Malaysian Atheist

An avowed atheist living in Malaysia.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Testing the Efficacy of Prayer

This study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer was cited in The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins which I am currently reading. I thought it'd be a scientific answer to the question - "Why Pray?" - but the outcome suggests otherwise.

This is how they conducted it. 1802 cardiac bypass patients were randomly assigned to one of three conditions: One group received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; the second group did not receive intercessory prayer after also being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; and the third group received intercessory prayer after being informed that they would receive prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days and the primary outcome was the presence of any complication within 30 days of bypass surgery. Secondary outcomes were any major event and mortality.

The first two groups test for the effectiveness of intercessory prayers while the third group tests for the psychosomatic effects of knowing one is prayed for. The results for the first two groups are virtually indistinguishable while the third group, for some reason (performance anxiety?), showed higher incidences of complications.

Of course, many groups have ridiculed such a study, saying that we cannot test God. They'll say God works in mysterious ways. We can never test Him this way. Sorry, but this explanation is just unsatisfactory. Suppose that a group of religous people prayed for a sick friend and the friend miraculously got well. People will be too quick to attribute the healing to God answering their prayers. This is an example of what psychologists call confirmation bias, because the 'miraculous' healing could possibly have nothing to do with whether or not the person was being prayed for by friends, as the study above indicates. Out of sheer probability, the person would've been healed regardless of the prayers. That possibility has never been considered, but the group immediately says that it is due to God. In essence, they've all been fooled by randomness.

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At 5:01 PM, November 06, 2006, Blogger Sze Zeng said...


Perhaps you might want to check up Alister McGrath's respond to the God's Delusion.


At 6:28 PM, November 06, 2006, Blogger Sze Zeng said...

check out another review by Terry Eagleton:

At 9:06 PM, November 06, 2006, Blogger Meursault said...

Thanks. After reading Terry Eagleton's article, I can't help but feel he's creating an even bigger gap to be filled with God (Note the last chapter in Dawkins' book is "A Much Needed Gap?"). He can always say Dawkins' definition of God is too narrow etc. but I'd bet even Christians themselves will struggle to define God in a manner that will please Eagleton. The rest of his points I think are rather subjective (same goes for Dawkins).

At 2:41 PM, December 22, 2012, Blogger Unknown said...

I am an atheist, and I am very interested to learn about God. Now I have found God. He lives inside me. Each time I affirm myself to stay positive and be strong I actually prayed. I think after the creation of the internet, the concept of God is the second best creation of mankind for fellow beings. It has help so many weak minded and lazy minded to gain strength to face the challenges in life.


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