Intercessory Prayer

PsycCritiques, the book review journal of the APA, has a blog, and a recent post is about intercessory prayer. I discussed this in a previous entry here, as many Christians certainly consider intercessory prayer an important part of religious experience. But from a research perspective, the question can be asked what one can expect from treating it as something that can be manipulated in an empirical study. The brief review by Myers and Jeeves suggests benefits from physical touch and personal practice of prayer (in terms of cardio benefits, reduced stress, and so on), but not convincing evidence from studies in which prayer is conducted at a distance. They point out that there are many problems with attempts to manipulate/control these variables.

3 Comments

  1. Mark,

    I read the link; this is in response to Jeff’s comments (which I was unable to sucessfully post on the website). Thank you.

    @ Jeff: The idea of intercessory prayer acting like a slot machine is scripturally sound. God is anything but subtle in Scripture, or in the prayer lives of a majority of Americans, according to innumerable eyewitness testimonies and . The fact that prayer acts upon the natural world, whether consistent or not, means it is empirically testable. Most of what science investigates has both subtle and irregular patterns, with many complex variables, which fits in with the liberal version of prayer that you seem to espouse. The fact that ~42% of Americans are of the conservative/evangelical type that think that the Earth is only 6000 years old, and know this because they apparently converse with God on a regular basis, along with having prayers answered all over the place, all makes empirical research a snap.

    “Given that it is impossible empirically to control for who is praying for a given person, there is never any way to quantitatively assess the impact of prayer.” Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that I can’t set up a double-blind test without reasonable assurance that no one knows outside of the experiment who to pray for, and when? Do you not realize that these kind of experiments are set up all the time?

    How about hospital research on records? Do a meta-analysis of patient records, cross-indexing religious preference with recovery time, positive outcomes, etc. Cross-reference religious hospitals with secular hospitals. If the believer had on average a 28% faster recovery rate than the non-believer, wouldn’t you want to know this? Wouldn’t this be a even better marketing tool for recruitment? “God answers your prayers.” “All the time?” “No, only when he deems appropriate.” Wouldn’t a better answer be, “No, only when he deems appropriate, which is 28% of the time.”

    But my guess, based on your above comment, is that you aren’t really interested in having your faith vetted in any serious way: “…I prefer to leave the question of intercessory prayer’s impact to the realm of theology.” Of course you would. The job of theology is to assume that intercessory prayer works; i.e., presuppositional apologetics. In other words, you wish to believe in the Great and Powerful Oz, and you don’t want scientists to pay any attention to the man behind the curtain.

  2. Lightbearer: David Myers raises similar concerns about conducting research on prayer. He reviews them in his book Psychology Through the Eyes of Faith. If I recall correctly, another point Myers makes has to do with how you would control for other people praying for the people in the double-blind study. In other words, you could control for who receives prayer in the experimental condition, but you wouldn’t know whether or to what extent people in the study are prayed for by others outside of the study itself. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that perspective.

  3. Mark: Thank you for taking the time to correspond 🙂

    So your point of view, if I understand it correctly, is that anyone with a serious enough condition that the effects of prayer could be reliably measured, is going to be surrounded by too many people (family members, doctors, nurses, etc.), any of which could be randomly praying for him/her, for a double-blind to work. Here are just a few solutions:

    A: Use patients with few/no immediate family members/friends.
    B. Screen health-care providers that the patient is in contact with for religious affiliation.
    C. Have all people in contact with patients agree not to pray. Unless you think God answers the prayers of liars, this should be quite effective.

    In regard to the meta-analysis survey, this explores the assumption that one of the benefits of being a Christian is being healed by prayer. So the hypothesis to test is simply whether patients who declare themselves Christians are, in fact, healed at a faster rate. As the events are all in the past, this cancels out prayer bias. So if some significant portion of Christian patients are being healed by prayer, this would reasonably show up in the analysis. In other words, if an individual patients can reliably detect when God heals him/her, then this will show up in the meta-analysis.

    Science is all about exploring what we don’t know, especially if it is difficult to do. What I don’t like about Theology, as Jeff demonstrated, is that is assumes that something can NEVER be known, therefore MUST be taken on faith. In other words, it blunts curiosity and promotes intellectual apathy.

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