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Prayer, Science, and the Existence of God

Praying

Can science find God? If God is defined as a being (or perhaps “the ground of being”) that is neither composed of matter nor confined to a spatial location, then the answer seems to be no. After all, science is limited to explaining the natural, physical world. If God exists beyond that world and is not composed of anything found within it, then he seems to be out of the reach of scientific inquiry.

But even if science can’t “find” God in the same way I can find my car in a parking lot, maybe it can indirectly find him. After all, if God affects the physical world, then couldn’t scientific experiments detect those effects and then infer from them that God exists?

One common interaction between God and the universe that believers and nonbelievers think can be tested is prayer—specifically, intercessory prayer for other people. This testing usually takes the form of “prayer studies” that test whether praying for the sick results in more positive health outcomes.

However, I contend that scientific study of the efficacy of prayer can neither prove nor disprove the existence of God. The reason is summarized in the following three “problems” inherent to any such study.

The Problem of the Control Group

In any experiment, the control group must be observed without the variable that’s being tested for. In this case, that would involve a group of people who are not receiving intercessory healing prayers. Now, it’s easy to create two groups of sick people and then tell a group of volunteers to pray for one of the groups. Meanwhile, researchers observe the other group, of which the volunteers are ignorant, to see how it fares when not prayed for.

But the other group still wouldn’t be a true control group, because there is no way to isolate it from receiving any form of intercessory prayer. What if the friends and family of the people in this group are praying for them? What if a holy woman in rural Nepal prays that “everyone be healed” or that those “who have no one to pray for them” be healed?

Why should we expect God to answer only the prayers of the volunteers in a prayer study and not prayers made by anyone else? This brings us to problem number two with prayer studies.

The Problem of the Test Subject

Testing the effects of intercessory prayer isn’t the same as testing an inanimate force like gravity, because God isn’t a force that is automatically activated when enough prayers are uttered. God is much more like a person than he is a force, and so he might choose to honor or not honor certain requests made through prayer. In fact, it’s been said that God always answers our prayers—it’s just that sometimes the answer is “no.”

Now, science is used to testing the reactions of people and not just forces (psychologists and sociologists do this all the time). But those experiments must be blind or even double blind. The person being tested can’t know that scientists are testing him. But if God is omniscient, then he always knows when he’s being tested. Any experiment involving him can’t be blind and so it probably can’t be scientific.

Here’s an example to explain how omniscience messes up any kind of prayer study.

Suppose we wanted to determine how much time the President spends reviewing different kinds of petitions made to whitehouse.gov (I know the President probably doesn’t read these himself, but let’s imagine he did). Our experiment wouldn’t work if we told the President that we were monitoring his review of the petitions. He might purposefully spend an equal amount of time reviewing each petition in order to deflect the accusation that he cares about some causes but not others. Or he might not dignify our study with his participation, because he can care about all Americans even if he doesn’t grant all of our petitions.

Likewise, if God knows that certain prayers are part of a study, he may choose to not participate in such a study by not answering the prayers of the study’s volunteers. He might do this because he does not want to encourage humans to test him. Or he may have other good reasons for not healing certain ailments. I don’t want to digress into issues related to the problem of evil, including the question of whether God has a moral duty to heal people of certain diseases. I would say he does not, but once again, that’s not the subject of this post.

My main point is that it is difficult, if not impossible, to validly study someone if he is aware you are studying him. This gives us another reason to doubt the validity of prayer studies.

Finally, let’s examine the last problem with these kinds of studies.

The Problem of Interpreting Results

Any study on intercessory prayer will yield one of three results: prayer has a negative effect on patients, prayer has no effect, or prayer has a positive effect. Regardless of what outcome we observe, it does not justify us to conclude anything about God’s existence.

For example, suppose a prayer study showed that intercessory prayer results in worse health outcomes for the recipients of prayer. What should we conclude? I’m not talking about people who were told they’d be prayed for and then got worse (that’s probably due to psychosomatic issues caused by the patient thinking, “They need to pray for me? I must be really sick!”).

I’m talking instead about isolated patients whose condition worsens when people pray for them.

Is God purposefully not healing these people (or even making them worse) in order to bring about a greater good? Is the devil trying to ruin our faith in God? Is it that God does not exist but in his place is an all-powerful, evil creator (a.k.a. Stephen Law’s “evil-god”)? Do the mechanical prayers involved in a prayer experiment react negatively to the universe’s “karma field,” while more honest prayers outside of a study would do better?

Science simply can’t determine which of these explanations is the correct one, since science is restricted to observing the natural world.

Even if a prayer study found a positive correlation between intercessory prayer and healing, it wouldn’t show that God exists. I’ll admit, such an outcome would bolster my faith at first, but this outcome would be plagued by problems similar to those that accompanied a study that showed prayer caused negative effects.

Is God the cause of this statistically anomalous healing? Is it a psychic mutant? Aliens? Is it an “evil-creator” who is healing patients in order to bring about a “greater evil?” Is it an impersonal “karma field?”

In these cases, science can show us that intercessory prayer causes a certain kind of physical effect, but any speculations about the relationship between the cause (i.e., prayer) and the effect (i.e., healing) would belong to the realm of philosophy or religion, not science.

No Difference?

What if studies showed that intercessory prayer made no difference in patient health? This seems to be the result of a large, recent study of prayer called the STEP project. Atheists might say that this proves that “nothing fails like prayer,” because if God did not exist we would expect intercessory prayer to not have any measurable effects.

But this is the fallacy of affirming the consequent, or:

1. If A, then B.

2. B. Therefore, A

Why is this a fallacy? See this example:

1. If I’m in New York City, then I am in New York State.

2. I am in New York State. Therefore, I am in New York City.

Of course, I could be in Albany or Buffalo and still be in New York State without being in New York City. In this argument, the consequent proposition cannot be used to support the truth of the antecedent proposition. It could be used to deny the truth of the antecedent proposition (which is also called modus tollens) by saying, “I am not in New York State, therefore I am not in New York City,” but it can’t be used to prove the truth of the antecedent. When we plug in the atheist argument from prayer, we get the same problem:

1. If God does not exist, then prayers made in scientific studies will not be answered.

2. Prayers made in scientific studies are not answered, therefore God does not exist.

God can still exist even if certain requests made in prayer are not answered. After all, God may have good reasons for not granting those requests, and he may be answering other prayers that are not being catalogued by scientists. Since God is a person and not a force that acts in automatic and statistically predictable ways, extremely limited studies using some intercessory prayers cannot be generalized to give us conclusions about the efficacy of prayer in general.
 
 
(Image credit: Evansville Community Church)

Trent Horn

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Trent Horn holds a Master’s degree in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville and is currently an apologist and speaker for Catholic Answers. He specializes in training pro-lifers to intelligently and compassionately engage pro-choice advocates in genuine dialogue. He recently released his first book, titled Answering Atheism: How to Make the Case for God with Logic and Charity. Follow Trent at his blog, TrentHorn.com.

Note: Our goal is to cultivate serious and respectful dialogue. While it's OK to disagree—even encouraged!—any snarky, offensive, or off-topic comments will be deleted. Before commenting please read the Commenting Rules and Tips. If you're having trouble commenting, read the Commenting Instructions.

  • Peter

    God can be found by default based purely on current evidence:

    The universe displays evidence of design which means it could plausibly have been created by an intelligent alien from another universe. But there is evidence of only one universe, this one, which rules out an intelligent alien.

    Apparent design could be an accident where our universe is one of countless universes each randomly configured in a different way. But again there is evidence of only one universe, which rules out random configuration and accidental design.

    By ruling out accidental design, we are left with purposeful design which is the product of intelligence. By ruling out a physical alien who created our universe from material within its own universe, we are left with an intelligence which is non-material and created the universe from no material.

    By ruling out all the other possibilities, we are beginning to arrive at the notion of God. This is based strictly on the evidence available to us a present. It does not include speculation or hypotheses, but hard observed evidence.

    • Doug Shaver

      The universe displays evidence of design

      Not to me, it doesn't.

      • Peter

        There's nothing random about stars forming and successive generations of stars producing increasingly complex elements resulting in the formation of organic molecules throughout space and the conditions in which they can attain further complexity.

        The evolution of the universe from its inception is only in one direction, that of increasing complexity leading to the widespread creation of complex organic compounds, the building blocks of life.

        • Bob

          What does "random" have to do with it?

          Haven't the natural forces (gravity, electro-mag, strong and weak nuclear) actually determined the evolution of the the universe fairly precisely?

          • Peter

            Hence the natural forces, or more precisely their values, are not random but the product of design.

          • George

            how do you know that?

          • Peter

            They'd only be random if our universe were one random universe out of countless others, but the evidence is only of one universe, so how can they be random?

          • Bob

            Not sure that it counts as a bulls-eye when you place the target after the dart has been thrown...

          • Peter

            I'd agree if there were only one bullseye, life on earth, being a freak occurrence in an otherwise hostile sterile universe.
            But that is old hat. It now looks like the universe is not sterile but enormously fertile, with organic compounds being found throughout the galaxy. Now the entire dartboard is the bullseye.

          • Bob

            I wasn't referring to life, I was referring to the 'values' of the forces and your inference to design. That is the dart you wish to paint your target around.

          • Peter

            The values of the forces create a universe where life's building blocks are abundant and life can potentially flourish. In that respect they represent the bullseye. If they were any different would the universe be seeded with the potential for life?
            I doubt it.

          • Bob

            The correct response to your question would seem to be "we don't know", anything else amounts to an argument from ignorance since the only type of life we know of is the type of life we have so far observed.

            Secondly, you are also assuming that the values of the forces could be different - something else we do not know (iirc, the possibility of differing values for the fundamental forces goes hand-in-hand with various multi-verse hypotheses - any of which will also cause a huge problem for your line of argument, if you wish to go there).

          • Peter

            On the contrary, we know that the building blocks of life recognisable here on earth are scattered throughout the galaxy. They are the product of fundamental forces so, since the same fundamental forces operate in other galaxies, we can conclude that the building blocks of life as we know them will be found there as well.

            Secondly, the evidence is of only one universe configured with a particular set of values. I am not assuming that the values could be different because that would assume that the universe could be different. I am simply remarking that this solitary universe has such a unique set of values which preconfigure it for life and that this, to me, indicates purpose.

            It cannot be chance because, being solitary, there are no alternative universes with different values from which our universe can be randomly selected. Therefore by default it must be design.

          • Bob

            Other galaxies and other universes are distinct things, of course. I think that it is unsurprising that the fundamental forces within the universe would likely be the same for all of the galaxies contained therein.

            How do you know that life is not simply an accidental by-product of a universe designed to create black holes (which it does seem to be quite a bit better at doing)?

            Finally, if these values cannot be by chance why do you ignore the equally valid possibility that these values could not be other than what they are - leaving you with, not only 2, but at least 3 possibilities (design, chance, brute fact, etc...)?

          • Peter

            First, I would not call life an accidental by-product since the evolution of the universe towards greater material complexity, culminating in ubiquitousness of life-building compounds, is in-built from its inception. Were organic compounds found only on earth, or even nearby in the solar system, then I'd agree with you that life is a freak accident.

            Second, the universe and its unique conditions would be an inexplicable brute fact only if the universe were eternal. This was the argument of Enlightenment philosophers and scientists. However, all the evidence we have points to the beginning at the big bang of an exquisitely fine-tuned universe and this requires an explanation.

          • Doug Shaver

            The values of the forces create a universe where life's building blocks are abundant and life can potentially flourish. In that respect they represent the bullseye. If they were any different would the universe be seeded with the potential for life?

            For all we know, it could be.

          • Bob

            You are now begging the question.

        • George

          "only in one
          direction, that of increasing complexity leading to the widespread
          creation of complex organic compounds, the building blocks of life."

          I think you're leaving heat death out of that model.

          • Peter

            Heat death would be in trillions of years time. How many trillions upon trillions of sentient civilisations would have lived in that time and, more important, what could they have evolved into?

          • George

            trillions of years from now doesn't change the fact that heat death is in the same direction, the future, as complex life. so it's increasing complexity (misleading to just say that, because you have to pay for all that complexity with even greater simplicity, waste heat, entropy etc) and then eventually less complexity. we're talking less and less energy to support life.

            you considered increasing complexity to be the one and only direction, which would be not telling the whole story.

          • Peter

            I'm not saying increasing complexity is the only direction, but that it is the only direction that matters. It has led to a universe seeded for life where in at least one place life has taken hold and achieved sentience.
            Since the laws are the same throughout the observable cosmos, there is no reason to conclude that such widespread seeding will not achieve sentience elsewhere and every reason to believe it will.
            What is significant is a universe evolving towards consciousness and self-awareness, even though in material terms that may represent a small fraction of matter.

          • Doug Shaver

            We know of only one sentient civilization that has ever lived, and it isn't done evolving yet.

        • Doug Shaver

          There's nothing random about stars forming and successive generations of stars producing increasingly complex elements resulting in the formation of organic molecules throughout space and the conditions in which they can attain further complexity.

          I agree that the processes were not random. I don't agree that absence of randomness implies presence of design.

          • Peter

            It implies design in two ways: first, our non-random universe denotes purpose since it is configured to achieve widespread consciousness and self-awareness and, second, there is evidence of only one universe which means that ours with its unique laws could not have been randomly selected from countless universes with different laws.

            The presence of purpose on the one hand, and the absence of chance on the other, all indicate design.

          • Doug Shaver

            first, our non-random universe denotes purpose since it is configured to achieve widespread consciousness and self-awareness

            You're assuming two conclusions here. The existence of consciousness and self-awareness has been confirmed only on the world we inhabit. It certainly could be widespread in the universe at large, but we don't know that it is. And, whether it is widespread or unique to a single locale, from the observation that a certain process had a certain outcome, it is invalid to infer any intention to achieve that outcome.

            second, there is evidence of only one universe which means that ours with its unique laws could not have been randomly selected from countless universes with different laws.

            We have an absence of evidence for any other universes. That is not the same as evidence for there being only one universe, unless you have an argument demonstrating that if there were any others, we would have gotten some evidence by now.

        • Doug Shaver

          The evolution of the universe from its inception is only in one direction, that of increasing complexity leading to the widespread creation of complex organic compounds, the building blocks of life.

          We don't know that they are widespread. The elements that comprise organic compounds do seem to be everywhere, and in the necessary relative abundances. Of the compounds themselves, we have found some simple ones in our vicinity of the universe. We have found complex organic compounds in just one place: our own world.

    • David Nickol

      I'm not sure what this has to do with Trent Horn's post, which is about prayer and the evidence, or lack of evidence, that prayers are answered.

      Do you believe that God answers prayers—that is, that in at least some cases, people make specific requests of God, and God grants those requests? Do sick people who are prayed for have a better chance of recovery than sick people who are not prayed for?

      • Peter

        If the post says that science can't find God but prayer can, I disagree. Science is a natural way of finding God through reason; prayer is a supernatural way of finding God through faith.

    • Your last paragraph says it all, your conclusion (or your "beginning to arrive at a notion") is arrived at by the absence of evidence supporting alternative models, not by hard observed evidence of a "god". You haven't even told us what you mean by a "god", why it need be non-material, how you have "ruled out" other models or why your notion does not suffer from the same problems as the alternative models, meaning it's origin is unexplained, it creates itself and our universe out of nothing. How it can effect "change" when there is no time.

      It is one thing to say that you don't know, but you do not have hard observed evidence of anything like a god.

  • I think tests like this are interesting. They looked for something. Trent is right that not seeing that something doesn't mean it doesn't exist. But it would have been nice if the studies had actually found something.

    Some people like to believe that prayer can have some effect in the real world. If it does have some effect in the real world, then that effect may be detectable. There might be some evidence for the power of prayer. People looked for evidence of the power of prayer in these studies, and found none. Maybe a future better study with (somehow) better controls will do better. It's hard to see how you could make sure a group of people isn't getting prayed for, especially if the people praying may already be dead. But maybe someday a better designed study will consistently measure a difference between the prayed-for group and the not-prayed-for group.

    Given the null results of these studies, I don't see any good reason to think prayer has any effect outside of the person praying and sometimes the people who know about the praying. This isn't evidence against God. Why should God concern herself much with our petitions anyway? If she did actually care about what we wanted, she might have done something about the holocaust (although maybe in that case more people on the other side were praying).

    The apparently gratuitous evil in the world is much stronger evidence of God's apathy toward us than a null result from a prayer study.

    • Rob VH

      Or... might these be a whole lot worse if God was apathetic toward us? Does a certain amount of suffering and trial have a purpose? Does it spur us to grow in positive ways?

  • Bob

    An answer would seem to require the potential to answer.

  • Brandy Miller

    The only true way to test for the existence of God is to observe for change in the praying individual. After all, since God is a being outside of our own existence, an encounter with Him should produce some change just as it would if we accidentally bumped into someone else. Since we posit that God is love, then repeated encounters with him - which is what prayer seeks - should produce measurable change in our capacity for the things that allow love to flourish such as forgiveness, generosity, peace, patience, gratitude, etc.

    • I think that this is an interesting direction to go, but it seems difficult to separate God-directed change from self-directed change in such a situation. How do I know that it isn't just me that's encouraging the positive changes?

      We could set up two groups of people, one group reads the prays to God regularly and the other either meditates or talks to themselves, and a third group practices no interior monologue or meditation practices. All three try to increase their patience. Some test of patience is set up, at the beginning and end of the experiment. We can see what happens at the end. I wonder if the people who pray will do better than the people who meditate, or what the results would be.

      Interesting way to approach the problem of observing the effects of prayer, Brandy.

      • Brandy Miller

        I can tell you how God increases our patience - by making us wait for things or have continuous, inescapable encounters with irritating people. I think the best way to test would be to ask participants to indicate their religious preference before the experiment begins. Each person in the experiment is given a journal, and asked to document every time they feel irritated or annoyed. Group 1 is told that after documenting irritation or annoyance, they are to recite a specific prayer and then document how they decide to handle it. Group 2 is told to spend 5 minutes meditating or being silent after documenting irritation or annoyance and then document how they decide to handle it after that 5 minute period. Group 3 is simply told to document the irritation or annoyance and then document how they decided to handle it. Group 3 is our control group. We look for 1) how often irritation is documented by each of the three groups; and 2) a change in the decisions made on how to handle the irritation to see which group improves the most. Ideally, they would be forced to spend time working with someone who is trained to be annoying - invading personal space, etc. - and who will be documenting specific things they did to annoy the participants and when they did it. That gives you a third way of measuring things, to see whether the irritation documentation coincides with the times when this person was specifically going out of their way to be annoying. As a fourth layer, have two outside observers documenting the interactions between the participants and the annoyer and do not reveal to the observers the true purpose of their observations. Match the journals of the participants with the journals of the observers as a way of documenting perception bias among participants. It gives us an outside verification of improvement in relations among the annoyer and the annoyed.

        • Sounds like an interesting study. I'll need to give it some more thought, but this sounds like a possible way to find out the effect of prayer vs. meditation (etc.) on patience.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Not putting this prayer experiment down, but just anticipating some of the precisions that would be necessary in the protocol:

            To begin with, meditation itself is a form of prayer ( http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p4s1c3a1.htm ), so one would need to get very specific about what sort of prayer we are talking about.

            Also, per CCC 2745: "Prayer and Christian life are inseparable". (As Mother Theresa like to recommend, we should "pray through our work".) This would make it not only difficult, but conceptually invalid, to isolate the effect of prayer from the associated works. In the context of this experiment, the praying subject might start knitting in order to calm himself down in the presence of the annoying experimenter. The effect of the knitting and the effect of the prayer could not be conceptually distinguished from a Catholic perspective.

          • Yes, I think those are important concerns about the study. But the study could still find out if there's a correlation between verbal Christian prayer (versus other forms of prayer, say) and the cultivation of patience.

            PREVIOUS COMMENT DELETED... disqus paired your comment with the wrong other comment, so I was confused about what you were talking about.

          • Jim (hillclimber)

            Agreed.

            I think the selection of the study population would also be key. I'm not 100% sure what Catholic theory predicts for those who would say the words without believing them, but I believe the official prediction would be: no effect. So, I think you would have to enroll a population of all believers. But then, if you did that, you'd have to get those believers in the control group to promise to not pray silently (unless you were merely interested in the effect of vocalization per se ).

    • Vicq Ruiz

      should produce measurable change ...... forgiveness, generosity, peace, patience, gratitude, etc.

      How would you propose to measure these changes??

      • Kevin Aldrich

        Usually in psychological studies of this sort, you use a survey and report what people self-report.

  • Doug Shaver

    So, no matter what happens when people pray, we cannot infer either that God exists or that he does not exist.

    I can live with that.

  • David Nickol

    Based on this article, would it be fair to say that there is no good reason to assume that those who are engaging in petitionary prayer are not wasting their time?

    • Bob

      If the activity itself makes the petitioners feel better I would argue that praying is then not a waste of time.

      • David Nickol

        Suppose they are praying for their favorite character in a soap opera. If that makes them feel better, is it then not a waste of time?

        • Bob

          If it actually makes them feel better then no, it is not a waste of time.

          Why might you think it would be?

          • David Nickol

            Why might you think it would be?

            I think it would be off topic to get into a discussion of what it means to waste time. The point is that if petitionary prayer doesn't "work," those who believe it does work are doing it in vain, no matter what side benefits they may receive from it. If your beloved grandmother is dying, and there's absolutely no way for you to help her, it may bring you comfort to pray for her. But if petitionary prayer doesn't "work," then all you are doing is making yourself feel better. You're not having any effect on your dying grandmother's health.

            Also, making yourself feel better is not always a worthy goal. For example, if the reason your grandmother is dying is that you were driving drunk and ran over her, and it makes you feel better to spend hours in church praying she won't die, perhaps you are feeling better when you ought not to.

            I am not sure that praying for someone else to make yourself feel better is truly praying.

          • Bob

            It seems to me that people spend quite a bit of time doing things to make themselves feel better. That said, are you sure you are not being a bit arbitrary with regards to this particular activity?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      I have never thought praying for other people is a waste of time. According to the natural virtue of religion, one of our duties as dependent creatures is to petition God for our needs and the needs of others. Jesus Christ also orders his followers to pray for others. Obeying according to both reason and faith is virtuous, and virtue is never a waste of time.

      • David Nickol

        Perhaps I misunderstood the premise of the post. It seems to me that Trent Horn is arguing that it is impossible to know whether petitionary prayer has any effect. On reading it a second time, I do note that his argument does include the possibility that it could be demonstrated that petitionary prayer might have either a negative effect (sick people who were prayed for tended to get worse) or a positive effect (sick people who were prayed for got better) but that wouldn't prove the existence of God.

        It seems to me that if it could be proven that (a) petitionary prayer is efficacious and (b) it is efficacious in a way consistent with an all-good, omnipotent God, it would indeed be a very powerful argument for the existence of God.

        Jesus said in Matthew 7:7-10

        Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks, finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. Which one of you would hand his son a stone when he asks for a loaf of bread, or a snake when he asks for a fish?

        Also, there's Matthew 21:21-22:

        “Amen, I say to you, if you have faith and do not waver, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,’ it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.

        And John 14:13-14:

        And whatever you ask in my name, I will do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything of me in my name, I will do it.

        You will search the Bible in vain for the following:

        God answers every prayer. Sometimes he just says no.

        I think no reasonable person, no matter how devout, would take literally the unequivocal guarantees given by Jesus that you will get what you pray for. But how are we supposed to read them? What are such obviously untrue statements doing in divinely inspired, inerrant scripture?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          > What are such obviously untrue statements doing in divinely inspired, inerrant scripture?

          Following your logic, David, I would say that if these statements were written by uninspired, erring men, those men would have removed or doctored these statements.

          Isn't it pretty obvious that these statements can be true yet not literal? What if you and I decided to have a contest in Jesus name to see who could throw a mountain the farthest into the sea? That would create quite a few problems. Or what if I prayed, "Lord, I ask in Jesus name that my bank robbery go well tonight." How about this: I pray that granny never, ever die."

          One sense in which Christ answers every prayer is that he gives the person who asks for it salvation and eternal life. THAT is actually the answer to every petition, because having God is having everything.

          • David Nickol

            Isn't it pretty obvious that these statements can be true yet not literal?

            You have dealt with the problem of why they cannot be taken literally, but you have not dealt with the problem of why statements that cannot be taken literally are stated so unequivocally as if they were true. (And it this is not just a matter of an isolated saying or two. Note this list, for example.) There may be very good answers to that question, but you haven't given any.

            In any case, even taking statements about asking for anything as justifiable hyperbole, there is still a huge gap between that and having so few petitionary prayers answered that their effect is virtually indiscernible.

          • Kevin Aldrich

            I thought I did give you a very good answer to the question of why Christ said he would give us anything we ask for. The answer is that he is offering to give us everything in heaven.

            Also, I think you have made an unjustified leap when you claim that so few petitionary prayers are answered. Based on what? Badly designed "scientific" studies?

  • Abe Rosenzweig

    "Petition the Lord with prayer!? You cannot petition the Lord with prayer!"

    • Jim Dailey

      Ha ha Jim Morrison!

  • I think Mr Horn is correct, we cannot use objective means to determine if intercessory prayer happens. Studies that have occurred and do not find any evidence that praying had an effect may very well be confounded by the possible reasons put forward. However, such factors may indeed be confounding all scientific research. God may have good reasons for making it look like water freezes at a certain temperature, but really there is no consistent result really. This is why science ignores supernatural factors.

    The question I then have is if objective enquiry brings us no closer to having a rational basis to believe intercessory prayer happens, why believe it?

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Brian, I think you are conflating the scientific method with all rational enquiry.

      Dun Scotus Erigena, a 9th century Irish thinker agrees with you that if we have no rational basis to believe intercessory prayer happens we should not believe it. Here is Pope Emeretus Benedict XVI commenting on Dun Scotus:

      >Our author says: "Salus nostra ex fide inchoat: our salvation begins with faith"; in other words we cannot speak of God starting with our own inventions but rather with what God says of himself in the Sacred Scriptures. Since, however, God tells only the truth, Scotus Erigena is convinced that the authority and reason can never contradict each other; he is convinced that true religion and true philosophy coincide. In this perspective he writes: "Any type of authority that is not confirmed by true reason must be considered weak.... Indeed there is no true authority other than that which coincides with the truth, discovered by virtue of reason, even should one be dealing with an authority recommended and handed down for the use of the successors of the holy Fathers" (I, PL 122, col. 513 BC). Consequently, he warns: "Let no authority intimidate you or distract you from what makes you understand the conviction obtained through correct rational contemplation. Indeed, the authentic authority never contradicts right reason, nor can the latter ever contradict a true authority. "The one and the other both come indisputably from the same source, which is divine wisdom" (I PL 122, col. 511 B). We see here a brave affirmation of the value of reason, founded on the certainty that the true authority is reasonable, because God is creative reason.

      • David Nickol

        if we have no rational basis to believe intercessory prayer happens we should not believe it

        Assuming I am not misunderstanding this, I gather your meaning is that there is a rational basis to believe that intercessory prayer is efficacious. I personally don't think the alleged fact that God (Jesus) told us to pray for our needs and assured such prayers would be answered constitutes a rational basis. So presumably you are implying that there is indeed evidence that prayer is efficacious. I most of us would agree that controlled experiments are probably not going to provide good information about the efficacy of prayer.

        But surely if prayer "works," there should be ways of finding evidence to prove that. You don't need to set up an experimental group and a control group. For example, I just read that college graduates who marry are ten percentage points less likely to divorce than those who have less education. It is not necessary to send people to college, or arrange experimental marriages of graduates and non-graduates, to see if there is a difference in divorce rates between the two groups.

        It seems to me it should be possible, in theory, to investigate the efficacy of prayer unless it "works" only a very small fraction of the time, in which case available methods might be too crude to detect it. Exactly where the threshold would be for its efficacy I can't say, but certainly is 25% of sincere prayer requests were answered positively, it seems to me that would be easily detectable.

        It is the case, after all, that the Vatican routinely uses answered prayers (usually prayers for miraculous cures) as the final criteria for beatification and canonization.

      • I know Catholics continually assert the value of reason. So what is the reasonable basis to conclude that praying has any effect on anything that actually happens?

        If we can't rely on comparing results of people who pray versus those who don't and so on, what do you have to go on? Tradition? A feeling?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          The purely natural rational basis of petitionary prayer would be the existence and benevolent nature of God and the natural duties we have toward him, one of which is asking him for what is needed.

          If you reach the point at which you believe that God has revealed himself it is rational to act according to the consequences of that revelation. One of these would be to pray for our needs, as in, "give us this day our daily bread."

          In neither case is it some kind of calculation based on what I will get if I do it.

  • GCBill

    In fact, it’s been said that God always answers our prayers—it’s just that sometimes the answer is “no.”

    This claim would have been sufficient to rebut the idea that prayer is testable, since any observation that prayer doesn't work is also compatible with it. It's also sufficient to render me uninterested in personal testimony to the efficacy of prayer, since my means of knowing God's mind in cases of "healing" are no better than in cases of illness and death.

  • GCBill

    When we plug in the atheist argument from prayer, we get the same problem:

    1. If God does not exist, then prayers made in scientific studies will not be answered.

    2. Prayers made in scientific studies are not answered, therefore God does not exist.

    God can still exist even if certain requests made in prayer are not answered.

    I don't think the argument is deductive, and so it's not a mere case of affirming the consequent. Here's how I'd put it:

    God → (miraculous healing OR ~miraculous healing) XOR no healing
    ~God → ~miraculous healing XOR no healing

    If there's an error, it's assuming P(no healing) is > in the God case than in the ~God one.

  • David Nickol

    Is God purposefully not healing these people (or even making them worse) . . .

    I remember a Peanuts cartoon in which Linus (as I recall) is kneeling by his bed with his hands palm to palm as if in prayer, but with fingers pointing downward instead of upward, and he is saying to Lucy, "If you have your fingers pointed downward, you get the opposite of what you pray for."

  • Gray Striker

    Very interesting news article.
    What god does to your brain:

    Newberg is director of research at the Jefferson Myrna Brind Centre of Integrative Medicine, in Philadelphia. He is a leading neurotheologist, pioneering a new and highly controversial science that investigates whether – as many sceptics have long suspected – God didn’t create us, but we created God.

    http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/06/26/what-god-does-to-your-brain-controversial-science-of-neurotheology-aims-to-find-out-why-people-have-faith/

    • Kevin Aldrich

      Great. Brandon can shut Strange Notions down now.

      • Gray Striker

        Brandon can do what he likes. Did you even read the news article?

        • Kevin Aldrich

          I read enough of it to know where it was going.

  • Jim (hillclimber)

    What if, in an effort to isolate the effect of "trying", we conducted an experiment in which one experimental arm was tethered to robots that forced them to make ham sandwiches at a normal human rate. In other words, these folks are forced to go through the motions, but without trying. People in the other arm are simply told to "try" to make ham sandwiches at a normal rate. Suppose we find no difference. One might argue that the effect of the physical motions can be completely disentangled from the effect of "trying", and that the experiment has demonstrated the effect of "trying per se" to be irrelevant. Does this mean that "trying" is a meaningless concept? Does it mean that "trying" is inefficacious?

    • Caravelle

      But the fact is that "trying" does relate to physical motions, and the fact you had to come up with such a preposterous experiment to disentangle them illustrates that. An experiment where we put one arm in a kitchen with no further instructions, and told the other arm to try and make the best sandwiches they could, would result in the second group making sandwich-making motions, resulting in tons of sandwiches, while the first group did those motions at a much lower rate if at all, resulting in few if any sandwiches. And your experiment that did disentangle "trying" from "doing" did so by adding an entity that can be said to do the "trying" for you (whether we consider the robot itself to be trying, or we look at its creators trying to make a sandwich-making-making robot).

      Like Solange I'm not sure what this analogy is supposed to show; what's the equivalent of the sandwich-making-making robots in the prayer study ? If we map the prayer study to your analogy it looks like the prayer group would be the "trying" group, which means the other group would need some additional factor that causes the effects of prayer to happen despite the lack of prayer.

  • I will ask this again, what is the rational basis that Catholics conclude that intercessory prayer is effective?

    If the question of whether the request is granted or not is irrelevant to the issue, you loose any objective basis to verify the claims made by the church and the bible on intercessory prayer.

    I think you would likely laugh at me if I told you that when I sacrifice to Apollo he always answers me. But when you ask how I know he answers I say, when I don't get it, it means the answer is "no", when I get it the answer is "yes".

    • Jim (hillclimber)

      It's a good question. I think very few people would argue that there is direct empirical support for the claim. I think you'd have to argue from "first principles". Something like: I know my thoughts can affect me, and I know that through God I am connected to all things, therefore what affects me when I am in God's presence should affect all things.

      Of course, not everyone accepts all of those "first principles".

      Also, FWIW, if you were living in ancient Greece, I wouldn't laugh at you if you told me that when you sacrifice to Apollo he always answers you. I would probably laugh at you now, but only because I would assume that you were joking.

      • I don't think what you describe is properly labelled "first principles". What you seem to be saying that you believe in God and you believe your prayers have some effect.

        And we can leave the question of whether it is reasonable to believe in God for other discussion.

        But I think we need to acknowledge that the way in which God answers prayers is indistinguishable from what we would expect to observe if no God existed to hear the prayers.

        • Jim (hillclimber)

          I think that is basically true, but I would say the same is true of all questions of intent.

          When we determine someone's intent in a murder case, we are looking for clues of something that is ultimately unobservable. Given me any set of evidence that points to an intent to kill, and I guarantee you I can come up with a hypothesis where the person had no intent whatsoever that matches the cold hard facts just as well (Twinkie defense, etc.). I don't think the Twinkie Defense is plausible, but that opinion of mine really has nothing to do with observable data. It has everything to do with the underlying conceptual framework that I use to evaluate the data.

          • Where intent is in question in a murder case we absolutely DO look for evidence that we expect to be there if they had intent, as opposed to what we would expect if there was no intent.

            For example if we can prove that a person bought a gun, told their friend I am going to murder Harvey, they then walk into an office and shoot Harvey dead we have a rational basis to conclude they had intent to kill Harvey. By contrast, if the accused is showing Harvey his new gun and says, "don't worry, it's not loaded" but then shoots him in the head, we may be rational in concluding there was no intent to murder, but negligence (a form of intent) to some lesser crime. What we certainly do NOT do, is the approach Trent suggests we take to the data on effectiveness of prayer. We don't throw up our hands and say, because we can never see into someone else's mind we can never make determinations on their intentions.

            What you are raising with the Twinkie defence is the defense of Not-Criminally Responsible (in my jurisdiction). This defence is made out if there is evidence that the accused cannot appreciate the consequences of his or her actions. In the case of Dan White, extensive psychiatric evidence was called and this convinced a jury that White did not posses the requisite mental state to form intent due to a mental disorder.

            These are not "hypotheses", in criminal court the prosecution must always adduce evidence of intention.

            But such methods are inapplicable to God's actions whether it is the creation of the universe, the problem of evil, or prayer, when atheists point out that this is not what we would expect, given the nature of the god claimed, we are met with the same excuse that God has his reasons, even though it looks utterly opposite to what we would expect and cannot think of good reasons for it to appear this way, theists remain confident that they are correct, because we have not shown that it is not impossible for it to be the way they claim.

            No it is not necessarily impossible, that doesn't mean it is, possible, plausible, probable, or true.

  • Caravelle

    But this is the fallacy of affirming the consequent, or:

    1. If A, then B.

    2. B. Therefore, A

    But "B. Therefore, A is more likely" is valid. That's the foundation of induction, formalized in Bayesian reasoning. In those terms, if evidence E is more likely under hypothesis H1 than hypothesis H2, then observing E increases the likelihood of H1 over H2, i.e. it's evidence in favor of H1 over H2. This doesn't mean it's proof; it doesn't even mean it's conclusive evidence; it might be that H1 had a very low prior probability and H2 a very high one, so E shifts things fractionally in favor of H1 but not enough to justify changing one's mind (i.e. the probability of H1 doesn't end up higher than the probability of H2).

    Logical statements such as "A therefore B. not B. Therefore not A." are basically Bayesian statements with all the probabilities set to 1 or 0.

    This kind of experiment can only evaluate the effectiveness of intercessory prayer; most of the reasons you've given (a woman in Nepal already prayed for all to be healed, etc) are also reasons why one given prayer might not be effective. All except the "God might purposefully not satisfy the prayers in an experiment" one, which is just petty.

    Many theists don't believe prayer is effective for changing the outside world; they consider it a way of communicating with God, of ascertaining His will, etc. To those people, or to someone who espoused the Divine Gaslighter concept of God, the likelihood of such an experiment yielding no effect would be the same as the likelihood if God didn't exist, i.e. the result of the experiment cannot distinguish between those hypotheses and isn't evidence either way.

    However if one does believe that a given prayer could affect the outside world, then the likelihood of this experiment having an effect is higher than it would be if prayer didn't affect the outside world at all. As slight as the difference may be, it's there by definition. This means that the outcome of the experiment does constitute evidence to distinguish between the two hypotheses (prayer has an effect on the world/prayer has no effect on the world). And when the outcome is negative, that is evidence in favor of the "prayer has no effect" hypothesis. You might argue it's weak evidence, but you can't argue it isn't evidence at all.

  • Today's tweet from Pastor Hagee suggests he has great confidence in prayer. How do you think he knows this?

    "@PastorJohnHagee: How much do you pray? Some prayer gives you some power. More prayer gives you more power. Much prayer gives you much power through Christ!"

  • Dhaniele

    I would like to put this discussion inanother context. If you put the words "Zeitoun Mary Halo" in theYahoo dot com search, the third entry speaks of an apparition of Mary on top of a Church that took place daily for two years and could be seen by all. At the end there is this police report that followed investigations for some sort of
    scientific explanation. It reads as follows: Report of General Information and
    Complaints Department, Cairo, Egypt, 1968: "Official investigations have
    been carried out with the result that it has been considered an undeniable fact
    that the Blessed Virgin Mary has been appearing on Zeitoun Church in a clear
    and bright luminous body seen by all present in front of the church, whether
    Christians or Moslems." How can atheists explain things like this? They
    can't, so they just deny or ignore them (making no effort to investigate
    themselves) in spite of scientific investigations to the contrary. So much for
    their claim to belief in science which obviously in no way disproves the
    existence of God or his miracles. Obviously, the same case could be made using
    the various miracles that are approved for canonizations. They are all well
    documented and are the answer to prayers. Atheists simply don’t want to know
    and so they don’t bother to investigate.

    • Michael Murray

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pareidolia

      http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2648309

      Some combination of these two seems plausible or deliberate fraud to rebuild the Church:

      http://www.zeitun-eg.org/stmary15.htm

      • Dhaniele

        I looked at your references. They do not explain the many accounts and the conclusions of the police. This event was very embarrassing to a government dealing with radical Islamists and they would have loved to find a convincing alternative explanation that discredited the Christians. The many Muslim witnesses were not blind and could not be fooled by a government whitewash. If it was fake, why didn't the government stop it? You, instead, seem to blindly assert there must be some other explanation than what the police concluded.

        • Michael Murray

          No I don't "blindly assert". If I was blindly asserting I wouldn't give you any suggested explanations at all but just make the assertion.