Monday, September 20, 2010

The Great Prayer Experiment

The idea of putting this post came to me from the discussion with one of the anonymous readers regarding praying. Ano said that even scientists have proven  that prayer has 'biological benefits'. Ano wanted to stress on the biological benefits. Ano must not have been sure of the 'divine' benefits of prayer, Ano didn’t want to mention it.  I would want Ano to provide further details of the study (s)he mentioned.  

I believe this biological effect, if any, is just psychological from believing that God helps if we pray. This is comparable to the placebo used in drug trials. To study  if a new drug has any effect on a particular condition,  one group is given the new drug, another similar group is given the placebo, which is 'null-effect' drug, and the patients do not know what drug they have taken (single-blinded).  The effects are then compared. The placebo is used to cancel out the psychological advantage of taking medicine. If the study is done with a control group of patients who take no medicines, rather than a placebo, it is always seen that the new drug always seems to have more effect, which is just a false exaggeration.

Before going further, lets define prayer. Wiki says: 
Prayer is a form of religious practice that seeks to activate a volitional connection to a god, deity or spirit, through deliberate practice. Prayer may be either individual or communal and take place in public or in private. It may involve the use of words or song. When language is used, prayer may take the form of a hymn, incantation, formal creedal statement, or a spontaneous utterance in the praying person. There are different forms of prayer such as petitionary prayer, prayers of supplication, thanksgiving, and worship/praise. Prayer may be directed towards a deity, spirit, deceased person, or lofty idea, for the purpose of worshiping, requesting guidance, requesting assistance, confessing sins or to express one's thoughts and emotions. Thus, people pray for many reasons such as personal benefit or for the sake of others

There have been a few scientific studies on the effect of prayer on recovery of patients after surgery. (There has not been much because Scientists find the whole thing absurd, but studies are conducted as attempt to provide the 'scientific' evidences for god's inexistence). These studies mostly deal with intercessory prayers (third-party) prayers, where prayer groups were assigned patients to pray for, while the patients didn't know they were prayed for. The problem behind this study which deals with a supernatural power is that, if proved, it can only imply association,  and not causation because it cannot satisfy the 'biological plausibility' criteria of causation. But even if it can simply prove an association with significance , that would be one step in favor of prayer. Lets go ahead... 

A victrorian scientist , Francis Galton was the first to analyse scientifically whether praying for people is efficacious. He noted that every Sunday, in churches throughout Britain, entire congregations prayed publicly for the health of the royal family. Shouldn't they, therefore, be unusually fit, compared with the rest of us, who are prayed for only by our nearest and dearest? Galton looked into it, and found no statistical difference. And also when he prayed over randomized plots of land to see if the plants would grow any faster -they didn't!

The Great Prayer Experiment 
A 2006 "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP)" led by Harvard professor Herbert Benson was by far the most comprehensive and rigorous investigation of third-party prayer to date. The STEP, commonly called the "Templeton Foundation prayer study or "Great Prayer Experiment", used 1,802 coronary artery bypass surgery patients at six hospitals. Using double-blind protocols, patients were randomized into three random groups. The experimental and control Groups 1 and 2 were informed they may or may not receive prayers, and only Group 1 received them. Group 3, was informed they would receive prayers and subsequently did. Unlike some other studies, STEP attempted to standardize the prayer method. Only first names and last initial for patients were provided and no photographs were supplied. The congregations of three Christian churches who prayed for the patients "were allowed to pray in their own manner, but they were instructed to include the following phrase in their prayers: 'for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications'. Some participants complained that this mechanical way they were told to pray as part of the experiment was unusual for them.

The results, reported in the American Heart Journal of April 2006, were clear-cut. There was no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. What a surprise. There was a difference between those who knew they had been prayed for and those who did not know one way or the other; but it went in the wrong direction. Those who knew they had been the beneficiaries of prayer suffered significantly more complications than those who did not.  It seems more probable that those patients who knew they were being prayed for suffered additional stress in consequence: 'performance anxiety', as the experimenters put it. Dr Charles Bethea, one of the researchers, said, 'It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?' 

It will be no surprise that this study was opposed by theologians. The Oxford theologian Richard Swinburne, writing after the study failed, objected to it on the grounds that God answers prayers only
if they are offered up for good reasons. Wasn't saving the lives of heart patients a good-enough reason? Just because they were  part of a study, why does God have to stop himself from saving the lives of people? Would he deliberately create a negative result, at the cost of many lives? Moreover, wouldn't a result in favor of prayer do more good to him? The negative results can only create a doubt in the minds of people about the effectiveness of prayer.  

.................Doesn't the great prayer experiment prove something? 

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