Prayer – Does It Do Any Good?

After yesterday’s horrific events I found it highly ironic that Buddhists have been calling for religious observances, Muslims and Islamists have been urging everyone to pray for the victims, and people in general have been urging you and I to pray pray and pray some more. This got me thinking. What is prayer? what does it do? is it any good?

While almost all of you have an intuitive understanding of what prayer is and have seen people pray or perhaps have prayed to some god or the other at some point in your life I wanted to examine the claims made by various religious groups and examine how these claims hold up to scrutiny.

Let’s start with a rather popular definition of prayer:

  • A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or another deity
  • A religious service, especially a regular one, at which people gather in order to pray together
  • An earnest hope or wish

Thanking Google for this definition I recalled a bunch of other definitions I got by interacting with many an evangelical or Islamic friend. Prayers are basically (solemn) conversations we have with God. The conversation is a bit one sided of course as God doesn’t really call you back. Urban Dictionary had a few more interesting things to say about prayer:

  • Although not promoted by public schools, it is the most popular study technique of high school students, typically used minutes before a test.
    “Please, please let me pass this test…”
  • A form of birth control, though highly ineffective.
    “Prayer: Please, please God, don’t let me get pregnant. Oh Jesus, please let my period show up on time”

Love the use cases as always. As far as my experience goes a prayer is sort of a pimped out wish. There’s some sincerity, begging and groveling involved but it basically goes along the lines of “please please make x happen/or do not make y happen”

So how effective is a prayer? to answer this question we would need to examine the scientific evidence for the efficacy of prayer. One of the more interesting papers I came across was “Retroactive prayer: lots of history, not much mystery, and no science” by Jeffrey Bishop and Victor J Stenger which was published in the British Medical Journal in 2004. Stenger and Bishop were critically examining claims made by the religious community, notable that of Olshansky and Dossey. Riveting read, predictable conclusion. Prayer doesn’t work.

To quote Bishop and Stenger,

They [Olshansky and Dossey] argue that prayer might be used instrumentally to bring about desired effects in the
world at a distance of space and time…  Firstly,the findings from human studies which Olshansky and Dossey cite are hardly robust; in places, they are clinically insignificant in terms of effect size and not uncommonly steeped in controversy. Secondly, they call on theoretical mechanisms that have, at best, a questionable connection to medicine. Without plausible mechanism, abundant data with strong significance is necessary. That evidence does not exist.

Let’s examine another rather extensive and robust study by Harvard Medical School together with a group of partner research institutes.  The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) was a massive study to study the effects of prayer that is designed to intercede on events. Unsurprisingly, this is what they found,

Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication free recovery from CABG [cardiac artery bypass graft], but certainty of intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications

Intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications as opposed to lower,which is a fascinating result in itself. If prayer doesn’t really work then why do people continue to pray and surprisingly, urge others to pray as well?

I leave you with some Hitchens

 

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