Do Prayers Work?

I start with the premise that a certain number of people will be offended by the question. But I ask it in a scientific sense. James Gooder reported recently in Al-Jazeera on experiments done in San Francisco and Kansas City that tested the efficacy of prayer in certain medical situations:

Research carried out in San Francisco this year showed that half of a sample group of 393 patients who were prayed for suffered fewer complications and needed less drug treatment than their counterparts who relied solely on medicine.

The crucial detail is that the patients did not know which group they were in, so any difference in results could not be attributed to their own will power or faith, but to the "intercessory prayer" of others.

Like many netizens, I came to adulthood in a culture of science and logic. But I was a math major and a meditator, so I didn't completely believe in the culture of “radical materialism”. After all, mathematics doesn't appear to take place in a physical world. That's why it's so perfect. And the same thing goes for the world of software: mechanical, like a car, but abstract, like mathematics. (And you don't skin your knuckles getting your hands dirty.)

Still, the concept that prayer might be provably effective sends the left side of my brain scurrying for an explanation. The article seems to indicate that the scientists on the case had a similar reaction.

The team's final report said, "We have not proven that God answers prayer or that God even exists.

"It was intercessory prayer, not the existence of God that was tested here. Chance still remains a possible explanation for our results."

At this point, the general population divides into three camps.

  • Deists, who believe God decides the outcome of each event, and listens to devout prayer before making judgements, that is, to a certain extent exists (or at least operates) in the stream of time
  • Theists, who believe that God only created the world and set it running, but cannot affect the outcome of events
  • Atheists, who believe there is no God, who for the purposes of this comparison are lumped with Theists

I group Thiests and Athiests, who might at first sight seem incompatible, because they are initially forced to adopt the same position, namely that the experiments, if not bogus, demonstrate that the mind influences events. Or, to use the sixties jargon, you create your own reality.

It's hard to dismiss the experiments if “Dr Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist from London's Institute of Psychiatry”, was right when he

said to his Manchester audience, "These are very good studies properly done.

"Subjects who are unaware they are being prayed for can be significantly helped.

"The fact that science seems to confirm the ability of prayer, or directed intention, to heal other people raises the question that the mind may influence other people directly," he said.

There are two problems with Deism: it doesn't help you predict events, and it often leads to doing things that don't feel right. True, the second can be overcome if everyone takes the responsibility of consulting the Deity directly. But Deists rarely feel comfortable doing this; they like intercessors. This is how people throughout history, and probably throughout prehistory as well, were able to gain power by claiming verbal intercourse with the Almighty. (Sometimes, indeed, the interaction went beyond the verbal, resulting in hallowed status for offspring of uncertain parentage.)

The concept of miracles encapsulates the difference between Deists on the one hand and Theists and Atheists on the other. The doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, and therefore of nearly all Christian sects, is that miracles occurred in the past but do not occur now. (In The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon reports the doctrine that the changeover happened when Constantine made Christianity the state religion.)

But really, how can any religious person not feel that Deism is sacreligious? Can we imagine that God, who was figuring on keeping someone in the hospital, hears a prayer and says, “Okay, I'll let up on him if you ask me to”? What kind of loving, compassionate Supreme Being is that? I mean, we're all familiar with the sporting Christian:

"So you know what?" Brenda Warner said. "We're open for anything. We've always said we trust God in everything that happens for us. This is one of the things that we've got, again, to put our trust in Him and know that He'll take care of us."

“This” being the question of whether Kurt Warner will be playing for the St. Louis Rams next year. I have to admit, the Simpsons aside, I don't think God cares very much about the St. Louis football team. At least, no more than about anyone else. As a Zen Buddhist (or perhaps a neo-pagan), I can imagine God setting up a world that allows for football, but I can't imagine God favoring one team over another because they act more submissive one day a week, or donate more money for anti-abortion propaganda or AIDS orphans or whatever.

In fact, the reason I'm moved to write about this issue is that much of American society seems to be committed to Deism. Certainly those in the Bush Administration who claim to be Christians (despite their actions) are Deists; they claim to believe that we'll be allowed to kill as many Iraqis as it takes because we're somehow more righteous. They appear in many cases to be waiting for a miracle to solve all the problems their policies and actions have created.

Let's say it straightforwardly: miracles don't happen. Never have, never will. Believe in them if you like, but don't try to fool us into thinking you have a plan when in fact you're expecting a miracle.

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