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An essay donated by Bill Peddie

Francis Galton and the testing of prayer

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I suspect my personal doubts about using prayer to bring about miracle may date right back to my first year at high school when a young friend contracted acute leukaemia and despite the devout and obviously sincere intercessory prayers of mine and many in our Durham Street Methodist Church congregation my friend died in a matter of weeks.   Later my personal faith sustained a further blow when a University friend set out to investigate the success of healing services around Christchurch.   It was not so much a shortage of those being dramatically healed to the point where they could toss away their crutches, it was more that some of the same cripples who had hobbled so pathetically down the aisle towards the healer and come away leaping and praising the Lord after the laying on of hands were found a few weeks later doing a repeat performance at the rival service down the road.  As one man observed when I reported this strange phenomenon, there may well be a forest of walking sticks beside the pool at Lourdes, but there is a distinct shortage of artificial legs.

While there are few followers of the world’s major religions who would question the need for prayer, evidence that prayers calling for divine intervention for the seriously ill actually make a difference to the outcome is far from convincing.  Indeed even for today’s educated clergy, the proportion of those holding to this simplistic idea of prayer is clearly diminished. There is always the problem that many conditions have been known to get better by natural processes. Minor sickness usually passes by itself – a phenomena which some doctors refer to as regression to the mean… and this would presumably happen for the prayed for as well as the prayer neglected. There have been many attempts by social scientists to test the efficacy of prayer and although there is much anecdotal evidence from believers that prayer can sometimes somehow change the apparent course of nature and achieve a miracle, where statistical studies are set up with standard conditions including control groups, the evidence beyond a placebo effect appears to evaporate.

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 Guess which one is the Atheist

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The notion that the efficacy of prayer can somehow be tested is by no means new.   Francis Galton, a cousin of the redoubtable Charles Darwin and the father of modern statistics was one of the first to realise the possibilities when he examined the effect of a prayer prayed by large numbers as laid down in the Common Book of Prayer for the good health and extension of life of the monarch and Royal family.

Galton hypothesized in his 1872 study that if prayer were effective, members of the British Royal family would live longer, given that thousands prayed for their wellbeing every Sunday. He therefore compared longevity of the British Royal family with that of various groups in the general population, and found no difference other than an apparent shorter average lifespan for Royalty compared to other apparently affluent groups such as the landed gentry. Just for the record as examples of his data, the 97 cases of members of the Royal family were recorded as having an average life span of 64.04 years, the 945 members of the clergy in his sample having an average lifespan of 66.49 years and the 1,632 members of the gentry a life span average of 70.22 years.

While we can detect a satirical flavour to Galton’s study and despite obvious individual exceptions such as Queen Victoria, or to bring the cases up to date, the Queen Mother and the present Queen, it is hard to avoid the inevitable conclusion that this form of stylised prayer of petition does not always get the desired result. Galton’s work set the precedent for a number of subsequent studies, the results of which are certainly less than clear-cut in their support of prayer working. It might also be added that when Galton presented his findings in the Times asking if this meant that God does not answer prayer, or alternately does not agree that the prayer is appropriate, or worse that God might not even exist he was answered two weeks later by a Roman Catholic bishop from Ireland who pointed out that while Galton was obviously well meaning he had forgotten to take into account the counter prayers of the Irish!

Some practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) use prayer, and a number of studies have suggested that patients who are being prayed for recover more quickly or more frequently. One such study (Byrd, 1988), with a double-blind design, suggested that intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God may have had a statistically significant positive effect on a coronary care unit population. Sicher et al suggested statistically significant benefits to a group being prayed for ten years later (Sicher et al 1998). Another such study was reported by Harris et al 1999. But if we are to be honest we must also admit many similar studies have produced negative results, and it has been suggested that given the number of studies some will be favourable by pure chance.

Critics claim that Byrd’s 1988 study was not fully double-blinded, and that in the Harris et al 1999 study, patients actually had a longer hospital stay on average if prayed for than if not prayed for, once one discounts the patients in both groups who left before prayers began. Critics also point to a number of studies where no similar effect was found (e.g. O’Laoire 1997). Neither study has presented repeatable positive results subject to scientific scrutiny.  And nor for that matter do some of the historical records of earlier attempts to encourage divine intervention.   I note in passing that the crosses chalked on the doors in the middle ages seemed singularly ineffective against the plague.

A 2001 double-blind study of the Mayo Clinic found no significant difference in the recovery rates between people who were (unbeknown to them) assigned to a group that prayed for them and those who were not (Aviles et al). Similarly, the MANTRA study conducted by Duke University (Krucoff et al 2005) found no differences in outcome of cardiac procedures as a result of prayer.  On 8 April 2006 the New Scientist reported a study done on 1802 coronary by-pass operations by Herbert Benson and Jeffrey Dusek of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre in Massachusetts in which several Christian prayer groups prayed for one third of this group who were told about the prayers, one third who were prayed for but not told and the final third not prayed for. (cf American Heart Journal, vol 151, p 934)  There was no significant difference in the number who developed complications for the two groups not told.  In fact 52% of those prayed for and 51% of those not prayed for subsequently developed one or more complications.  The rather more puzzling result was that 59% of the group both prayed for and told about the prayers developed complications. The authors of the study wonder if the burden of knowing they were prayed for might have put added stress on their recovery.

Many accept that prayer can aid in recovery, not due to divine influence but due to psychological and physical benefits. It has also been suggested that if a person has a positive attitude to prayer when he or she is being prayed for it can be uplifting and increase morale, thus aiding recovery. Perhaps it is churlish to suggest that an attractive hypothesis does not equate to evidence. At the very least more hard data is needed and might even give more point to tertiary studies in religion.  Many studies have suggested that prayer can reduce physical stress, regardless of the god or gods a person prays to, and this may be true for many worldly reasons. It is reasonable to expect that provided the patient welcomes the prayer the psychological benefits of prayer may well help reduce anxiety and stress, promote a more positive outlook, and strengthen the will to live. Other practices such as yoga, tai chi, hypnotism, appropriate music or meditation may also have a positive impact on physical and psychological health.  However it seems just as unwise to substitute new age thinking for conventional medicine as it is to imbue prayer with magical qualities that do not stand the test of observation.

I confess I lost interest in the local minister’s fraternal when they spent several weeks fervently praying for fine weather for their annual carol singing – and it rained.   It seemed to me that since these days we now know the meteorological conditions for rain they should simply have looked up the weather map and based their final planning on that.  Perhaps if we made the task a little more straightforward and prayed for the suspension of the laws of gravity so that we could float in the air we might more quickly come to the conclusion that messing with the laws of nature is beyond the reach of typical prayer. Einstein was fond of observing that stupidity is when the seeker after truth expects a different result when the same experiment is repeated with all conditions held constant. Praying in effect for a suspension of the laws of nature whether it be for floating above the ground or changing the weather despite the overwhelming evidence for a contrary forecast maybe a reasonable initial hypothesis… but should be abandoned or at least modified when the prayer experiment gives negative results.

By now those among my readers who are regular Church goers will be shaking their heads sadly at my cynical assault on the effectiveness of prayer.   Yet this is not my intention.  I am personally convinced in the value of prayer but rather it is the nature of some prayer I am calling into question.   Here it may help for a moment to consider the target of our prayer.   Let us suppose for a moment that your concept of the deity is that of a supernatural Father (or Mother for that matter).   If it were a natural Father for example I could imagine the reception we might receive if we were to appear before this parent, prostrating ourselves, presenting our list from our too hard basket of all the things we would like this parent to fix for us (to save us the bother of getting personally involved) and chanting or singing repetitive peons of fatuous praise.  Is this really what the parent would want of us? And should it be very different if it were indeed to be a divine parent.

On the other hand acknowledging the aspects of life for which we can be truly grateful, seeking a heightened awareness of situations which we might work towards improving, building positive family and community relationships and offering support to those who find themselves in sad or difficult circumstances – surely these are at the heart of the type of prayer which would be of value in any religion or community regardless of denomination or philosophical viewpoint.

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Sample prayers that may have some validity:

Prayer for Sick

"God of Love:

We give thanks for the opportunity to meet together as members of a caring family.

Although there are many misfortunes we do not understand we are confident in the healing power of your surrounding love.   We ask a blessing on those close to us who are facing serious illness or times of great sadness.    Make us alert to ways in which the love we have experienced might in turn be shared with all who worry or grieve for loved ones.   Make us sensitive to the unspoken worries and nagging doubts of those devastated by tragedy or sudden loneliness and show us ways in which we might extend simple acts of  kindness and friendship. AMEN"

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Prayer for the future:

"God of Compassion:

Our prayers come from a genuine concern and we are assured that as we share our prayers together as members of Your family and as agents of your love we will continue to grow in understanding as we  move forward on the next stages of our respective journeys.  As we share your blessing with one another let us face the future with confidence and optimism. AMEN"

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About the author:

Bill Peddie is a retired science educator, writer, progressive Christian, and is "... currently working as a full time stationed lay minister for the Methodist Church in the Auckland Central Parish" in New Zealand. His website's motto is "Making you think." It is at: http://billpeddie.wordpress.com/

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Originally posted on 2010-OCT-31
Latest update on: 2010-OCT-31
Written by Bill Peddie

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