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Socrates Cafe Message Board › The Great Prayer Experiment

The Great Prayer Experiment

user 4490744
Group Organizer
Springfield, MO
Post #: 2
One not-unpopular abductive argument for the existence of a supernatural deity is what I’ll call “the argument from intercessory prayer.” Roger Ray used (or at least seemed to me to use) this argument at our last Socrates Café meeting. The argument goes as follows:

Premise 1: Sick people who are prayed for fare better than people who are sick with the same conditions but not prayed for.
Premise 2: The best explanation of this fact is that a supernatural being exists and is interceding to help heal the sick people who are being prayed for.
Conclusion: There is evidence of the truth of the proposition that a supernatural being exists.
(Sometimes the claim I labeled as “Premise 2” is argued for, rather than just assumed.)

The trouble with this argument is that the best scientific study we have on the matter yielded evidence that Premise 1 is false. The major funder of this study was the Templeton Foundation, an organization that promotes religion. It is the sponsor of the annual Templeton Prize, worth the very substantial sum of 1,000,000 British pounds. In the Templeton Foundation's own description,

"The Templeton Prize honors a living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. Established in 1972 by the late Sir John Templeton, the Prize aims, in his words, to identify 'entrepreneurs of the spirit'—outstanding individuals who have devoted their talents to expanding our vision of human purpose and ultimate reality. The Prize celebrates no particular faith tradition or notion of God, but rather the quest for progress in humanity's efforts to comprehend the many and diverse manifestations of the Divine." (http://www.templeton....­)

The Templeton Foundation has posted on its Web site this statement about what some have called “the Great Prayer Experiment”:

"Prayer research is a fascinating topic and may well continue in additional modes to that presented as the outcome of the STEP [Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer] project. However, the null results obtained by the methodologically rigorous STEP experiment appear to provide a clear and definitive contrasting result to an earlier published finding (Byrd study) of a positive effect for patient-blind distant intercessory prayer in a prayer experiment involving recovery of patients in a cardiac care unit. Result: The STEP project did not confirm these findings." (http://www.templeton....­)

The Web page also provides links to a number of newspaper and magazine articles about the experiment. Here is a sampling of the headlines:

The Baltimore Sun
March 31, 2006
Distant prayer doesn't help heal, finds largest study yet by Jonathan Bor

The Chicago Tribune
March 31, 2006
In this study, prayers aren't the answer by Jeremy Manier

The Houston Chronicle
March 31, 2006
Study: Praying Won't Affect Heart Patients by Malcolm Ritter

The Los Angeles Times
March 31, 2006
Largest Study of Prayer to Date Finds It Has No Power to Heal by Denise Gellene and Thomas H. Maugh II
Sheri G.
user 10284154
Mount Vernon, MO
Post #: 1
In his defense, I am not certain Roger mentioned the study to suggest possible existence of a deity but, rather, merely to establish the hypothesis that those who believe in prayer who believe they are being prayed for experience an emotional reaction that positively impacts their physical condition. It seemed to me that Roger made it very plain he does not believe in any form of deity. I apologize if I am putting words in his mouth; this was just my understanding.

The argument, however, is most certainly frequently used to argue in favor of the existence of God. God answers prayer, therefore God is, therefore God answers prayer. Evidence that God does not answer prayer is simply ignored based on instances wherein prayer appears to be answered. Consistency is, evidently, not essential to the concept of "God answers prayer."

I am curious about the potential emotional harm when one knows one is being prayed for, believes in "the power of prayer" and sees those prayers go unanswered. I'm not sure that it is measurable, but have there been any studies conducted examining this aspect of intercessory prayer? I have heard unanswered prayer explained in what I consider to be horrific terms and I've often been very concerned over the impact on the recipient of the unanswered prayer. It would be nice to be able to point to research rather than to simply gasp!

user 4490744
Group Organizer
Springfield, MO
Post #: 3

Your hypothesis about Roger Ray's intention in bringing up the efficacy of prayer may well be correct. I did notice that he described himself as "post-theist." I would just note that another hypothesis is that he was giving an argument that had an upshot that contradicted his own belief. If you're right that Roger intended to establish only that sick people benefit from knowing that others are praying for them, and that he did not intend to establish anything about the reasonableness of belief in a supernatural deity, then his argument was a red herring. I had indicated that our focus was whether belief in a supernatural deity is compatible with reason.

Your question about the emotional harm of unanswered prayer is a good one. It's more a psychological question than a philosophical one, and I know even less about psychology than I do about philosophy. But perhaps other Socrates Cafe members are aware of experimental data relevant to your question. I can certainly understand how unanswered prayers could be devastating. If you are taught your whole life that God will bless you if you are in a right relationship with Him, and you want more than anything else to be in a right relationship with Him, but your health or your finances or your marriage falls apart, you will conclude that the most important being in your life (and not just in your life, but in the whole universe) is deeply displeased with you. How completely depressing! (Or you might react to such misfortune by becoming more skeptical about theistic claims.)

The emotional harm of unanswered prayer is but one reason I'm deeply skeptical of the view that, true or not, religious belief makes people's lives better. The desire to understand, to understand the world around us and our place in it, is a powerful and fundamental human desire. Too often, I think, the view that the events of our lives and of history are within the control of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent deity leaves people in deeply discomfiting incomprehension. This view can be very hard to reconcile with the contraction of a fatal illness, or a debilitating injury, or the death of a loved one.

As it happens, I'm currently reading a chapter from Charles Gorham's 1914 work Christianity and Civilization that contains some interesting thoughts about the dangers of belief in the efficacy of prayer, above and beyond the sort of emotional harm to which you call attention. Here's an excerpt:

"If man can, as he commonly believes, get what he wants by asking for it, as expressly promised in the New Testament, he will be the less inclined to personal exertion. His own efforts are deemed superfluous, and he is reduced to passivity. To assume that divine benefits are conditional on our own exertions can only mean that we must act as if we did not rely upon God to confer them. Our conduct must therefore be the same whether we do or do not expect supernatural aid. Cromwell's advice to "trust in God and keep your powder dry" was radically sceptical, for reliance on human means which would in any case bring about a certain result negates divine means which operate with less certainty. It is clear that the beliefs in divine superintendence and petitionary prayer are harmful to social evolution in proportion to the degree in which they discourage human energy, and, by excluding it from the chain of cause and effect, render the results of its exercise uncertain. The devout Theist regards God as the real author of human civilization, and, if consistent, he leaves God to carry on the work of improvement."
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