My regular readers (both of them) see frequent references to post hoc reasoning, anecdotal claims, and communal reinforcement. These are key elements in alternative medicine, divination, and cryptozoology. But the area where they play the biggest role is prayer.
Prayers with satisfactory results lead to praise of whatever deity was summoned. Unfavorable results lead to more prayer and talk of blessings in disguise, mysterious ways, and infinite wisdom, along with praise to the god in an unending cycle.
But prayer will not impact icy roads, leukemia, a troubled marriage, or Mrs. Osteen’s parking spot. Seemingly answered prayers are the result of Magical Thinking, which is the connecting of two events as though one caused the other, without regard to the casual link or other factors.
Relying on prayer can be unhealthy if used in place of bolstering one’s self-esteem and building resiliency. It can be deadly in the revolting practice of faith healing, where parents let their toddlers die a painful death for the glory of Jesus.
There can be a small measure of value in prayer. When someone KNOWS they are talking to themselves, they can work their way through an issue, analyze a situation, and examine a way forward. Likewise, expressing these thoughts through prayer can have the same results. A praying person thinks they are talking to a god. I think they are talking to a ceiling. But either way, they have access to the ultimate listener. This listener will never belittle, interrupt, or turn the conversation to themselves.
And since prayer can lower stress, it might positively impact stress-related illnesses, as can meditation and yoga. But praying for someone else who has a stress-related illness would be as pointless as chanting “Hari-Om” for them or doing a Modified Cobra position on their behalf. Prayer also has a comforting effect and makes people feel empowered that they are doing something positive.
Belief in the healing power of prayer comes mostly from communal reinforcement and selective thinking. Persons forget or rationalize when prayerful desires conflict with the results. By contrast, successes are highlighted and shared with fellow believers. This is known as confirmation bias.
I know many who swear by the power of prayer, but these people have their limits. Of the thousands of Facebook prayer requests that have come across my news feed, none have asked God to heal the congenitally blind or to grow missing limbs. Facebook death announcements are met with prayers for the family, not a supplication that God will pull a Lazarus on the recently deceased.
I was following on civil online chat between a Christian and an atheist about whether God existed. The Christian wrote, “I’m just really feeling called to talk to you more in-depth. Please send me your e-mail address so we can talk about this further.” I interjected, “Have God send you his e-mail address, then he’ll believe.” A miracle, by its nature, would violate the laws of physics. Show me my great-grandmother back from the dead, a Kindergartner with Muscular Dystrophy jumping up and running around, or someone walking on water to win the James Randi Million Dollar Challenge and I will reconsider prayer’s efficacy.
Despite the difficulty of putting prayer to the test, a serious attempt was made by a team led by Dr. Herbert Benson. Results were published in the American Heart Journal. Heart patients at six U.S. hospitals were randomly assigned to one of three groups. In Group A, 604 patients were told they might be prayed for, and they were. In Group B, 597 patients were told them might be prayed for, but they were not. In Group C, 601 were prayed for after being told this would happen. The intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before the patients had coronary artery bypass graft surgery.
The results: Complications arose for 52 percent of Group A, 51 perent of Group B, and 59 percent of Group C. Mortality was the same in all groups. Faced with this, some believers said it was all in God’s plan, which would raise the question why this prayer, or any other, was offered in the first place.
If there were a god that answered prayers, the population pleading to and praising the correct one would be overwhelmingly blessed compared to the heathens. If prayers to Allah were effective, the Middle East would be a paradise as opposed to a perpetual war zone. If genuflecting before the Biblical god were beneficial, Mississippi would be Heaven on Earth, instead of ranking 50th in the country in income, education, and health. If Buddhist prayers worked, Tibet would be Shangri-La for real, instead of suffering its seventh decade of brutal Chinese occupation.
Not everyone is going to agree with me, and I accept and respect that. I am also open to considering new evidence. If someone wants me to believe that prayer works, pray that this blog post will disappear and we’ll check the results.