testing prayer

Testing times

Lately I’ve been thinking about how churches should harness the power of PR a little more – particularly regional churches in cities like Townsville – where there’s a strong local media contingent and not so much clamour for media attention. I’ll probably turn that into a post all of its own at some stage – but for now, I have a case study for your consideration…

A group of researchers set out to conduct a series of experiments testing prayer. Their findings created a difficulty for those people who expect science to be capable of testing everything… both Christians, and atheists…

Christians who think science can prove God struggle because the people being prayed for fared worse than the people not being prayed for – and atheists because they’ll often argue that prayer should have a demonstrable psychological placebo effect – which it didn’t.

Christianity Today found a somewhat unpredictable spin to put on events. The study was conducted a few years back, but this article was produced pretty recently. Here’s a description of the study:

“STEP was simple and elegant, conforming to standard research norms and protocols: 1,802 patients, all admitted for coronary artery bypass graft surgery, were divided into three randomized groups. Two of the groups received prayer from committed Christians with experience praying for the sick. But only one group’s members knew they were being prayed for. The result: The group whose members knew they were being prayed for did worse in terms of post-operative complications than those whose members were unsure if they were receiving prayer. The knowledge that they were being prayed for by a special group of intercessors seemed to have a negative effect on their health.”

Here’s the Christianity Today editorial on the results:

The real scandal of the study is not that the prayed-for group did worse, but that the not-prayed-for group received just as much, if not more, of God’s blessings.

It’s an odd interpretation of the results and doesn’t seem to mesh well with the study itself.

Here’s the Harvard Medical School Media Release on the study – and a better description of the methodology… You’ve got to wonder who set these parameters and actually thought they’d work. This doesn’t seem to come close to any Biblical picture of prayer…

“The researchers standardized the start and duration of prayers and provided only the patients’ first name and last initial. Prayers began on the eve or day of surgery and continued daily for 14 days. Everyone prayed for received the same standardized prayer. Providing the names of patients directed prayer-givers away from a desire to pray for everyone participating in the study. Because the study was designed to investigate intercessory prayer, the results cannot be extrapolated to other types of prayer.”

Sadly, the whole report is now going to be used by misguided atheists to bash all Christians over the head as they call for amputees to grow arms.

Prayer fail

One of the proofs that one of my atheist friends suggests would swing him towards faith is some sort of observable scientific testing of prayer.

The problem with this is that too often they then demand the test meet some “observable” criteria, that they set, like growing an amputee’s limb back…

I think prayer works, my personal experience of prayer suggest that it works, but then I tend to pray within the constraints of rational possibilities (eg not that an amputee will grow a limb back) consistent with instructions on prayer from the Bible.

There is however, another side of the coin. Where people can pray in stupid ways that just lend themselves to atheists pointing and laughing.

Like this 63 year old Indian man who has refused to bathe for 35 years as part of his regular prayer ritual.

I would suggest, that if you’re hanging on to some sort of superstition in order to achieve a particular, and stated aim, that 35 years is too long. Particularly if the aim is to have a male child.

An Indian man who fathered seven daughters has not washed for 35 years in an apparent attempt to ensure his next child is a boy, newspapers report.

Kailash “Kalau” Singh replaces bathing and brushing his teeth with a “fire bath” every evening when he stands on one leg beside a bonfire, smokes marijuana and says prayers to Lord Shiva, according to the Hindustan Times.

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