Among my all-time favorite TV ads was one that came out at the time that the technology was developed that allowed the viewer to pause and then resume live TV. The technology seemed amazing at the time. The ad featured a football fan watching a game the outcome of which was coming down to a last second field goal. The fan put the screen on hold just before the field goal try, ran to his church to pray, returned home, resumed action on the TV, and watched his team score the winning field goal.
The ad was great on a number of levels. The acting was first-rate. The technology, now routine, seemed almost, well, “miraculous” at the time. In addition, the ad raised, at least superficially, a number of puzzles about the meaning of time: Did the prayer in fact occur before or after the field goal? And finally, the ad addressed the question of the efficacy of prayer. And that is what I want to talk about.
People pray for various reasons. With certain ritualistic prayers they want to acknowledge a higher power, to admit human frailty. Or they may want to give thanks for good fortune: “Thank God.” Or they may be asking God for guidance. Here the theory is that God will intervene personally to help them make a decision. And in other situations prayer serves as a form of contemplation or meditation. It may not really be about God so much as it is about getting into a special psychological state.
The kind of prayer I want to talk about here is intercessory prayer. These prayers can run from the frivolous to the desperate. Your team needs to kick a field goal to win the game and you ask for God’s help. You’ve lost your keys and you hope God will help you find them. More seriously, you or a loved one may have a life-threatening illness and you ask God that the illness be cured. Or a loved one is in harm’s way and you pray God to protect that loved one from injury or death.
So what is going on with an intercessory prayer? First, it assumes that God takes a personal interest in the situation. If God were simply some sort of higher power that got the universe going and was just sitting back watching the future unroll like a fan at a baseball game, there would be no question of intervention. If God is omniscient, he already knows of your situation and presumably is simply waiting for you to ask. But then, since God already knows your wishes and is benevolent, why wouldn’t he just take care of it? Apparently, God asks that you take the step to make the request.
When you are asking God to intercede, you are really asking God to override the laws of nature, to change the outcome that would otherwise occur naturally. In other words, you are asking God to perform a miracle. This is true for so-called frivolous prayers as well as for serious ones. It’s pretty obvious with serious supplications. For example, you are asking God to cure a loved one of an otherwise fatal illness. Even if you are only asking that God remind you where you have left your keys, you are asking that God trigger a change in the dynamics of your brain to allow you to recall where the keys are located, something that presumably wouldn’t happen were God just to let the laws of nature take their course.
Of course, anyone who has read my previous essays knows that I do not believe anything overrides the laws of nature, ever. So . . . no God, no miracles, no answers to prayers. And, of course, that happens all the time. In fact very often such prayers are concluded with a phrase such as, “Nevertheless, thy (meaning God’s) will, not ours, be done.” Sometimes events do go the supplicant’s way. In that case the supplicant thanks God and rejoices in God’s intercession and mercy. When things do not go the supplicant’s way, it is never because there is no God or because God doesn’t care or is making a mistake. Rather it is because God, in his wisdom, has chosen a different outcome.
This is not how a scientist would approach the matter. He or she would instead look for ways to test the question objectively and in a controlled fashion. And in fact there have been studies to address this question. In a recent well designed study sponsored by the Templeton Foundation [Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, et al. (April 2006). "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer". American Heart Journal 151 (4): 934–42], 1800 coronary bypass patients were randomly divided into three groups. In one group the patients were told that they may or may not be prayed for and were prayed for. In a second group patients were also told that they may or may not be prayed for and were not prayed for. And the patients in a third group were told that they would be prayed for and were. Three Christian congregations were asked to pray for specific patients in the first and third groups. The congregants could pray in their own way but were asked specifically to request in their prayers that the procedures go well and that the patients recover without complications.
Results? There was no significant difference between the first two groups. 52 percent of the patients in the first group, who were prayed for, experienced negative results or complications, compared to 51 percent of the patients in the second group, who were not prayed for. The third group, who were prayed for and knew that they were, fared the worst, with 59 percent of the patients experiencing negative results or complications in recovery. This difference was statistically significant. In sum, the prayers were ineffective at best and arguably just made matters worse, at least for the group that knew they were being prayed for.
One could quibble with the study’s methodology: The members of the congregations did not know personally the patients being prayed for. But clearly the congregants were motivated to have the prayers be successful. The patients who knew they were being prayed for perhaps felt that they could “coast,” knowing that they were being prayed for. That might explain why they did worse but doesn’t really explain why prayer didn’t help.
Perhaps the most anticipated criticism of the study from the Christian perspective is that God simply isn’t going to be boxed into interceding simply to fulfill the terms of a scientific study. God isn’t going to let a bunch of scientists push him around just to satisfy the desire for objective evidence. This goes directly to the question of whether God is willing to help skeptic- and science-minded persons to achieve belief by supporting his existence with scientific evidence. I guess not.
© 2013 John M. Phillips