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.