Religion

Who’d want to be such a control freak?

Breaking news! “Study fails to show healing power of prayer!”

Well, I don’t know about all of you, but I sure am glad that we finally got that sorted out. I’ve spent the past twenty years of my life praying for everyone in the entire world to stop dying in horrible ways, so it’s good to know that it’s not just me who’s being ignored.

Patients at six US hospitals failed to show any improvement when being prayed for . . . wait a second . . . hey, despite what all the news headlines say, there was an effect — the patients who were prayed for actually did worse. The hell? Why didn’t THAT make it into the headline? “Study shows God hates us!” I’d bet that would sell more papers, but maybe that’s why I’m not an editor.

So let’s see. According to the news, patients at six US hospitals were either prayed for or completely shielded from all heavenly intervension. Wait, it doesn’t really say here how they protected the control group. Were they all agnostics? Were their friends, family, and community members instructed to not pray for them, NO MATTER WHAT?

Were they allowed to pray for themselves? What if, right before going under the knife, they muttered, “Oh Jesus, please don’t let me die?” Does that count? Or were the researchers just thinking that it was a matter of quantity, not necessarily quality? For instance, one mother could send one heartfelt prayer to God to save the life of her child, but she’d be kicked to the back of the queue behind this research patient who has an entire team of monks chanting his name in Tibet?

Gosh, I’m sorry, I’m just so full of questions tonight! I should really just be happy that now we’ve proven beyond a reasonable doubt that there is no such thing as a sky-daddy, huh? Yep, this study really was needed. After this study in October of 2003 said there’s “‘No health benefit’ from prayer” and this study in July of 2005 decided that “Prayer ‘no aid to heart patients'”, I think we were all left wondering, “Yes, but couldn’t we please test whether or not prayer really works?”

Even if this latest test does prove that prayer doesn’t work to help heal the sick, I think we can all agree that it still helps our favorite NCAA basketball team win March Madness. Go UCLA!

This post’s soundtrack is, apparently, Good News for People who Love Bad News by Modest Mouse. How very livejournal/myspace!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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6 Comments

  1. I guess if you happen to believe in an omnipotent god, this sort of experiment proves nothing as presumably god can rig the results just to jerk the researchers' chains. In an article I saw related to this experiment, a nun basically said as much.

  2. Well, some of your questions were answered in various sources. First, the Seattle Pi article (http://seattlepi.nwsource.com/health/1500AP_Prayer_Study.html) stated that the family was not prevented from praying for the individuals, nor were they prevented from praying for themselves. The researchers thought this would be unethical to ask. Because of this, they were only testing intercessory prayer by strangers.

    The NY Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html) also claims that some of the previous studies were considered flawed in several important respects.

    It's interesting to note that NY Times article says that this study was funded by the John Templeton Foundation (http://www.templeton.org/), whose founder is quoted on the about page as implying this is being established to prove "god"'s existence, marvels, etc.

    Thus, I suppose it's not surprising that the study's authors are quoted as saying "'[the study] did not move us forward or backward' in understanding the effects of prayer" (Dr. Charles Bethea) and "We cannot come to a conclusion, except to say that by this study design, with its limitations, this is what we found." (Dr. Herbert Benson).

    Personally, Rebecca, I would have loved to see the headline "Study shows God hates us", if nothing else it would have produced better letters to the editor (http://www.nytimes.com/2006/04/03/opinion/l03prayer.html)

    Of course, this does nothing to those with faith as anecdotal evidence is all they need—the NY Times article quotes Rochester Mayo Clinic chaplain as saying "You hear tons of stories about the power of prayer, and I don't doubt them."

  3. Thanks for the detailed response, nsetzer. I was a bit rushed last night, so I failed to mention the Templeton Foundation connection. I blogged about them once before.

    I find it incredibly funny (and yet sad) that the "researchers" dismissed the study as inconclusive, yet if the result had been what they wanted, I'm sure that the study would have been heralded as a shining example of quality scientific research.

    Also, shortly after publishing this post, it occurred to me that actually I am an editor. Maybe I'll try to work in the headline, "Study Shows God Hates Us" into the next issue of Skepchick.

  4. This just goes to demonstrate that it isn't about the evidence, it's about the faith, which is why it's so necessary not to conflate science and religion. At least, not in my view.

    I, too, would have loved the "God hates us," headline. At least it would have reflected what most theists seem to suspect anyway.

  5. I think the best skeptics could have hoped with regards to a headline is, "God Shown, Yet Again, To Work In Mysterious Ways."

    And everyone already knows THAT.

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