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Be Careful Who You Pray For

Reason’s Tim Cavanaugh highlights a couple of recent studies (748 patients and 1,800 patients) that suggest that not only is prayer for the sick of no measurable therapeutic benefit, it often measurably hurts, i.e., makes people worse off.

God comes up empty-handed in the largest, longest study of the effect
of intercessory prayer. In a study of 1,800 heart bypass surgery
patients, the American Heart Journal finds that remote orisons not only don’t make any difference, they actually make things worse.

My own experience with religion in youth leads me to a particular understanding. In my observation, the more religious people appeared outwardly, the worse they did at just about everything — especially financially. Often, their lives could be clearly seen as on a long, steady downward trend. Those same people, once they begin to turn away from religion as a day-to-day affair seemed to do better at manging their lives and prospering as human beings (by my standards, of course).

Now, granting that such study data is objective, how do you square it with your beliefs? It seems to me that you’ve basically got to conclude that either your God is a completely evil sonofabitch, or there just isn’t any God as you imagine to be and prayer substitutes as a far less effective placebo, or a harmful one, compared to a person’s own will to survive and get through a crisis. The placebo effect is an objectively verified phenomena, though disputed as to the actual source of improvement.

Oh, well. I guess it’s just more empirically verifiable fact getting in the way of "certainty" about what real events took place thousands and thousands of years ago because a few books, equally thousands of years old, says so.

You know, of human being behaved similarly about anything else, they’d be immediately declared insane.

Richard Nikoley

I'm Richard Nikoley. Free The Animal began in 2003 and as of 2021, contains 5,000 posts. I blog what I wish...from health, diet, and food to travel and lifestyle; to politics, social antagonism, expat-living location and time independent—while you sleep—income. I celebrate the audacity and hubris to live by your own exclusive authority and take your own chances. Read More

18 Comments

  1. Richard Nikoley on April 5, 2006 at 09:01

    The smug cruelty involved – on the basis of this ridiculous piece of "research" – in suggesting to people that their prayers for their loved one's recovery made their condition worse is unconscionable.

    I'm not suggesting that prayer "made their condition worse." I'm saying that those who knew they were being prayed for did worse in a statistically significant way. In other words, it's the “prayee” who's at "fault," for whatever psychological reason, not the “prayor.”

    Just facts, John. Ignore and strike them from your conscience if you like, but those are the facts.

    I'll say this: praying for loved ones certainly isn't cruel. What is cruel is perpetuating myths that are ineffectual when, at the same time, people have plenty of opportunity to support and celebrate human achievements in medicine that will do some good. What’s cruel is hundreds and thousands of years of stifled human progress in medicine and other things due to the imposition of the religious “values” of some onto others. Hey, if you want to conjure spirits to save your body and soul, be my guest, but leave me and others with actual brains out of it, K?

    Here's what I find unconscionable: when someone does recover due to the heroic efforts of some doctor or surgeon–and everyone who came before them, pioneers and human guinea pigs alike–and all the "monkeys in the trees" can think to do is thank God.

    Are you a "monkey in a tree," John?

  2. Richard Nikoley on April 5, 2006 at 10:30

    Chad:

    Well, I hate irrationality, so what do you expect?

    Don't you?

  3. Richard Nikoley on April 5, 2006 at 10:38

    "Come on. Are we supposed to accept this kind of nonsense as scientific? What exactly does it prove – what can it possibly prove? Unless you are positing some kind of weirdly limited Deity, exactly how can you come to any conclusion about the "chances" of any given prayer being answered at all, as if you were worshipping a roulette wheel?"

    Clearly, the effect is with the one being prayed for: whether the idea of being prayed for makes him/her believe they are in serious shape, causing harmful anxiety, or whether they don't "fight" as hard, I don't know. But the fact is that people who know they're being prayed for do worse, on average.

    To sum it up, John, there is no such things as a "disproof" of God's existence. God's "existence" is an arbitray, unsubstantiated assertion and the onus of proof is one those making it.

    I'm just putting up one more thing that may cause a few to realize that proof of such a magical being will never come, and that there are a lot better explanations for things.

  4. Kyle Bennett on April 5, 2006 at 12:03

    John,

    Stand down the army of strawmen. This very minor datapoint just doesn't justify the panic in your voice, nor making shit up to try to debunk it. Maybe it's the cumulative effect of "…more empirically verifiable fact getting in the way of certainty…". I know that can be terrifying, but you'll live.

  5. Neal on April 5, 2006 at 12:44

    Chad,

    You won't be rational in all aspects of your life all the time and I'm not arguing that you can. What I am arguing is that many people of faith use reason in virtually everything they do – every decision they make, but then shelf it when it comes to their religious beliefs. This is quite different from the impossibility of always being rational – it's willfully choosing not to use reason in one facet of your life most of the time.

    This isn't the first study on prayer making/not making a difference, by the way. Think about the saying "God save the king/queen." This has been said by millions of people but has it made a difference?

    I say, forget these studies. If you pray, start writing your prayers down. Then, track how often your prayers are answered. That should be evidence enough for the effects of prayer.

    I once had faith and finally deleted it from my life because I chose to allow reason and rational thought win out over faith. I'm not speaking about something I'm not already intimately familiar with.

    Finally, if you want to have a faith with meaning, you have to reconcile your beliefs to reality. Thus, if praying for someone (where the one being prayed for is UNAWARE of being prayed for) does in fact worsen their condition (I don't think this is the case), you must reconcile this to your beliefs. I talk about a few of these things in a recent post I made on leaving behind the Christian faith. Check it out if you're curious.

  6. Neal on April 5, 2006 at 06:53

    I can tell you right now how believers will react to this: the study was testing God and God is not to be tested.

    Prayer, as far as making a difference to "God", is a crock o' poo. The benefits of prayer (if any) can only be to the person praying (for obvious reasons to any person who doesn't believe in mysticism). And whatever these benefits are come at the cost of increased autonomy/better sense of control over your own life. As benefits go, they are dubious, at best.

    Not surprisingly, believers speak out of both sides of their mouth's: they pray to God to heal their loved one while speeding to the hospital to get medical/scientific help.

    What it all boils down to is faith. Faith is belief in something without proof, or belief despite proof that goes against your belief. It's irrational. Telling a person of faith they are irrational usually elicits statements like, "I'm not irrational!" How do you argue with that? The irrationality of faith makes it un-trumpable. Obviously, this puts people who use reason in ALL facets of life (instead of shelving reason in favor of faith when convenient) at a huge disadavantage.

  7. Chad Wilson on April 5, 2006 at 09:39

    I was a newcomer to "Uncommon Sense" and was enjoying it until I came to this post and its comments. The hateful way these people who have "faith" are described and presented really disturbs me: clauses like "the more religious people appeared outwardly, the worse they did at just about everything" or "that either your God is a completely evil sonofabitch, or there just isn't any God" seems to be the opposite of rational thought, which is what the post seems to be purporting in the first place.

    And the comments that "Prayer, as far as making a difference to 'God', is a crock o' poo" or that one can really be rational in "ALL aspects of life" or that people of faith don't have "actual brains" like others do or that people of faith SOLELY thank God without recognizing human medical accomplishment add to my amazement.

    All I'm saying is that we need to remember that all things are nuanced and much more complicated than these sentiments express.

  8. Richard Nikoley on April 5, 2006 at 17:00

    "I knew (and still know) the destination of my spirit & soul had things gone wrong."

    No you didn't, and don't. You may believe. You may have confidence. You may have comfort. You have faith. None of this qualifies as knowledge.

    Knowledge can only be held in conceptual form and concepts require real (not imagined or hoped for) referents in reality.

  9. Chad on April 5, 2006 at 10:45

    I appreciate your reply, Richard. If I read it correctly, it tells me that you may have been a bit sarcastic rather than completely serious about the post and comments.

    And I can appreciate that.

    John, I don't quite agree with all of your commentary, but I do appreciate the sentiment, not the phrasing, behind "as a disproof of the existence of God, this 'study' sucks dirt." I have read about this study and heard about it on the radio (on "The Athiest's Show" on Pacifica radio, no less) as proof that God doesn't exist, and I don't agree with that leap.

    Seeing the commentary that this kind of blog inspires makes me glad that I just review movies!

  10. Sarah on April 5, 2006 at 11:17

    I think the whole observation that more religious people are doing worse in real life could be the result of "everything is in God's hands". Some people expect God to do for them what they should be doing for themselves.

    I think this is one of Christianity's major flaws.

  11. prying1 on April 5, 2006 at 13:13

    As a Christian who went through bypass surgery I can say that having faith was a definite comfort.

    I knew (and still know) the destination of my spirit & soul had things gone wrong.

    They didn't go wrong praise God. Having an excellent doctor was a plus.

  12. John Sabotta on April 5, 2006 at 08:12

    The smug cruelty involved – on the basis of this ridiculous piece of "research" – in suggesting to people that their prayers for their loved one's recovery made their condition worse is unconscionable. It is the exact equivilent of some religious creep telling someone that their child or spouse died because they were an atheist, or belonged to a different religion. I'm surprised you could condone this sort of thing.

  13. John Sabotta on April 5, 2006 at 10:25

    You may not be suggesting that – but obviously that is what this "study" purports to prove. To quote:

    "In a study of 1,800 heart bypass surgery patients, the American Heart Journal finds that remote orisons not only don't make any difference, they actually make things worse."

    Come on. Are we supposed to accept this kind of nonsense as scientific? What exactly does it prove – what can it possibly prove? Unless you are positing some kind of weirdly limited Deity, exactly how can you come to any conclusion about the "chances" of any given prayer being answered at all, as if you were worshipping a roulette wheel?

    So as a disproof of the existence of God, this "study" sucks dirt. Does it prove that prayer has some kind of sinister psychological effect on the believing patient? Well, supposedly knowing that they were being prayed for made one group of patients more likely to have "abnormal heart rhythms". Assuming this represents any real hazard, is this a result of a. nervousness at being prayed for or b. tension at being involved in some weird study where unknown strangers were praying for you (note that we are not told the religion of the patients) or c. some unspoken and unintended impression recieved by the patient that his case is so dire that a entire "prayer team" is out there keeping off the Grim Reaper? Who knows? Certainly the people who did the study can't tell you. Psychological literature is full of crap like this, "proving" whatever the "researcher" happens to want to prove.

    If you're going to contrast reason and faith, why not do that, instead of contrasting fraud and faith? Here's a newsflash, Richard – psychology is not a science. (And I'll also observe that I find the New Age notion that people are responsible for their illness because they lack the right attitude to be repulsive. Try keeping lymphatic cancer at bay by thinking right thoughts.)

    As for the stifling of human progress and all that – are people praying for their loved ones, or sick people on their deathbeads grasping for hope – are they stifling human progress? Are they somehow delaying new medical technology? Then why do they deserve to be lied to in this malicious fashion? And it is a lie, because this study proves nothing, either about the existence or intentions of God or the "psychological" effects of prayer.

  14. vt on April 5, 2006 at 11:39

    Praying is a waste of time. There is no God. If you want to affect change, then do something constructive!

  15. Kyle Bennett on April 14, 2006 at 23:21

    Crystal,

    Go right ahead and pray for me, if it makes you feel better. It won't have any other effect. But I want to know, will you be praying in ALL CAPS, too? Is God getting a bit hard of hearing, maybe, or having trouble reading prayers in small print? I mean, he is getting up in years.

    And why was "satan and his demons" in small print? Is that like lowering your voice, maybe so God won't hear you? I've heard that lately he starts ranting and babbling whenever anyone mentions those guys to him, then the helpful nurses have to calm him down. It's kind of you to be sensitive to God's not being, you know, all there anymore.

    I worry for him, at his age, things start to go. Has he started wandering off in his robe and slippers, and forgetting how to get back home? I know you want God to show us his love, but doesn't he need the little blue pill to maintain his "omnipotence"?

  16. Crystal Rodriguez on April 14, 2006 at 20:23

    BELIEVE ME WHEN I SAY THAT I WILL BE PRAYING FOR ALL OF YOU SO THAT YOU REPENT AND ASK THE LORD ALMIGHTY FOR FORGIVENESS. ONLY THROUGH HIS SON, THE KING OF KINGS JESUSCHRIST IS THAT YOU WILL HAVE ACCESS TO HEAVEN! IF NOT, WHEN YOU DIE YOU WILL GO TO THE PLACE THAT WAS PREPARED FOR satan and his demons. PLEASE ASK THE LORD TO FORGIVE YOU AND SHOW YOU HIS LOVE!

  17. Neal on April 14, 2006 at 22:02

    Crystal,

    Any God that would damn me to hell for using the one thing that sets me apart from all other living things, namely, my mind, is not God of love.

    Reconcile your beliefs so that they are consistent with each other before ranting about praying and repenting and satan and blah blah blah. Otherwise, shut the "hell" up. And stop using all caps, too.

    Neal

  18. Richard Nikoley on April 15, 2006 at 06:53

    "BELIEVE ME…"

    Nah.

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