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What Studies Show on Prayers

They are ineffective, and, in fact, it’s neurologically inconceivable that they could be heard at all.

Discussions - 14 Comments

Whether they can be known to a supernatural being hinges on the effects of the prayers’ solicitations as judged by proper scientific studies.

Only if "judged by proper scientific studies" can God know my prayers. He is limited by man's ability to construct "proper scientific studies" to validate it. Absent that, my prayers remain stuck in my mind.

That's a remarkable display of arrogance. It also illustrates how some try very hard to limit God to the known scientific and natural state.

But, no fear. I've hooked a Radio Shack volt meter to my head. It beeps and flashes and the needle moves while I pray. That was the magic key that uncuffed poor God, who stood helpless until I did that. :-)

"For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God's sight. As it is written: 'He catches the wise in their craftiness'" 1 Corinthians 3:19 NIV.

The more I think about that article, the more it strikes me that they're committing two fundamental errors:

  1. They assume a supernatural being is constrained to that which we understand as possible within the realm of the natural.
  2. They assume that a prayer asked must in turn be answered for there to be any evidence the prayer was understood outside the supplicant's mind.

My guess is the author(s) of the article don't really believe a supernatural being exists. They're willing to stipulate it for the purposes of the discussion, but then project human limitations on that being. Further, to the extent they may believe a supernatural being exists, I doubt very seriously they believe it to have pre-existed all that is, or more to the point, created all that is. It would seem logically and scientifically inconsistent to grant such a being the ability and power to create all existence, then be constrained to understand the very thing it created. There's a personal bias on the part of the author(s) creeping into this report.

The idea that a prayer asked must be answered for it to have been "heard" is a common misunderstanding. There's ample Biblical evidence to support the refutation of this notion. But there's also a human parallel: a parent knows that each and every request made by a child is not necessarily to be granted. Some requests are foolish, others harmful, some are just asked at the wrong time. A parent is quite capable of "hearing" or "knowing" the request, but not granting it. By the standards set by these author(s), unless the request is granted, it wasn't transmitted from child to parent. Common sense says that's not correct.

As the great Tocqueville says with regard to America's scientific pop-Cartesianism, these fools too "easily conclude that everything in the world is explicable and that nothing exceeds the bounds of [human] intelligence. Thus they willingly deny what they do not comprehend [with their method]: that gives them little faith in the extraordinary and an almost invincible distaste for the supernatural."

This also strangely reminds me a a ditty from E.E. Cummings I came across the other day (if it was here, I apologize):

"While you and I have lips
and voices which
Are for kissing and to
sing with,
Who cares if some
oneeyed son of a bitch
Invents an instrument to
measure Spring with?"

How foolish to believe that a supreme being is limited to what we can detect. Even beyond that, humans are perfectly capable of interpreting the brain patterns of other humans in a reasonable way. It's called speech.

The analysis was a joke. It was little better than those concluding that there is no other intelligent life in the universe because surely they would communicate over radio frequency, and we aren't detecting it.

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If a group of ignorant jungle islanders have a myth about a flying elephant that lives in a certain valley, they will not be deterred from their belief even if a group of researchers finds absolutely no evidence that any elephant lives in that valley, nor will it matter to them that a basic understanding of aerodynamics makes a flying elephant impossible.

The God hypothesis predicts that prayers will sometimes be answered, and the fact that there is no evidence that any prayers are ever answered mitigates strongly against it. Your elephant can fly, yes, but that doesn't explain why there are [b]zero[/b] footprints.

The idea that God can hear our thoughts was a plausible idea back when thoughts seemed like mysterious, spiritual things. Now that they are mere neuron firings the idea of a supernatural hearer seems silly. Many primitive islanders during WW2 believed that ships and cargo were created by magical incantations uttered into a radio. I assume most of them have abandoned that hypothesis. That makes them better than the lot of you, who hold on to a mystical explanation when a naturalistic one is readily available. Does Occam's Razor mean anything to you? Do you believe that angels push the planets around?

Lastly, scientists do not "too easily conclude that everything in the world is explicable and that nothing exceeds the bounds of [human] intelligence." This an extremely hypocritical accusation, coming from a religious person. Science merely confesses its ignorance, and then tries to find plausible explanations. Religion assumes that grand, eternal, cosmic truths were revealed to one of a handful (take your pick) of ancient tribes. Who is really guilty of jumping to conclusions?

"Thus they willingly deny what they do not comprehend [with their method]: that gives them little faith in the extraordinary and an almost invincible distaste for the supernatural."

Our method is a method that seeks evidence. If there is no evidence, we do not believe. This method is "prejudiced" against no view except those views that have no evidence. Science is no more biased against the supernatural in favor of the natural than a court of law is biased against the guilty in favor of the falsely accused. Both the judge and the scientist merely look at evidence and follow it wherever it leads.

The concluding paragraph of that article reads: "Reading this teeming energy in millions of circuit neurons and translating it into the thought or prayer arising from it seems theoretically impossible for even a supernatural being."

Why? What possible evidence do the authors of that article offer for this, other than their own bias that a supernatural being must be no more than what's possible in the natural? But by definition God is beyond the natural, capable of things outside the limitations of our sense of the natural.

But beyond that, the basic premise of this "experiment" was faulty to begin with. It assumes that if prayer really works, then requests will be answered in a manner directly related to the request. But that is not the way of such things. Ask any sincerely committed person of God, and they'll tell you that more often than not, their prayers are answered, but in a way and at a time different from what they expected. And almost always in a way more rewarding than they had asked.

I don't expect you to understand that, Buu. I sincerely wish you could, though, and I pray one day you might seek God. Those who truly seek, find. That He promises us.

It's an Occam's Razor situation, Don. Thoughts -- human consciousness -- used to be evidence for the existence of the spiritual. They no longer are. Why believe that there is any God monitoring the neural circuit board of one particular species of primate? The point of the article is that prayer provides no evidence for God. The personal experiences of people are easily explained as self-confirmation bias.

It's absurd to say prayers are answered in ways that bear no relation to the original request. By this reasoning a person who asks for the month's rent and instead has to move to a poor district where he meets a new friend has had his prayer "answered" because he is happy to have met a new friend. Astrology and psychic readings could easily be justified on the same sort of grounds.

That, perhaps, is the crux of the matter. Do you buy into astrology or psychic phenomena? If not, are you at least willing to admit that you have only arbitrary reasons for not doing so (that is, there is as much rational evidence for them as there is for prayer)?

I know I will find God if I seek him. I also know that there is a thing called the placebo effect, and that people who want to find things always find them. A prankster astronomer once announced over the radio in some European country that that midnight anyone who jumped would experience a "floating sensation." This was nonsense, but thousands of people called in to testify about there own floating experiences. There are hundreds of such stories in skeptical and psychological literature. The claimed "evidences" for supernatural intervention are vague enough that one can "see the hand of God" anywhere. If something bad happens to me God must be punishing me for that lustful thought I had for the billboard lady, and if something good happens to me God must be rewarding me for reading my Bible last week.

Isn't the belief in no God a belief in and of itself?

Oh, Buu, that was on Coast to Coast and/or the show that Art Bell hosted late at night and we know just exactly how credible both shows are and have been ... right?

Cue the music from the X-files.

Buu, long ago I learned it is no use trying to prove the existence of God. I can offer all manner of things to suggest His existence, but nothing that conclusively proves it. Similarly, there is nothing you can offer that conclusively disproves the existence of God. If such proof were possible, it would have been settled long ago.

I wish you peace.

What a very silly article. They don't say that thoughts are immeasurable. Just that it's much smaller than the gravity field and the surrounding electrical noise. If today we humans can stick probes in the brain and get some reading of brain activity then we already know it's possible. We may not possess the technology and knowledge to do it now, but who knows the advances to come in the future. Their conclusion is sheer nonsense.

Interesting quote from the book, "Renovation of the Heart, Putting on the Character of Christ" by Dallas Willard. I came across this quote this morning, and I thought it related to the issue of whether prayers must be answered to suggest God exists.:

'"There are two Gods," Tolstoy once said. "There is the God that people generally believe in - A God who has to serve them (sometimes in very refined ways, say by merely giving them peace of mind). This God does not exist. But the God whom people forget -- the God whom we all have to serve -- exists, and is the prime cause of our existence and all that we perceive."'

I have heard the term "Aspirin God" used to refer to the notion of God being there simply to service our minor inconveniences and pains. I think that is an apt phrase. Another is "Vending Machine God." It is the same basic view of God, and is the one taken by the authors of that article.

Many would prefer God to be a vending machine, dispensing relief to the pain caused by our own poor decisions and actions. But as Tolstoy said, that God does not exist. Further, the idea of turning that notion around and our having to serve God is unnerving to most, including, at times, me.

And there is the fundamental flaw with the experiment as I see it (though I agree with K Rihanek's comment as well): measuring the "effectiveness of prayer" completely misses the point. God is not there just to dispense immediate relief for minor troubles.

I would be interested to see a list of the kinds of petitions offered in that study. Do you suppose they were prayers like:

  • "May your will, Lord, be as effectively carried out in my heart, in my actions and in others as it is in heaven, where you will is done without resistance and queston."
  • "Provide for me this day just what I need, but help keep my mind from thinking I need more that. Teach me to grow in my trust in you that you shall truly provide ... that you shall give me "my daily bread."
  • "Be with me during times of temptation, and give me strength to recognize and avoid it. But do not spare me from the test, for in the testing comes wisdom and strength."

That is essentially the petitionary portion of the Lord's Prayer, where the focus is more on aligning myself to God, rather than God just "giving me stuff."

Well, Don, it certainly would be more convenient for you if the prayers they offered did not lead to falsifiable predictions.

I wonder where people get the idea that God is a Vending Machine? It couldn't possibly be from Jesus himself, could it? Of course not...

"And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it." John 14:13-4)

Buu ... I'm not going to deny that the theological constructs of Christianity are often complex and sometimes seemingly contradictory. I'm not going to try to argue the specifics of them. As I said earlier, ultimately proof can't be offered, either in support of God or denial of God.

The John 14:13-4 passage you reference is one of the more challenging ones, when taken out of context, and without due regard to the phrase, "in my name." John 14:12, which immediately precedes what you offered: "I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father." (NIV)

The context is one of true committed faith in the entirety of Jesus -- not just that he existed, or that he died for sins, or that he was resurrected -- but that he is God and is Lord of all. Such faith is not common. Jesus himself chided his own disciples on many occasions for the weakness of their faith ... and they were with him!

Hence one of the problems of the study that started this: a person with a vast underpinning of doubt and unbelief offers a selfish request and it goes unanswered. This is then seen as evidence God does not exist.

Further, the "in my name" portion of that means "on my behalf," not just the casual use of Jesus' name as an afterthought to a prayer. If I pray for unjust punishment to be laid upon another, would that truly be something asked for "on behalf" of Jesus? One who has the kind of faith and trust Jesus cites in John 14:12 would never consider praying for such things because they would know that Jesus himself would have none of that. Your citation of John 14:13-14 says, "that the Father may be glorified in the Son" ... offering further evidence that the context of this is that our lives and our petitions are ultimately about giving due credit and glory to God. Hence a request that is contrary to God, or one that is not in my best interest from God's view of my life, will not be answered.

Look, I'm not trying to convert you. I do, however, wish you to understand that there is such a thing as a thoughtful approach to issues of God and faith. The world is full of very foolish people who claim faith in God and then behave in a cartoonish manner. That I'll confess is sadly true. But it doesn't follow that the "reality" of God -- no, I don't expect you to accept that terminology -- is properly reflected by the cartoonish behavior of some.

Again, I bid you peace.

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