Pondering the effectiveness of Prayer

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that during my Christian days I was utterly convinced of the effectiveness of prayer.

Over the last two decades (and probably more) there have been a number of tests for the effectiveness of prayer, this article is just one example of many that exist on the subject (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/03/23/AR2006032302177.html). It was during the 1990s that I first became aware of such tests and the negative conclusions. As a dedicated Christian at the time I very quickly dismissed them; referring to Luke chapter 4 and not testing God (http://bible.cc/luke/4-12.htm).

It was clear in my mind at the time that these attempts by doubting scientists were invoking some form of supernatural hide and seek and God was not going to perform for them.

Over the years, as more and more of these articles came out, the conclusions started to bother me more and more. My pat apologetics to the problem was becoming less convincing to myself and for a while I actively ignored the difficulties it caused me.

Anyway, there was always the major power of prayer event that happened to me that I could fall back on (https://confessionsofayec.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/the-dramatic-deliverance/). After that event I did get involved in my church’s prayer for healing ministry and over the next few years prayed for a fair few people. I saw many blessed by the experience of prayer, that is to say they said they felt blessed and the walked away smiling. Did I ever experienced something that would categorically come under the banner of answered prayer that I could honestly say would have been validated by a scientists watching?

No. There was once a time when a friend and I were praying for an elderly lady at a weekend away and she specifically asked for prayer for her failing hearing. My friend and I prayed for that, we were full of faith that it could happen, and after what felt like 10-15 minutes she did say, in response to my friend asking, that yes her hearing had improved a little. We both praised the Lord. However, even at that time, I did hold a little doubt in my mind that she was actually being completely truthful. I can’t explain why I questioned her honesty, it was a good 15 years before I was to start the path I am on today. So, no I don’t believe I ever saw anything that qualified as supernatural answer to prayer.

Yet for many years I continued to accept and believe that the power of prayer was real and effective around the world constantly.

When I look back now I do wonder if my prayer experiences and the reports of studies failing to find a link would sow a seed of doubt that would later take root. I can’t say for certain that is the case, I think its just one of those things that sits there and nags at the sub conscious and suddenly you realise its there when other things click into place.

When I read those same studies and articles now I do see how they are rigorous and not at all biased against faith. They are honest testing and should be taken seriously and for me they serve as proof that I do now hold the right answer.


30 thoughts on “Pondering the effectiveness of Prayer

  1. Pingback: Can Science (dis)prove God? « Confessions Of A YEC

  2. I think it depends on what people are using prayer for. If prayer is being used as a meditation tool, it can be effective for spiritual reflection. (Provided, of course, that you believe in the divine.) If prayer is being used to bring about a desired end, however, I don’t believe for a second that it is effective.

    • HI Ahab,

      A very good point. My post does lean towards prayer for something supernatural to happen.

      There is of course personal prayer and I know that it does work and produces a benefit to the prayer. Though the act of praying to something that does not exist is something I now view as unnecessary.

  3. Pingback: Being in a Mixed marriage Christian-Atheist, the issues that come up, and overcoming the issues of dogma | The BitterSweet End

  4. “When I read those same studies and articles now I do see how they are rigorous ”

    Interesting how you have another post admitting that science cannot disprove the supernatural, but you still want to imply that it can.

    • Hi Tim,

      The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

      If someone makes a claim that there is a god, any god. There isn’t much that science can do to either verify or contradict that claim.

      If someone makes a claim that their god can make a difference in the real world and that prayer is a way of making that link. Then there is a route there for measuring the physical responses to that prayer and seeing if the prayers of the faithful do indeed have an impact. This is something that science can comment on.

      • The studies on prayer that you cite are not scientific studies. The studies had no scientific definition of prayer, no criteria for what was and wasnt an acceptable prayer and no standardization of what was prayed by various participants. How can you possibly think they are scientific studies?

        • Tim, I’ve read the discussion you had on testing prayer over at WEIT and if you’re going to repeat the same arguments here then we’re not going to agree. To be blunt, your need to have a scientific definition of prayer is little more than a get out clause. It gives you the option of rejecting the whole argument because ‘prayer’ has not been properly defined.

          The truth is that all over the world there are Christians that claim that prayer does have a real effect on the physical world. I was one of those Christians.

          Now, if those Christians are praying their prayers and claiming that they have an effect that is real. Then is is reasonable to expect to be able to measure that effect. Well that has been tried and the result is there is no effect. Did those Christians suddenly forget how to pray properly? Of course not. Their claim has been shown to be incorrect, your cry of foul because prayer has not been defined to your satisfaction is moving the goal posts.

          If you want to see a scientific definition of prayer and the test run against that, then my challenge to you is go and do it that way then, then publish the results along with your methodology.

          • How are you going to test something that has no definition?

            You – ‘We are going to scientifically test to see if ummagumma is found in Tennessee’

            Me – ‘What is the definition of ummagumma?’

            You – ‘Well if someone shows us something and says “this is ummagumma” then that’s how we will know what it is’

            Seriously, in these so called scientific studies anything and everything qualified as ‘prayer’. The participants could say or not say anything they chose.

            How is that scientific?

            • A Christian Says: “God answers prayer and he can heal people when Christians pray for it, its happened before.”

              Scientist: “Okay, pray for X”

              X doesn’t get better any quicker than another patient with the same condition who wasn’t prayer for.

              Scientist: “No conclusive evidence.”

              • “no conclusive evidence” is far different than “we have disproved XYZ”

                I have no problem with someone who honestly says “I dont know”

                • I would disagree for this reason; if a claim is made and the result does not confirm that claim, then the claim is false.

                  Of course a single result should not be seen as conclusive, but if multiple results remain inconclusive then there must come a point when the claim is said to be false. That is the position I am now at and I think there have been enough studies done that lack a conclusive positive that its safe to say that there is no god there acting on them.

                  • Again, the studies or tests of prayer that you refer to arent scientific, nor can they be for the simple reason that you have no definition of what is tested, and thus no way to verify if you have tested the genuine article or not.

                    If any of the participants could ‘pray’ in any manner they chose, does that mean that any words coming out of ones mouth constitute prayer? Where is the boundary of prayer, what is it and what is it not?

                    Prayer can certainly be tested, but the test wont be scientific nor can it be and your confusion on the matter isnt unusual. Its very common for professing atheists to don a lab coat to attempt to debunk religious faith. But in doing so, they stray outside the boundaries of what is science and what it is not.

  5. Hi Tim,

    You are aware that I’m a former Christian aren’t you? I know far more about prayer and praying than you are giving me credit for.

    We both know that prayer is not a concept that can be nailed down to set formula and description and we also both know that the Christian god does not require that. Your assertion that prayer should be defined within scientific amounts to little more than an attempt to give prayer a free pass from this level of scrutiny because no matter what the definition, you are leaving open the option of invalidating a negative test by claiming its not a scientific definition.

    Prayer does not need to be defined to the level that you are requiring. If a praying person (of whatever faith) claims that their prayers work, then that is a claim that can be tested. The nature of the prayer isn’t relevant, if the result isn’t positive their claim is false.

  6. “I know far more about prayer and praying than you are giving me credit for.”

    Apparently not enough. You seem to think it is something you can examine with a microscope.

    Prayer is communication. Its not matter or energy.

    Moreover, its a very specific kind of communication between man and God and involves things that you cant measure or quantify.

    If your answer is ‘what things?’ it will show that I am correct in saying ‘apparently not enough’.

    • I’m not impressed by your apparently not enough comment Tim, I find it rather patronising.

      Yes, prayer is communication. Yes, the act of prayer is a communication with God. However, you are missing the point that its not the specifics of the prayer that is being tested here, it is the effects of prayer that are being tested. If someone claims that prayer can bring about healing for someone, then that healing can be tested.

      It is that which is the subject of my original post and of the studies referenced. Since those claims have not shown any positive result, the conclusion is that the claims are false and prayer has no effect in that instance.

      • “I’m not impressed by your apparently not enough comment Tim, I find it rather patronising”

        Call it what you will. You know, (or at least can be expected to know, based on your background), that prayer is not just random verbal communication. Its not even just verbal communication with the word “God” in it and a request of some kind.

        Prayer (at least the kind you purport to be falsifying) involves, faith and obedience to God (among other things). Tell me how you can quantify and measure those things please.


        “its not the specifics of the prayer that is being tested here,”

        Of course it is. Otherwise you could take ANY verbal communication and call it “prayer” and say “well see there, prayer doesnt work”

        If you have no scientifically verifiable definition of prayer, and if you dont have standardization between the pray-ers (i.e. the persons doing the praying in each group must be doing and saying the same things) you dont have a scientific test.

  7. “prayer is not a concept that can be nailed down to set formula and description and we also both know that the Christian god does not require that. ”

    But science does require that, if you are going to have a verifiable test.

    • I disagree for reasons already stated. If a test showed a definite and undeniable positive result that could not be explained any other way. Then I would certainly be in favour of examining that in more detail and testing if it was because of a specific type of prayer. Until there is that result, then trying any specific prayer format will only bring about the objection of “but you did the wrong type of prayer” which gets no one anywhere.

      First there needs to be a result that is worthy of putting prayer under further scrutiny, which there isn’t, not for any form of prayer where there will be a result that can be measured.

  8. “The nature of the prayer isn’t relevant, if the result isn’t positive their claim is false.”

    That might be true, if God had promised to answer any and every prayer under any circumstances.

    But we both know that that is not what the Bible says about prayer.

    • That is true. Not every prayer will be answered as expected, that is the biblical message.

      However, as I suggested in my reply of a few minutes ago above, prayers where the result can be measured will show a result above average, even if not every prayer is answered.

      • Science must be verifiable and repeatable, among other things. None of the studies you have referenced meet even that basic criteria.

        As I said, prayer can be tested but it wont be a scientifically verifiable test. I’ve posted links from mainstream scientific organizations which agree with me that the supernatural (and a prayer answered by God would certainly qualify) is not within the realm of what can be studied by science.

        But if you want to test prayer (at least the Christian model of prayer), its easy to do. Try this:

        1. Read the Bible to find out exactly when and under what conditions God promises to answer prayer
        2. Be very sure that you fulfill all those conditions
        3. Pray

        It wont be a scientifically verifiable test (for instance, no one other than the pray-er will be able to independently verify that the pray-er actually fulfilled each condition), but it will satisfy any individual who wants to try it.

  9. In both your replies you’ve missed what I was trying to say and are jumping ahead to what I would call next steps.

    One way in which science can work is that first a simple test is performed and if that demonstrates a positive result, then more complex tests are done to find out why. This is why I keep saying that the prayer content is not relevant.

    Note that the link at the start of my post goes to a piece that is about physical healing in response to prayer. This is possibly the easiest test to make. Get a bunk of people who have a variety of ailments and see if they heal any quicker than normal if they are prayed for. Splits the patients into two groups if needed so there is a normal group and a prayed for group. Do this several times to increase the data volume.

    When the results are checked, do the prayed for group heal any better? A few instant healings would be a great result. Once there is enough data to show a positive difference in the prayed for group, then there is argument to take your approach and putting complex tests to prayer.

    This is my point, first there has to be a result worth investigating further, at this stage there simply isn’t that result.

  10. “I keep saying that the prayer content is not relevant”

    How are you going to ‘scientifically’ examine something using this kind of duplicity?

    You arent studying prayer, but a caricature of prayer.

    Does any spoken utterance with the word “God” in it qualify as prayer for the purposes of your study?

    You can pretend all day long to have scientifically disproved prayer, but we both know that your method isnt really scientific at all. You give lip service to science but you arent willing to hold yourself to a scientific standard. Verifiability? “Meh” is your attitude.

    And it certainly isnt intellectually honest.

    I gave you a method for testing prayer (unscientifically) which is a far better test of Biblical prayer than any of your pretend scientific studies. But of course you ignored it.

    • Tim, you’re not paying attention to my whole point, which I have attempted to explain more than one. Instead you take that quote and argue against it, while ignoring my wider point.

      It is not me being dishonest.

      Yes, I did ignore your prayer test suggestion, because you framed it so that no matter what I did you could claim I didn’t meet all the requirements.

  11. “you could claim I didn’t meet all the requirements”

    No, “I” couldnt. Its not verifiable. You would know if you are honest with yourself, but I wouldnt.

    ” you’re not paying attention to my whole point”

    Yes, I understand your point, but I dont agree with it. You cant call something scientific if it doesnt meet the standard. Science must be verifiable and you dont have verifiable studies.

    • I think the ending words of one of the articles I linked to are appropriate here:

      But researchers on both sides, as well as those who believe in prayer, say the results of that and other studies are unlikely to change many minds.

      “I don’t think it will alter my beliefs one way or the other,” said Trish Lankowski, who started a healing room at Immanuel’s Church in Silver Spring this past Sunday night. “I believe in the power of prayer wholeheartedly. I know it works.”

  12. I think that realizing that these studies arent scientific should change the perception that prayer has been or can be scientifically disproven.

    If you still hold to the notion that these studies have scientifically disproved prayer even though they arent scientific studies, then its clear that your bias is drawing conclusions for you.

    • Hello Tim,

      You haven’t convinced me that the process by which these experiments were carried out is unscientific.

      I was once biased, like you, that no scientific test could challenge prayer. It was realising that, that opened my eyes.

      • And quite possibly your present bias (yes we all have biases, even atheists) prevents you from seeing that you are mistaken.

        I have provided links to mainstream scientific organizations which support my position that the supernatural cannot be tested by natural means. You have provided your opinion that they all are wrong, chiefly because they agree with me it would seem.

        If that’s not a classic example of bias, I don’t know what is.

        You see its not just me that has failed to convince you. Mainstream science cant convince you either.

        You’re saying in effect “I’ve got this wooden ruler, and its 12 inches long. And I haven’t been able to measure out 6 oz of milk with it.”

        You are using the tool of science for a purpose to which it isn’t suited. Science isn’t omnipotent. Not actually, and not even potentially. But in your search for omnipotence, you’ve latched onto another god.

        Do you not understand the limits of science?

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