it possible that the the kinds of things the Bible says about prayer are not absurd, do not make God a puppet who must fulfill every whim that is said in prayer, but, in the broader context of the entire Bible (rather than single verses taken out of context) and within the context of a deep and holistic relationship with a living God, mean something quite different than they seem to mean to us at face value?

Just a thought...:-)

eddie said...

Is it possible that the the kinds of things the Bible says about prayer are not absurd, do not make God a puppet who must fulfill every whim that is said in prayer, but, in the broader context of the entire Bible (rather than single verses taken out of context) and within the context of a deep and holistic relationship with a living God, mean something quite different than they seem to mean to us at face value?
Out of context? Let’s see; theist takes all sorts of verses in the Bible OUT OF CONTEXT to draw conclusions on the stuff, such as divorce, slavery, homosexuality, the role of women and all manner of issues based on their political ethic more than anything else. And yet, I don’t hear them complain about these verses being taken out of context to support their ethic. Why is that? Why are verses only taken “out of context” when they describe issues the needs further explanation. If you said “that car is red” in the middle of an hour conversation, would I be taking you out of context when I restated just that single sentence when pointing to the red car you referenced? How can this statement Jesus made possibly be taken OUT OF CONTEXT? It stands there for time in memorial, in and out of context.

Unfortunately, Jesus made that statement. There are no verses IN CONTEXT before or after that negates his statement and (failed) promise. You’d think if it was that important to qualify like you do, that Jesus would have added a little more meat to it, so that it describe what you imply - and yet, he didn’t. This puzzles me, since prayer is supposedly the most important act to engage in to communicating with god. You need to source other verses to put this in CONTEXT so that it doesn’t read what it says.

And prayer is the same “voodoo” as placebo. People get healed from taking the placebo pill instead of the real drug in trials, which is only proof that mentally we have control over our physiology without any gods involved. Back to the point I think Kevin is making: there is no evidence that prayer has ANY effect or that a god answers them – which I discovered the hard way. I would have cut him/her/it some slack if it actually worked more than 2% of the time.

JesusMarine said...

You are testing God. 4 words.....You need to rely and trust on God to fulfill your needs. If you don't believe in him because you can not see him, you are playing the Doubting Thomas role. "Blessed are they who believe and have seen, but even more blessed are those who believe and yet have not seen." Keep those words in mind when you pray. It is not our will be done, rather Christ's will be done. I would also recommend that anybody who has honest doubts about Christianity read, The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell. That is an incredible book that has really changed my life in times of severe doubts as you are having. God bless you all.

Stephen said...

Great blog, Kevin.

Before I saw your post, I put up a post along these lines (using the phrase "petitionary prayer" -- not having ever been a Christian myself, I don't know the lingo). You can find it here; I would love to know your thoughts.


Kevin Parry said...

Hi JesusMarine

Thank you for taking the time to comment. The interesting thing about the Doubting Thomas story is that Jesus was more than happy to show physical evidence when Thomas asked for it. Why doesn’t Jesus show the same kind of proof today? I’ve often heard apologists argue that God does not physically show himself to us because it would infringe on our free will in making a decision for him. But this answer does not make sense: if God values free will so highly, and if physical evidence compromises this free will, then why did Jesus show Doubting Thomas his wounds? Why does Jesus not appear right in front of me – right now, as he did in front of Doubting Thomas?

I must admit that I haven’t read McDowell’s Verdict so I can’t speak for that specific book. However, I do have another book of his, Answers to Five Tough Questions. McDowell seems to write for the layman, and in my opinion most of his arguments are quite superficial – they quickly fall apart when one does a bit of research.

Hi Stephen
Thanks for the link. I will pop by sometime.

All the best

miked4j said...

Hi Kevin,
What I'd like to add in to this equation is the following:
1) Faith - as in: how do we know that they had enough?
2) God - how do we know that it wasn't His will for the people to get better at that time?
3) The James Mentality - "You show me your faith without your works, and I'll show you my faith through my works."

Interesting that you quote Carl Sagan.

PS: Please don't assume true for all values of x. So don't judge the entirity of Christianity on what the world says Christianity is or your own experiences.