Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Powerlessness of Prayer

"Prayer must never be answered: if it is, it ceases to be prayer and becomes correspondence."

Oscar Wilde

In 2006, the largest and most scientifically rigorous study to date investigating the power of prayer was published in the American Heart Journal by Dr Herbert Benson et al. The research efforts were funded and supported by the John Templeton Foundation which, according to their own mission statement, finds its purpose in serving "as a philanthropic catalyst for discoveries relating to the Big Questions of human purpose and ultimate reality," whatever the hell that means.

However, if you look into what the foundation's been up to, then you would get a better handle on what they are really trying to do. They have an annual big cash give-out called the Templeton Prize worth $1.5 million which they award to a "living person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life's spiritual dimension" and past recipients include that vile shrivelled fruit bat, Mother Teresa, and anti-Semitic Evangelist Billy Graham. The Foundation also gives out a $100,000 Epiphany Prize for "inspiring movie and TV" but the only winners had been religious (usually Christian) films like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Passion of the Christ.

What I'm trying to say is, the Templeton Foundation is heavily biased towards affirming a spiritual and religious worldview. They funded this study with the expectation that it will prove that prayer works.

So this is how it went down: 1802 patients from six hospitals recovering from coronory bypass surgery were enrolled into this study. They were then divvied into three groups:
  • 604 patients received prayer after being informed they may or may not receive prayers.
  • 597 patients did not receive prayer after being informed they may or may not receive prayer.
  • 601 patients received prayer after being informed they would receive it.

Atheist Kitty
This is my favourite LOLcat.

The members of three separate Christian groups were recruited to provide the prayers. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting on the night before the surgery. The results are as follow:
  • In the first two groups which are uncertain whether they would be receiving prayers or not, post-operative complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not. There is no statistically significant difference.
  • In the third group which knew that they are being prayed for, 59% (352/601) of them experienced complications.
  • Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.

The conclusions of this research paper (and lessons one can learn from it) are:
  • Prayer does not affect the course of illnesses. Don't bother praying for sick people.
  • If you must pray anyway, don't tell the recipient that you're doing it because the mere knowledge of it can cause them to be worse off.

Quod erat demonstrandum. Now, I can actually advice the loved ones of patients who are undergoing coronary artery bypass grafting to restrain themselves from praying, and it would be the ethical thing to do.

Atheist Cat Not Interested in Mindless Dogma
This is my second favourite LOLcat.

No doubt those who want to believe that speaking to God can affect our lives in any tangible ways will have a million rationalisations on the ready to discredit this rather damning study into the futility of their favourite pastime - but I'm just glad that they can't dismiss this as an effort by us wily atheists to discredit Christianity since everyone involved in it actually did believe in the transformative and transcendental power of prayers from the get go.

One of the tritest, ripest bullshit that Christians often offer to explain the obvious failure of prayers is the assertion that God does not give you what you want but rather, what you need. I called bullshit because if you simply look into the Bible at Matthew 21:22, Jesus clearly said, "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." The exact spirit of these words is echoed in Mark 11:24. In context, Jesus said this after cursing a fig tree to wither and die because it wasn't bearing fruits for him (it didn't matter to the Son of God™ that it wasn't the season for figs yet, of course), therefore indicating a comparable miracle is possible through prayer. Jesus also said that you can ask a mountain to throw itself into the sea and it will happen; he was pretty damn unequivocal about that. I like to see the Pope try it - move some mountains - but he seems capable only in moving paedophile priests around so we can't catch them.

The question is, why are modern Christians constantly trying to downplay the impressive effects of prayer which Jesus himself promised and turned it into something wishy-washy and invisible like the granting of strength and wisdom to cope with difficult situations, and the recovery of lost objects? I mean, I get those same boons too even though I've never prayed in my entire life! Doesn't anyone find this highly suspect?

You know what I think? I think it's because Christians themselves know deep down inside that nothing substantial can ever be achieved through prayers.

Another perennial favourite of Christian apologists is the excuse that prayers sometimes aren't answered because it is contrary to God's Ineffable Plan™. It's basically saying no matter what you ask for, things will still happen they way they would have. If that's true, then what's the point of praying in the first place?

Never mind that the very idea of speaking to an omnipotent, omniscient superbeing is absurd to begin with - even after it's scientifically proven that prayer is useless, most Christians will never be intellectually honest enough to admit that they got it wrong. Had the Templeton Foundation's study into intercessory prayer turned up a positive result, they would have shouted it from every pulpit in the world as proof of the truth of Christianity.

Unfortunately, it disagrees with the a priori beliefs they hold, so the eyes of Christendom do not see it; its ears do not hear. Its mouths, however, will continue to whisper to a God that either doesn't care or isn't there.

P.S. I do wonder why knowing that people are praying for you can have a detrimental effect. I had initially thought that the reverse is true, but I stand corrected now.

Has a special relationship with reality,
k0k s3n w4i


Das Weiner said...

When praying for god's help, some Christians like to say "God only helps those who helps themselves." Despite its non-bliblical origin, it continues to be a favorite maxim among some Christians. Like you said, if that's true then what's the point of praying in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Prayer works! See link below:

I am praying to Jesus tonight LOL LOL

k0k s3n w4i said...

Das Weiner: there seems to be huge tracts of extra-biblical literature that's devoted to making excuses for all of the bible's mistakes. i prefer sticking to the bible. i wouldn't dare presume to put words in jesus' or his dad's mouths, haha.

Anonymous: so that's how it works! the christian god answers the mock-prayer of an atheist, but ignores all the other sincere christians praying to win the lottery.

Franklin said...

Prayer does nothing except make people who engage in it feel like they are doing something when in fact, they are doing nothing. There is a story I heard from a fellow atheist, whether it's true or not, illustrates this very well. When she became very poorly after being diagnosed with lung cancer and was hospitalised, her Christian friends told her that they will remember her in their prayers, but did not do much else. Her other friends however visited her frequently, offered to help her pay her bills, took care of her dog, and helped her to settle back in her apartment after she was discharged.

"Two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer."