Modern MythologyReligion and SpiritualityScienceSkepticism

Modern Mythology: Praying Up A Storm… Or Not.

Modern Mythology is a Teen Skepchick feature in which we try to cut through the woo so you can make informed decisions. If you have any questions, contact us here.

Religions pretty rarely stand up and make any testable claims. But sometimes they do, and one such claim is the efficacy of prayer. The Bible (and in particular the Gospels) are full of many such claims, for example:

And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. James 5:15-16

For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. Matthew 17:20

Plenty of other religions make such claims too. And they’re pretty extraordinary claims, right? Surely we could test them or something…

Well, they have been tested.

Some of them came up positive, for example a study by Columbia University:

The control group of ninety-nine patients received IVF but did not receive any prayers from these prayer groups. In vitro fertilization was performed in the usual fashion in both groups. The 100 patients in the study group were not informed that the groups were praying for them. Furthermore, none of the patients were even informed that they were being used as study subjects. The prayer groups, which were thousands of miles away from the study subjects, prayed over photographs that had been faxed to them from Korea. Remarkably, the pregnancy rate in the prayed-for group (50 percent) was almost twice as high as the pregnancy rate in the nonprayed-for group (26 percent, p= .0013).

Except it turned out this trial was a fraud. Oops.

Due to the mixed nature of many such studies, a scientifically rigorous investigation was conducted to see whether prayer had the power to cure illness.

In the study, the researchers monitored 1,802 patients at six hospitals who received coronary bypass surgery, in which doctors reroute circulation around a clogged vein or artery.

The patients were broken into three groups. Two were prayed for; the third was not. Half the patients who received the prayers were told that they were being prayed for; half were told that they might or might not receive prayers.

The results were quite interesting:

Analyzing complications in the 30 days after the operations, the researchers found no differences between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not.

A significantly higher number of the patients who knew that they were being prayed for — 59 percent — suffered complications, compared with 51 percent of those who were uncertain. The authors left open the possibility that this was a chance finding. But they said that being aware of the strangers’ prayers also may have caused some of the patients a kind of performance anxiety.

So it seems like prayer did the opposite of help. All of this could have been a matter of chance, of course, and it isn’t easy to say that this conclusively means prayer doesn’t work– although it certainly isn’t moving mountains.

It is also important to know about rationalisation, too. That being: the cognitive process of making something seem consistent with or based on reason. Which basically means… all those people that say God’s influence lies beyond the reach of scientific validation are still denying the evidence and trying to make their stance seem more reasonable than it is.

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Lauren is a Maths and Physics student from somewhere in the southern hemisphere. She has an affinity for reality, and you can find her on twitter @lolrj, or Google+.

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