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May 21 2010

Why Prayer is Nonsense – part 3

2 – Know your deities

This is part 3 in a series of posts on prayer. Please use the links at the top and bottom of each post to navigate through the parts.

but everyone knows prayer works!

Everyone prays when your time comes or when you get into trouble, even atheists — or so the aphorists would have you believe. Belief in the power of prayer is seemingly omnipresent, with daily reinforcement of the concept from other people that believe likewise. You see the reports on the news of the one little boy that walked away from a horrific plane crash (who was saved by God — never mind that everyone else on the plane was *not*). You know the story of the hurricane that tore through a small town and left only the church standing. You’ve heard about the “light at the end of the tunnel” when a dying person’s neurons start misfiring and they gasp out their last coherent words immediately prior to oblivion. The media, populated in equal measure to the society at large with theists, use phrases like “miraculous” or “divine providence” or “act of God” in describing rare events.

In the presence of such widespread and self-reinforcing memes, it’s difficult to imagine how to shake the general populace’s belief that prayer does anything. The only way I can see, as with pretty much every other problem humankind faces, is through judicious use of science. Sound logic will, of course, only get you so far.

And science was done. Copious amounts of science, in fact. The people involved in performing the studies often had a horse in the race, mind you, but this fact inevitably comes to light in due course. Some examples:

  • In 1999, a study was produced and published showing interventionary prayer (AKA intercessory prayer if you’re a Catholic apologist) apparently working, when it turned out that they only worked if you ignored some strong evidence that the less-sick people were being placed in the prayer group either by chance or by someone doing the intervening on God’s behalf.
    Shows prayer has small effect, sample size 1000 patients, results could be well explained by chance
  • In 2001, a study was produced with a sample size of 200 patients looking to get in vitro fertilization, with an incredibly convoluted testing protocol that resulted in several overlapping sets of instructions to various parishes including that “God’s will be done”. Later, it is discovered that the supposed lead author had no idea about the study’s existence until months afterward, and the second author could not be contacted at all and later turned out to be a complete fraud, embezzler and con artist.
    Shows prayer has large effect, sample size 200 patients, completely fraudulent from top to bottom

  • In 2003, a long-term analysis of 17 previous distant-healing studies was performed, showing no evidence whatsoever that the effects were any better than placebo. This is assuming that all seventeen studies were valid, of course, but even if on the balance of probability one of them showed any sort of validity, the 16 others ought to more than make up for the statistical spike.
    Shows prayer has no effect, sample size unknown (it’s behind a pay wall), analysis of 17 studies from 2000 to 2003, none of the studies involved were specifically targetted as unscientific to my knowledge
  • In 2006, no link was found between prayer and recovery from heart surgery in a trial with, honestly, no real problems in it — it’s about as solid a study as I’ve seen, and in these debates I’ve gone cross-eyed over them. This study was even funded by the Templeton Foundation, who would have loved to see a positive correlation rather than the negative correlation they found, since their purpose in this world is to find scientists to say nice sciencey things about faith.
    Shows no correlation, sample size over three thousand, undisputed by any credible scientists

Please include more examples in the comments! I’ve barely scratched the surface at this point.

To determine whether a hypothesis about a particular effect is valid, you must first experiment to verify the existence of that observed effect, and then experiment to find out how exactly it works. There was no such verifiable evidence of the effectiveness of prayer in any of the trials that have taken place. The only times any such trial has produced data that suggested such an effect might even exist, those specific trials have been widely criticized for a number of issues, including but not limited to sample size, selection bias, and especially researcher bias. We haven’t even proven that there’s any sort of effect to prayer whatsoever.

And don’t forget the fact that, in all these studies, not one has ever included a visible condition that can’t go into remission on its own. Any study of praying for the regrowth of limbs in, say, innocent child war amputees, would prove 100% ineffective. Likewise with any other sort of amputee, regardless of their sins. Why has God never healed an amputee? For all the times that God is said to answer prayers when you’re in minor trouble (e.g. to get you out of a citation when stopped by the police, or to help your favorite sports team the big game), not one limb has ever been regrown. Not one. The excuses for this (as with the excuses for every study that disproves the power of faith healing) are manifold, but the people making excuses are quick to latch onto every piece of good fortune and claim them as confirmation for their deity’s intervention.

While science does its part disproving any causal link between prayer and healing, go hit Google and see how many sites you find about the power of prayer. Here’s a few for you:

  • Prayer is Ultimate Way to Solve All Problems from the self-proclaimed Best Website In The World, MindReality.com
  • Probing the Problems of Prayer, on how to assuage your doubts about the efficacy of prayer after I’ve shaken you loose from your beliefs, from Focus On the Family
  • Can problems be solved by prayer?, from the point of view of an Indian sage of some sort, explaining the ways prayer can help — by comforting you and by changing your state of mind. It’s especially interesting in that it explains the ways in which hope is different from prayer.
  • Pressing Through the Problems of Prayer, on how to deal with praying for the same things repeatedly, how to deal with God’s silence and unanswered prayers, and other faith-shaking realizations that prayer is useless.
  • The Problem of Prayer Today, by Larkin and Carm, a paper on how to reconcile prayer with modern society from a Christian point of view. This is especially interesting in that it explicitly defines prayer and action as being inherently separate from one another — that prayer involves only petitioning God, without complementary action, blaming the “Godlessness” of society on activism, and backing the argument up with quotes from a directive from the Vatican. You should keep this paper in mind if you think prayer is for reinforcing actions.

What does it say about the success of this particular tactic, the liberal application of science as panacea, when every scientifically conducted research project on prayer comes back negative, and after so many millions of dollars are spent conducting them, the people so desperate to validate their worldviews proffer the hypothesis repeatedly, and we keep throwing money down this well? One would think at some point, someone would say “enough is enough, we’ve tested this hypothesis to death and back, it has yielded no results and no clues that we’re even on the right track.”

In this world, we have people protesting vaccination, the single greatest, most life-saving medical achievement science has ever created. We have people regularly suggest the possibility that electromagnetic radiation below the ultraviolet threshold causes cancers by unknown and unknowable means. Each of these despite decades of testing, and the systematic discrediting of the foundational claims on which the hypotheses are based, as well as the discrediting of the people who famously made or bolstered these claims to begin with. Despite this, those particular brands of delusion live on today. I am blinded by no delusion of my own that I can somehow eliminate people praying, either by sudden fame or notoriety, or by my arguments somehow standing the test of time. I am well aware that every one of these arguments will be dismissed out of hand by those folks for whom prayer absolutely must be true lest the foundation of their faith cracks. And with the larger problem of selection bias — wherein anything counts as “God’s will being done” — pretty much everything counts as an answered prayer to certain people.

But if I can convince enough of the more rational folks at the edges of their faith… or certain people in positions of power or government… maybe I can cause such cracks to form, not only in individuals but in society as a whole. Or maybe I’m sowing the seed of doubt which will slowly grow into a tree that’ll do that foundational damage for me over time. I pretty sure I’m not the only one looking to do so, either.

Why would I care so much about people dropping to their knees — I mean, for useless activities like prayer — you ask? Well, that’s an excellent question. One I’ll answer soon enough.

4 – Even if it IS useless, what’s the harm?

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