Tuesday, April 11, 2006

That Prayer Study

Today's New York Times has has this interesting op-ed from Raymond Lawrence, an episcopal priest and director of pastoral care at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center. The subject is that major, recently completed study that showed that intercessory prayer is ineffective. William Saletan provides a useful summary of the basic facts of the situation here.

Lawrence gets off to a good start. Early on he writes:

The results of the study, led by Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston, came as welcome news. That may sound odd coming from an ordained minister. But if it could ever be persuasively demonstrated that such prayer “works,” our religious institutions and meeting places would be degraded to a kind of commercial enterprise, like Burger King, where one expects to get what one pays for.

Historically, religions have promoted many kinds of prayer. Prayers of praise, thanksgiving and repentance have been highly esteemed, while intercessions of the kind done in the Benson study — appeals to God to take some action — are of lesser importance. They represent a less-respected magical wing of religion.

In fact, many theologians reject out of hand the notion that any person or group can effectively intercede with God in any respect. Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, the two major Christian theologians of the 20th century (and certainly no opponents of prayer) would have scoffed at the idea. The Lord's Prayer, the central prayer of Christendom, contains no plea for God to influence specific events in people's lives.

Pretty good. I'd point out, however, that while many theologians dismiss intercessory prayer out of hand, many others do not. We will return to this in a moment.

Lawrence also includes this:

Doctors in particular should be pleased that the Benson study demonstrated no benefit from intercessory prayer by strangers. Recently, a colleague told me about a devout, well-educated woman who accused a doctor of malpractice in his treatment of her husband. During her husband's dying days, she charged, the doctor had failed to pray for him. If prayer could be scientifically shown to help, every doctor would be obligated to pray with patients, or at least provide such service, and those who declined to do so would properly be subject to charges of malpractice.

I would assume the accusation did not go anywhere, but these days you can never tell.

Of course, since this is a priest talking he can't resist a comment to the effect that theologians know things that scientists don't:

We should note that the impetus for this recent research has come almost entirely from scientists, not from religious leaders. It seems that no credible theologian has been involved in planning, directing or even consulting on such studies. But scientists who conduct research on religious practice should at least consult reputable theologians. Had they done so to begin with a considerable amount of money could have been saved. Scientists who undertake the work of theologians are as reckless as theologians who pretend to be scientists.

Nonsense. Many of the most important Christian organiations in this country routinely extol the virtues of intercessory prayer. For example, here's Agape Press praising an effort to pray for the protection of Mayo Clinic patients from the pernicious influence of the Dalai Lama's forthcoming visit. When prior, less-rigorous studies seemed to show that there was some health benefit related to intercessory prayer, outfits like Focus on the Family and the 700 Club were crowing from the rooftops. The fact is that every Christian organization of any influence in this country was perfectly happy to tell its flock about how science has proven that prayer is effective. That was the impetus for carrying out research like this.

And, frankly, even many of those “credible theologians” were happy to take a limp, fence-sitting position with regard to those earlier studies. Sure, the whole idea is theologically suspect. God makes decisions about a person's health based on what another person asks Him to do? But the fact remains that such things are good for business. I don't have any quotes handy, but I certainly recall plenty of people like Lawrence going on television to express skepticism about the study on the one hand, while simultaneously using it to promote the value of their religion on the other. Furthermore, scientists were not undertaking the work of theologians. They were putting to the test a specific, testable claim endoresed by many of America's most important religious leaders.

If this study had turned out the other way Lawrence would not be writing articles for the Times telling us about how worthless the whole undertaking was. He would be prattling instead about how now even arrogant scientist types had to concede there was something to all this religion stuff. Since that's not how things turned out, he fell back on the other standard bit of theological blather. The one where they desperately explain away the inability of anyone to detect a tangible effect of God's alleged dominion over the world.


At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since that's not how things turned out, he fell back on the other standard bit of theological blather. The one where they desperately explain away the inability of anyone to detect a tangible effect of God's alleged dominion over the world.

Indeed. When all is said and done, I can't distinguish between "God's ways being higher than on our ways" and there being no God in the first place.

You might as well flip a coin to guess whether a wishful plea will work or not.

At 4:45 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!
- Jim Morrison

At 8:17 PM, Anonymous Joe Shelby said...

The one where they desperately explain away the inability of anyone to detect a tangible effect of God's alleged dominion over the world.

I'm sorry you don't understand the Episcopalian faith and beliefs and as such, merely assume that they (well, we) must therefore believe just as you interpret every other Christian faith (especially those whose Christian ethics I personally doubt come from anybody but their own greedy souls).

The fact is that every Christian organization of any influence in this country was perfectly happy to tell its flock about how science has proven that prayer is effective.

Well, then I guess it is true that the Episcopalians are no longer "of any influence in the country".

I have, in the 30 years I've been an Episcopalian, never prayed for, nor been in a public service where others were openly praying for a specific outcome to a real-world situation. I've seen prayers for strength, guidance, patience, peace, grace, and "healing", and in the latter it has always been in the form of emotional healing, not "cures". We would see it as "God's Will" (yes, the same thing as statistical miracles so don't belabor it) if someone were "cured" of cancer. But our prayers are often considered answered if our friend dying of cancer died with peace and a sense of closure.

If you look through the Episcopalian 1979 Book of Common Prayer (you can google for it online, though its 450 pages) you won't find many prayers that actually ask for physical intervention in reality. (one of these days I should do a survey, looking at which ones could be interpreted as such and how often they're actually prayed outside of the regular pattern suggested by the Daily Office).

In short, prayer is an emotional thing, not a "physical" thing. In some ways prayer is an expression of hope, and emotionally (in terms of physiology and chemistry) it might even be indistinguishable. But that doesn't make it any less real a feeling or any less viable a form of expression.

Many in my church, along with myself, have "felt" a prayer answered. We tend not to talk about such occurances with nonbelievers because we accept that the emotional feeling, and the connection between it and the prayer, is personal and anectdotal at best. It wouldn't be "evidence" for anyone but ourselves.

Had the study come out "the other way", Lawrence would have been expressing skepticism right along with most other scientists who would be out there looking for ways (and likely finding them) in which the study was significantly flawed (as many others have been).

When Lawrence wrote "Had they done so to begin with a considerable amount of money could have been saved.", he was implying that most theologians he knows (now, granted, he's more attuned to the mindset of mainstreams like Episcopalian, American Catholicism, and Methodism) would have told them don't bother. The vast majority of us don't take faith healing in the "Benny Hinn sense" seriously.

Personally, I doubt the ability of the "Religious Right"'s to study anything at all (as evidenced by their inability to study science and history properly), much less their generally inept reading of the Bible, to call any of them "theologians".

(side note, the Rector of the church I grew up in, now a Bishop in Virginia, has signed the Clergy List.)

At 4:17 AM, Anonymous Maccer said...

There's nothing new under the sun! In 1872, Darwin's cousin, Francis Galton, a keen statistician, published an article entitled "Statistical inquiries into the efficacy of prayer" and showed that, for example, the British Royal family did not live longer than other classes of society with similar comfortable lives, despite the fact that the whole country prayed for their health and longevity in every church in the land every Sunday. He also examined other phenomena which could have benefited from prayer and found absolutely no effect. 132 years later, we still have not grasped the message.

At 12:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why not visit Lawrence's Blog

At 11:12 PM, Anonymous Peter said...

Author Daniel Quinn put it nicely:

When a chemist puts water in a test tube and adds salt, an angel comes along and dissolves the salt into charged particles called ions. Because we perceive the universe to be self-governing according to internally consistent and comprehensible principles, the angel in this story seems completely superfluous to us. We therefore cut it away with Occam's razor.

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At 12:46 PM, Blogger Jennifer said...

prayer is presented throughout the Bible as being efficacious as far as getting God to pay attention to the petitioner and do what the petitioner asks. Christians are exhorted to pray and in James believers are supposed to pray for the sick and anoint them with holy oil. How can an episcopalian say that members of his church (which I assume are at least nominally influenced by the Bible) do not practice or believe in intercessory prayer? Episcopalians are a strange Christian sect indeed. Just come over to the Other Side of Godlessness, Church of England. I promise we're friendly.

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