Prayer-effectiveness studies

A: The Harvard prayer study is a real challenge to my faith.

B: What, this?

A: Oh, I’d never read it, but thanks… This is such an odd way to run a study. The pastors themselves divided two groups and then prayed for one and not the other. But it’s hard to imagine a prayer that would be more heartless and invalid than one that actively refuses to pray for some group in order to see if they do worse.

B: Why “invalid”?

A: Prayer is a lifting of the heart to God. I don’t see how that’s happening if your actions are saying “I’m gonna actively ignore this group of people and see if that harms them”.

B: Okay. But I doubt there’s any way to make this work.

A:  Not even if you simply asked questions about whether the patients themselves were praying, or believed that others were praying for them?

B: No, because I don’t see any way to establish what it would mean for the prayer to work. Say a statistically significant group of persons who prayed to get better got better. Is this evidence that God responds to prayer or that prayer has a placebo effect?

A: But what if those who prayed actually did worse or no better?

B: Who knows? Maybe we take that as evidence that prayer doesn’t work. But all this would mean is that it’s determined a priori that we won’t find evidence of the effectiveness of what a believer calls prayer.

A: So if you’re trying to validate or invalidate what a believer calls prayer, this experiment isn’t going to do it. The validation hypothesis is undefined.

B: Right. I’m not sure whether it would be underdetermined in every attempt to experiment with prayer, but anything close to this experiment would be. I suppose that they wanted to have “third party” prayer to avoid the placebo effect, but this demands that those who pray level a de facto curse on the control group. Who would expect a prayer like that to make a difference?

A: You wonder how the command not to put the Lord to the test fits into this.

B: Right. The atheist take will be “yeah, don’t ever check whether what you’re doing is working! That’s a real strategy for success!”

A: I can imagine Boghossian saying that.

B: He’s who I had in mind. It seems like he’d be giving his opponents a more charitable reading if he discussed miracle claims in Catholicism: the Tilma, the blood of Januarius, the healings at Lourdes, or even the various intercessions that are offered as evidence in canonization. These are actually times when the Church claims where looking for evidence that there was divine intervention  does not involve putting the Lord to the test.

A: It seems like you’re giving “you shall not put the Lord to the test” a logical sense – as soon as you are testing the Lord, you adopt a viewpoint that requires there can be no meaning to “passing the test”.

B: This might be a fault in all rationalist schemes. If your faith is founded on any rational test you can only believe it as far as reason can go. But faith demands assent to the unlikely and the unprecedented, while reason has to have a bias against these things. The closest reason can get to faith is to say “yeah, we can’t rule that out” or maybe “yeah, those sources were convinced this faith claim was true.” But assent to anything requires more than “I guess I can’t rule it out”.

 

 

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6 Comments

  1. December 21, 2016 at 9:39 am

    You could give the account that since God is the cause of all things, then if someone prays for it and the thing happened, God has automatically answered the prayer, even if overall the thing happens at the same statistical rate that it would happen at even without any prayer.

    And I agree that there would be some truth in that account. But if you believe that it does not happen as in that account, but that things that are prayed for happen at a higher rate than they would if they were not prayed for, this will be detectable one way or another. Not by way of those studies, since those studies would provide an evident motive for God not to answer those prayers. But there would be a way, namely looking to see whether it happened or not. For example, a site called “Pray More Novenas” runs a very large mailing list, and they invite people to respond when their prayers are answered, and they publish the most impressive responses. In principle, you could get a fairly accurate estimate (via polling or other measures) of the number of people on the list who actually pray the novenas, the proportion who see a significant response, and the proportion who notify the site of their response.

    That would allow you to determine whether e.g. the number of people who prayed for a job, and got it during the novena, exceeded the number that would be statistically expected by chance among people who are not praying. You would not be leveling any curse against anyone; and the idea that God would refuse to answer the real prayers of 100,000 people because you as an individual were going to check whether their prayers were answered, would be absurd.

    • December 21, 2016 at 10:36 am

      That would allow you to determine whether e.g. the number of people who prayed for a job, and got it during the novena, exceeded the number that would be statistically expected by chance among people who are not praying.

      How are we establishing the odds for a non-praying group? I suppose that’s doable. But this still leaves us with the problem, mentioned in the OP, of dividing what a believer calls intercessory prayer from a placebo effect.

      • December 21, 2016 at 8:28 pm

        It isn’t even necessary to establish the odds of a non-praying group. The odds of a mixed praying and non-praying group will do as well, since if we are testing the idea that the prayer will make a statistical difference, the all-praying group should have better stats than the mixed one. So basically it should suffice to take general statistics based on how many days it takes on average for someone who is looking for a job to get one.

        I agree that there would be the placebo issue, but only if you discover some statistical discrepancy after doing all that, and you might not. But generally you shouldn’t be looking for conclusive arguments in this kind of matter, not only with respect to prayer, but with respect to anything. There is always a possibility of confounding factors.

    • December 21, 2016 at 10:56 am

      You could give the account that since God is the cause of all things, then if someone prays for it and the thing happened, God has automatically answered the prayer, even if overall the thing happens at the same statistical rate that it would happen at even without any prayer.

      It’s hard to see how, on this account, one can claim that prayer makes a difference. That said, it’s not clear that every instance of things that people pray for are the sorts of things that a being with infinite intelligence would see it best to grant. Think Fast! If you had infinite intelligence would the percentage of pleas for employment that you saw it fit to grant be higher, lower or equal to chance? Personal note: this is particularly poignant for me since a few years ago was involved in finding a friend a job that turned out to set his career back and made him miserable, though he found his dream job after, and precisely because, he was non-renewed from the job I found him. Was I an answer to his prayers for employment or an impediment to them? I’ve honestly wondered about this.

      • December 21, 2016 at 8:31 pm

        Prayer would still make a difference for reasons St. Augustine gives, and in particular it would make you grateful in the case where you get the thing. Of course someone might say that in that case you shouldn’t be grateful since it “didn’t make a difference,” but the only way that could be true would be if God were not the cause.

  2. TomD said,

    December 21, 2016 at 5:44 pm

    Was I an answer to his prayers for employment or an impediment to them? Yes.


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