Way back in 2006, the John Templeton Foundation published the results of its study on prayer and its effect on people who were suffering from major heart conditions and undergoing heart surgery. The study was double-blind and used a control group. Two groups were chosen, one of which were prayed for and the other which was not, but neither were told which group they were in. A third group served as a control were prayed for and told this.
After 2.4 million dollars invested from the Templeton Foundation and 2.3 million invested from the federal government, here are the results:
- More people (59%) in the control group suffered more complications than in the groups who did not know if they were being prayed for (51%).
- 18% of those in the uninformed prayer group suffered major complications (including heart attack) as compared to 13% in the group that did not receive prayers.
These results have precedent: the New York Times reports on a study done in 1997 studied 40 alcoholics in recovery. Those who were prayed for did worse than those who were not.
Flaws of the Study
According to the research team, one of the issues may have been that those who knew they were being prayed for had “preformance anxiety,” which could complicate a heart condition. “It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?” Dr. Charles Bethea said. This does beg the question that if God were interested in healing people based on prayers for them, could he have not also prevented complications for these patients? Would God not be invested in being a part of this study if it were designed to prove his existance?
The other issue that is noted by Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion is that there really are issues with how the study was done in the first place. The full set up of the experiement, assuming that those involved believed in the power of prayer, was subjecting some people to what could be considered cruel because they were not chosen to be in the “prayed-for” group. Those who were part of the study could very well have gotten prayers from people that cared about them. Yet, why would they especially considering that those recieving prayers did worse?
No Results; Nothing Studied
The problem with the study was based in the hypothesis itself: if we pray for someone then God will intervene in some supernatural way to restore a person’s health. No doubt this is a wonderful concept, but it eliminates the truth about he subject being studied. In the same way that the Prosperity Gospel cult has undercut the basis of Christian belief, this study is based on a lie. Somehow people have come up with this idea that if we ask for something then we can obligate God to deliver.
What kind of God would he be if we were able to say just the right words or preform just the right action that would somehow get God’s attention and thus getting a desired result? This concept makes God not God at all, but rather some cosmic vending machine (insert prayer) or light switch.
In John chapter 3 Jesus describes to a religious leader, Nicodemus, the nature and action of God. “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going.” This makes the scientific study more akin to the study of psychology. If God is a volitional being, then we cannot expect that God will preform based in a regular standard and without fail.
In essence this study was not about prayer at all, but about the effect of positive words and their impact on a person’s health. Masaru Emoto has conducted studies on the effect of kind words, prayers, and curses on molecules of water. While the scientific basis of his studies are questionable, it is interesting in the sense that these studies attempted to define a benefit to prayer but only resulted in demonstrating the conscious way that positive words can affect a person’s psyche and connecting physiological response.
This is not to deny the power that abides in prayer, but it does stand in the face of a fallacy. Prayer is not about getting our goodies from God, but it is about trusting God to do what is best. It is about building a relationship and leaning our the truth that comes from that relationship.
This study would be just as flawed if it were conducted on child-parent relationships and we expected that the child would receive everything she asked her parents for. No doubt we would think very poorly of a parent who did that and it would be no stretch to expect that the child would be a lazy, fat brat. No doubt we would be in quite a big mess if God also fulfilled every request to our liking. It frankly gives me much satisfaction that this study was a failure, because it strengthens my trust in a God that cannot be contained and who works toward our best, even if we do not agree that our best is.