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A Real Sendup

I saw this article today in the New York Times, “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer.” It recounts the findings of a study in the American Heart Journal, which attempted to measure the effect of prayer by strangers on the outcome of coronary bypass surgery in over 1,800 patients.

It was an incredibly ambitious study. The problem, of course, is that this is impossible to test. I’m not arguing for or against the efficacy of intercessory prayer here, lest people from either camp jump on my case. But seriously, doesn’t rigorous scientific testing defeat the very idea of faith? As one best-selling religious text puts it, isn’t faith itself supposed to be the “evidence of things unseen?” I tend to think studies like this are insulting to scientists and religious people alike.

One of my favorite papers from grad school was a paper by John T. Chibnall, Joseph M. Jeral and Michael A. Cerullo in the Archives of Internal Medicine, called “Experiments on Intercessory Prayer,” which details the litany of difficulties – no, impossibilities – involved in designing a clinical trial for intercessory prayer.

The people doing trials of the efficacy of prayer argue passionately that they should be taken seriously by the scientific community. The Chibnall paper reads like Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” in that it takes the rather ludicrous idea of scientifically testing prayer so seriously one can’t help but laugh. Here’s a great excerpt detailing difficulty of identifying testable variables:

Is the amount of prayer important? Is the type of prayer important? The form? The duration? The frequency? The level of fervency? The entity to whom it is directed? The number of prayers per unit of time? Does the number of intercessors matter? Does a team vs. individual intercession matter? Does the faith tradition of the intercessor and/or intercessee matter? Does the power of the intercessor matter? Do the beliefs and/or experiences of the intercessor and/or intercessee matter? Does the worthiness of the intercessor and/or intercessee matter?

The list, unfortunately, generated questions of its own: If type or form is important, just how many types or forms are there? On what basis would you distinguish them? If “fervency” is important, how would you ever measure it to be able to manipulate it? The same is true if the power or worthiness of the intercessor is important: how would you ever measure them?

The paper goes on to ask, if God is a rational actor with a mind of Her own, whether you could expect a direct geometric relationship between quantities of prayer and divine intervention. You get the point. They conclude early on that studies of intercessory prayer are a bad idea. I suppose there are different ways to read the paper, but to me the authors seem pretty tongue-in-cheek throughout, which I love. Thank God for skeptics.