Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The (Il)logic of Faith

Never underestimate the power of religious logic. In the May issue of Christianity Today Gregory and Christopher Fung explore the deeper meaning of Harvard Medical School’s ten-year, $2.4 million prayer study.

Called Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), the study divided 1,802 people into three groups: Group A knew they were being prayed for, Group B was being prayed for but was unsure if that were the case, and Group C was not being prayed for and, like group B, were not told if they were or were not being prayed for.

Here are the conclusions of the study: Group A (those who knew they were being prayed for) suffered more post-operative complications than those in the two other groups, while Group C (those not prayed for) suffered the least. In other words being prayed for when ill is actually hazardous to your health.

You might think that this would lead people to stop praying over the sick, but that would be too logical. According to the Fungs, STEP “actually supports the Christian worldview… God seems to have granted favor without regard to either the quantity or even the quality of the prayers… True to his character, God appears inclined to heal and bless as many as possible. It is as if he can barely restrain himself—though he often does—from supernaturally intervening and disrupting the nature of the universe to care for those he loves, whether they acknowledge it or not.”

You have to love the Fungs. They seem to be saying that since God caused most of the people who were prayed for in the study to suffer more than those who were not prayed over proves that God can barely restrain himself from healing people. This makes no sense whatsoever, but it does demonstrate why religion will never disappear: its capacity to fool itself is endless.

Now, I’m not saying prayer doesn’t work. According to STEP it seems to work, but only in reverse: pray for those you hate and they will be more likely to suffer. What impresses me is how the Fungs turned the study inside out in order to protect their theology. This is why religion and science are fundamentally incompatible. Science (at least at theoretically) values evidence over theory, while religion values theory over evidence.

The Fungs go on to say “our obsession with whether prayer works is the wrong question. We know prayer works. The real question is, are we prepared for God’s answer?”

Yes, STEP proves that prayer works: it causes more suffering, not less. And the answer to the question “are we prepared for God’s answer” must be “no.” STEP proves that the people prayed for did worse than those not prayed for. This doesn’t show that God loves everyone equally, it shows that God loves those who leave him alone. Are we ready for that answer? I doubt it.

The Fungs’ conclusion is that “STEP encourages us to believe that God is eager to answer our prayers….” Did they read the study? STEP encourages us to believe just the opposite!

I love this! Their logic is so absent, their conclusion so vacuous, that it almost makes sense! But it is bullshit!

The only part of the Fungs’ article I found wise was their reminder that Jesus told us to pray only that God’s will be done. If God is Reality, as I understand God to be, then such a prayer is an affirmation of radical acceptance of what is, and that cannot be bad. Too bad the Fungs couldn’t stick with Jesus.


AaronHerschel said...

There are two fundamental problems here which may impact both your analysis and the Fung's. First: we have no idea what the CONTENT of the prayers were. If the pray-ers really disliked the pray-ees and prayed for them to suffer, then the Fung's conclusion is sound, at least in so far as it asserts that prayer works. It would be wrong, of course, to conclude that God can't restrain himself from helping the sick--but true to conclude that he answers those who pray with an affirmative.

Second: if Group A reacted poorly to prayer, but Group B and Group C reacted more or less as well as each other, than the problem isn't prayer: it's knowing you're being prayed for. Perhaps believing that you're in God's hands lowers the bodies immuno-response. Are there stats on Atheist's health versus Fundamentalists? I bet that's the Fung's next study.

Patti said...

Or I might add that perhaps the attention one gets from people praying for them, only makes one stay sicker longer...thus getting more attention.

Plus we really don't know that anyone prayed at all! Christians are famous for saying they will pray for someone and then not doing so.

I have so many issues with prayer, this only proves my point.

Glad you are back Rami. I've missed your postings.

Immanuel said...

Sorry this is a complete non-sequiter, and feel free to remove this post, but I had a good idea for a name for a vegetarian resteraunt: "the dancing Aleph"

Other than that prayer as articulation ofaspiration seems to me to b a pretty good tool - to find out what it is that you really want. I remeber rav Kook, Zichrono livracha, wrote something aboyut the ratzon hprati and the ratzon haklalli and the one flowes into the other (in Orot haKodesh). have you read Tzaddik in our time about rabbi Aryeh levin, the Rav of the prisoners, by Simcha raz?


AaronHerschel said...


Brilliant. It would be like the religious version of Munchausen's disease.


I tend to agree that prayer can be a useful tool to exploring the self and its desires, or to expunging the self and its desires, and it's certainly a powerful social signifier. I've not read any of the texts you mention, but will be sure to look into them. Thanks!

Karen said...

"This doesn’t show that God loves everyone equally, it shows that God loves those who leave him alone." I love this! And it's probably closer to the truth than we care to admit!

Your post reminds me of two things: one is Neale Donald Walsch's "Conversations with God" (and others, I'm sure, have said something very similar) of praying for "wanting" to be healed, loved, etc. What God or the universe (or whatever suits you) focuses on is the "wanting" not on the actual healing or loving, etc. When we pray, we are to assume that whatever we desire already exists and we open ourselves up to it entering into our lives.

The second thing I'm reminded of feeds into the first and is the basic idea behind the Law of Attraction (even though this has many problems of its own!) -- whatever we put out "there" is attracted back to us. So, if a bunch of people are praying over someone's sickness or illness -- whether good or bad -- that someone is just going to get more of the same.

And, whatever happened to the idea of no one can mess with your "energy" (I know, totally new agey stuff!) without your consent? I prefer to leave my own healing up to myself and my personal relationship with God than put it in the prayerful hands of well intentioned family and friends! Like AaronHerschel stated in his comments -- we cannot know how these people will pray, and I don't want what someone thinks is positive that is actually negative to be attached to my energetic framework, thank you very much!

AnonymousIsAWoman said...

There are many studies that show that prayer works when one prays for oneself. The experiments that study intercessory prayer - praying for somebody else - have been more mixed.

Prayer's real value is that it gives the person praying hope. There are enough studies that show a connection between optimism and health.

Further, some smaller studies of intercessory prayer, or of intention, have shown that there are statistically significant improvements in patients' recovery. But those studies have been less rigorously conducted.

The thing that renders most of these studies invalid, though, is the fact that even the group that was not prayed for by the experimenters may have received prayers from family members and the patients may have prayed for themselves.

In fact, there is no real way to guarantee that the control group didn't receive informal prayers from their own families and friends. Indeed, given how religious a society we live in, I'd almost guarantee that they did.

Experimenters actually realize this and admit that they can't control for the "background noise" as they term it.

BTW, those in the field of parapsychology also discuss a phenomenon known as anti-psi. That means when a subject performs below the statistical average that may be as significant as performing above the statistical average. It's hard to say what is truly going on.

I think it's worth studying more, but not limiting experiments to Judeo Christian prayer. There are other modalities of intercessory healing that should be included.

You can't drag God into a laboratory. But there may be some non-local phenomenon that we can learn more about to our benefit.