Putting Prayer to the Test

Empirical studies on the effects of prayer have been controversial since Francis Galton, in 1872, predicted that if intercessory prayer were efficacious then:

“members of the British Royal Family would live longer than average, given that thousands [of Anglicans] prayed for their well-being every Sunday.”[1]

Since that time a number of different studies have been performed to assess the efficacy of intercessory prayer, and most recently some of these studies have indicated that, on average, people who are prayed for are no better off than those who aren’t, and, surprisingly, are worse off if they know they are being prayed for. Take the now famous Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) for instance, the findings of which include that “Complications [after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery] occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28).”[2] It appears, according to the findings of this study, that although intercessory prayer had no effect on patients who were unaware they were being prayed for (52% faced complications) compared to patients who were not prayed for (51% faced complications), those who were knowingly receiving intercessory prayer were considerably worse off. This study seems to strongly disconfirm the hypothesis that intercessory prayer is efficacious.

Given the empirical disconfirmation of the efficacy of intercessory prayer, what can Christians (or others) offer by way of justification for retaining belief in the efficacy of intercessory prayer? In this case what the Christian needs, it seems to me, is what epistemologists refer to as a defeater-defeater; in other words, they need to regard the empirical evidence as a prima facie defeater of their belief in the efficacy of prayer, and then offer some defeater of this defeater. There are two general strategies here which we might adopt. The first is to appeal to skeptical theism, and the second is to provide some plausible reason(s) for thinking that the study is flawed.

Appealing to skeptical theism need not commit one to the claim that STEP provides no evidence against the efficacy of intercessory prayer, but merely that it provides so little evidence as to be negligible. Here some philosophers make a distinction between (moderate) skeptical theism and extreme skeptical theism, where the extreme skeptical theist believes that evil provides absolutely no evidence against God’s existence, while the skeptical theist believes that evil provides only negligible evidence against God’s existence. I think that moderate skeptical theism is sensible, and if applied in the case at hand it would suggest that STEP provides negligible evidence against intercessory prayer. Why is the evidence negligible? There are a few reasons, including the sample size, problems with the methods used, and such-like. However, the more significant reasons for being skeptical of STEP’s conclusions may be theological in nature.

On some views of God there is reason to predict that intercessory prayer would be ineffective or at least that it would remain empirically undetectable by studies such as STEP. Clearly the Deistic view of God is no less likely given STEP. However, what about the Christian view of God? Does Christianity have internal resources for motivating the prediction that STEP would yield the results it does? I think so.

If we are observing a chemical reaction or animal behaviour it becomes very easy to remove ourselves from the equation and observe what would presumably have occurred even if we had not been observing it. We can, for instance, hide from the animal so that they are unaware of our presence and surveillance. We cannot do the same with God. Just as you might get different results when observing the activities of a human person depending on whether they are aware that they are being watched, so you can reasonably suppose that God might react differently in cases where we try to detect and measure His activity with His full awareness. Does the Christian have any reason to suspect that God would act differently in the case at hand (i.e., with respect to intercessory prayer put under the proverbial microscope)? Yes, I think so.

In Matthew 13:58 we read that Jesus was unable to do miracles in his hometown because of the lack of faith among the people there (see also Mark 6:5-6). Why would Jesus be unable to perform miracles because of a lack of faith in those around him? Let us bear in mind, as we ask this question, that on the Christian worldview God’s aim is ultimately to bring us into a right relationship with him through Christ. There is no guarantee, however, that witnessing a miracle, or even merely believing that God exists, will be conducive to this aim. Thus, on the Christian view of God it is to be expected that God will refrain from doing miracles if/when they would do more harm than good. After all, with greater evidence comes less excuse, and if a person’s heart would only be hardened by finding such evidence then God has every reason for keeping it out of their hands, like a good parent keeping a child’s hand away from a hot stovetop. If God knows the state of your heart well enough (as He surely does, on the Christian hypothesis) to know that this kind of ‘evidence’ is not going to help you (and/or others) to come into a relationship with Him then He seems likely to withhold it, as Jesus did in his hometown. After all, the God of the Bible is on record, through Moses, as commanding his people as follows:

“Do not put the Lord your God to the test as you did at Massah.” (Deuteronomy 6:16)

STEP, if nothing else, seems to be putting God to the test, and that very fact gives us some reason to believe that those conducting the study don’t have their hearts in the right place to begin with.

Moreover, consider what it would mean for the spiritual welfare of believers if we knew that God did as requested in intercessory prayer only 34% of the time. This would plausibly dis-incentivize petitionary prayer, which could do real damage to indefinitely many people’s relationships with God. Further, suppose we found that intercessory prayer ‘worked’ 78% of the time. This would plausibly incentivize bargaining with God, or praying not in order to run into God’s arms, but just in order for God to do what we want Him to do (which would be to treat God as merely a means to an end). It might also induce in us a childish feeling of envy towards other people when we do not receive what we pray for, and resentment towards God for not giving us what we pray for even though most people get precisely what they want. These consequences are certainly non-trivial, and do give God morally justifying reasons for not making his activity known to us when we look for evidence of it by conducting studies like STEP.

Finally, even in the absence of such mitigating considerations, if Christians are right to think that God routinely hides Himself precisely for the sake of allowing us the free (un-coerced) choice of whether to believe in Him or not, then God may have a good reason for hiding Himself from us in this case. Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century Mathematician and provocative Christian thinker, once (allegedly) said:

“In faith there is enough light for those who want to believe and enough shadows to blind those who don’t.”[3]

In conclusion, Christians do have (theological) reasons for expecting the results of studies like STEP. If one objects that the reasoning I have presented is retrospective damage control (i.e., that the reasons presented for expecting the results of STEP aren’t strong enough to have motivated Christians to actually predict the results of studies like STEP), I don’t know if I can do better than to appeal to their common sense; the reasons certainly seem strong enough to me. Clearly, at very least, STEP comes as no surprise to the vast majority of Christians.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Efficacy_of_prayer#Studies_on_the_efficacy_of_prayer

[2] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16569567

[3] Although this quotation is attributed to him on seemingly every corner of the internet, it is possibly spurious. I looked hard for the precise citation and I couldn’t find it anywhere. I also thoroughly looked through the Pensées, and it certainly isn’t a quotation from there. See https://www.gutenberg.org/files/18269/18269-h/18269-h.htm and/or http://www.ccel.org/ccel/pascal/pensees.ii.html. So, just as Marie Antoinette never said “let them eat cake” and René Descartes never wrote the words “Cogito ergo sum” in the meditations (though he did write those words elsewhere), so Pascal may never have uttered/penned these words for which he is popularly remembered.


5 thoughts on “Putting Prayer to the Test

  1. I have the Pascal reference should you want it, it’s note 430 in Pensèes. (Page 80 in A.J. Krailsheimer’s 1966 Penguin translation). Here’s the translation Krailsheimer gives: “‘There is enough light for those who desire only to see, and enough darkness for those of a contrary disposition.'”

  2. “In Matthew 13:58 we read that Jesus was unable to do miracles in his hometown because of the lack of faith among the people there (see also Mark 6:5-6). Why would Jesus be unable to perform miracles because of a lack of faith in those around him?”

    If this were a sufficient explanation, why would faith healings not work? Presumably there is no lack of faith among the participants.

    • I’m not convinced that no faith-healings ever work, nor am I convinced that every time they do work the explanation is merely psycho-somatic. However, I’d like to make two quick comments here; first, that explanation needn’t be sufficient (I have, you’ll have noticed, provided supplementary explanations), and second, I’m not convinced that the participants at faith healings really do irreproachably have genuine faith. If the fruits of genuine faith include praying after the pattern we see in Jesus himself (for instance, where even in supplication we submit our will to God by asking ‘yet, not my will, but thine be done’) then the very spirit of most faith-healing ministries is itself antithetical to authentic Christian spirituality and faith. Faith-healing ministries routinely become versions of a ‘health & wealth’ gospel, for obvious reasons.

      • “I have, you’ll have noticed, provided supplementary explanations”

        I did indeed notice. I hope you did not take my question to imply that I deny that faith healing and intercessory prayer can be efficacious. A reasonable belief requires addressing potential challenges. The obvious skeptic’s response to Matthew 13:58 is that Jesus couldn’t perform miracles in his hometown because they knew him to be a fraud and were not fooled into treating the non-miraculous as miraculous.

        My fear is that your explanations lead to the conclusion that God is highly limited in his ability to showcase miraculous powers. God hiding himself is not satisfying. Even if Sister Francine has irreproachably genuine faith and daily prays for a hundred worthy names on her Order’s shared list, can her prayers be ineffective or less effective just because unfaithful people would notice (perhaps in the far future) statistically significant and verifiable miraculous recoveries? The theological implication that intercessory prayer can only work if nobody but God knows about it or those involved must all have faith already (or at least keep their free will) is stunning. It would certainly add a whole new depth of meaning to Matthew 6:6.

        If a person knew that God answered their prayers for healing every time they asked, they would quickly succumb to the temptation to use that power for their own use. It would be very rare the person with enough faith and humility to not let this consume them. Maybe this is why miracles are so rare, because true faith is rare.

        Or perhaps miracles are rare because God prefers not to use them in isolation. We really should not spend much time praying for physical needs, but instead spend most of our time praying for spiritual needs.

      • “The obvious skeptic’s response to Matthew 13:58 is that Jesus couldn’t perform miracles in his hometown because they knew him to be a fraud and were not fooled into treating the non-miraculous as miraculous.”

        That would be an odd way for the skeptic to argue, since on that interpretation it becomes hard to explain the motivations of the gospel authors for including it, and even harder to explain their including it without appending some kind of apologetic.

        I think you and I are reading Matthew 13:58 differently. I think that the reason their lack of faith is relevant at all is precisely because witnessing a miracle would do them more harm than good in the long run. Their lack of faith predisposed them to have a negative reaction, in the long run, to miracles. I don’t think that’s implausible, on its face (maybe we’d need to qualify that if we reject both Molinism and Thomism when it comes to subjunctive counterfactual conditionals of libertarian freedom, but even then we could provide a probabilistic account on which God would still have morally sufficient reasons for withholding miraculous experiences from those people).

        “Maybe this is why miracles are so rare, because true faith is rare.” This is almost certainly true. Miracles are like neon signs which are intended to direct man to God, the same way saints are intended to direct man to God; if there were more and greater saints, there would be more and greater reasons for God to direct man to himself through them by directing men to them through miracles.

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