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Donald Ardell: Not surprisingly, nothing fails like prayer

Don Ardell

The following is an excerpt from Donald Ardell’s new book, Freedom From Religion in 30 Days: A REAL Wellness Approach to Critical Thinking, Exuberance and Personal Freedoms. The book’s foreword was written by FFRF Co-Presidents Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker.

By Donald Ardell

If you ever face a choice between a wing and a prayer, go with the wing. Robert Ingersoll said, “Hands that help are better than lips that pray.” I often recall that line when politicians and others robotically offer their cliched thoughts and prayers. Neither represents a commitment of any kind to do something actionable about a tragedy, crisis or disaster that invites reflection, reform or the need for change.

Actor and writer Hannibal Buress made this point rather well: “People say, ‘l’ll pray for you.’ So, basically, you’re going to sit at home and do nothing. That’s what your prayers are — you’re doing nothing while I struggle with the situation. Don’t pray for me. Make me a sandwich or something.”

Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who became a renowned orator, social reformer, abolitionist, author and statesman in the latter half of the 19th century, famously remarked, “I prayed for 20 years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”

Every so often, a Christian group sponsors a study hoping to show the efficacy of intercessory prayer. One such effort was conducted concurrently with more than 1,800 patients at six medical centers over an eight-year period at a cost of $2.5 million. The funds came primarily from the John Templeton Foundation, a Pennsylvania group that encourages the study of spirituality. One of the principal investigators was true believer Herbert Benson. The project was an attempt to lend scientific credibility to the notion that a supernatural power exists and sometimes elects to play doctor, that is, facilitate or cause healing in response to prayers.

Three different congregations were instructed to pray to a god to grant a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications. The prayer beneficiaries were separated into three distinct groups: Those advised they were being prayed for; those who got prayers but did not know about it; and those for whom nobody would be doing any praying.

Alas, to the dismay of the faithful, the project was a big disappointment. Not only did prayers have no positive effect, they seem to have made patients prayed for worse — an outcome that proved embarrassing to the sponsors, if not the investigators. Overall, a little more than half of all patients (52 percent) suffered complications. However, the highest percentage of complications was in the prayed for group (59 percent). The lesson I took from this study was if you are to undergo an operation, don’t ask for prayers.

Why did patients prayed for have a higher rate of complications? Maybe this knowledge frightened them. They might have assumed doctors had otherwise given up on them. The bottom line is that prayer failed, once again, as it always does. 

Perhaps telling people they are being prayed for introduces the stress response. Patients might have thought, “Am I so sick that they had to call in the prayer team?”

A predictable result for the failure of prayer was do more studies. The big unanswered question is why there was an excess of complications in patients who knew all those people were praying for them. There is no clear explanation, so, to find out will require additional study.

The Benson study only demonstrates, once again, that prayer is no more (or no less) effective than rain dances, a rabbit’s foot, a four-leaf clover, coins tossed in a fountain, salt sprinkled over the shoulder, knocking on wood, a visit to Lourdes, Mecca or Jerusalem, or a fall-down televised healing session onstage with evangelist Benny Hinn.

It seems self-evident but worth noting that such studies appeal only to those who believe that a god (and devil) exists, and that it has the time and inclination to meddle in human affairs. Those who fund and conduct such studies probably would not accept Robert Ingersoll’s view expressed in his talk, “Improved Man”: “He will not endeavor by prayers and supplication, by fastings and genuflections, to change the mind of the Infinite, or alter the course of nature; neither will he employ others to do those things in his place.”

The next prayer study Templeton funds should explore what kind of prayers are best, how fervent and sincere must they be, from what place are they best transmitted, and how many can be requested before the supplicant becomes a pest. There is no consensus about the criteria for world-class, high-performance praying. Maybe all prayers are equal or some are more equal, perhaps some days are best, and so on. More likely, there’s just no there there.

I think prayer is totally useless and a waste of time, except for whatever positive effect might obtain from the delusion that a beneficial effect might ensue from thinking help is on the way. This phenomenon, of course, is a recognized placebo effect, not unique to prayer.

Dr. Richard Sloan, a physician renowned as an expert on the intersection of religion and health care, wrote the book, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine. He suggests the problem with reducing religion to quantifiable elements makes for bad science and bad religion.

Stephen Barrett, another physician who tracks pseudostudies for, provided this assessment: “Intercessory prayer studies accomplish nothing. Believers won’t change their view if further studies are negative, and nonbelievers won’t change theirs if additional studies appear positive. Prayer may help some people feel reassured when they are worried, but to me it makes more sense to spend one’s time and energy on more constructive health-promoting activities. Although luck is still a significant factor, I think it is more sensible to believe that health is more likely to be influenced by prudent living than by magical thinking. Also, if praying for people worked, would strangers praying against them cause them to become sicker? Or, as one of my religious friends put it, ‘Is God so stupid that he or she would respond to popularity contests?’” 

My favorite assessment of such studies is a critique by the late Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. Asked why the study found no evidence for the power of prayer, he replied, “Because there is none. That would be one answer.”

Prayer does have some unintended benefits, as actor/comedian Ricky Gervais pointed out: “I’ve just discovered praying. This is going to save me millions in charity donations.”

Maybe Christopher Hitchens was on to something with his refrain that “God is either impotent — he can’t do anything; or malevolent — he can do something but chooses not to.” Of course, Hitchens didn’t believe, either. Like singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks, he knew that “God Isn’t Real.”

Finally, anyone who thinks about prayer should consider the Epicurean paradox: “God either wishes to take away evils, and is unable, or he is able, and is unwilling, or he is neither willing nor able, or he is both willing and able. If he is willing and is unable, he is feeble, which is not in accordance with the character of God. If he is able and unwilling, he is envious, which is equally at variance with God. If he is neither willing nor able, he is both envious and feeble, and therefore not God. If he is both willing and able, which alone is suitable to God, from what source then are evils? Or, why does he not remove them?”

Pray if it floats your boat, but check the weather report to time requests for best results.

Don Ardell is an FFRF member who lives in Wisconsin.