The Dubious Power of Prayer

By Maria Runde, March 17, 2013

Published in the La Crosse Tribune.

There are many kinds of prayers and many circumstances bringing them about. Selfishly, we may pray that our team wins, that we pass an exam, or that we win the lottery. Altruistically, we may pray for recovery of a friend’s illness or for world peace. However, is there any evidence that prayer actually brings about the changes for which we pray?

We have all seen various signs asking that we “Pray to End (fill in the blank).” Take a moment to analyze what it really implies. We have to assume God realizes that the activity is happening here on Earth. Isn’t it arrogant for us to tell Him to stop it? On the other hand, if God does not realize it is occurring, then He is not omniscient. If God knows it is happening, wants it stopped, yet does nothing because He demands more prayers from us, what does it say about our Creator? There is no scenario in which intercessory prayer makes sense. If God knows what is right, He doesn’t need us to tell Him what to do. If He doesn’t know what right, then why would we pray to Him? If He knows what is right, yet won’t do it unless we beg, isn’t that evil?

Intercessory prayer is that in which the one doing the praying is hoping to influence a particular situation. It is entirely plausible that prayer could affect the state of one’s own illness, but this may not be due to divine influence but rather due to the physical benefits of what is, essentially, meditation. Further, if a person knows that she is being prayed for, enhanced recovery could be the consequence of increased morale. After all, wouldn’t you fight all the harder if you knew others were in your corner? We need to examine this with a critical eye.

“God helps those who help themselves.” Shouldn’t a loving god help anyone who asks for it? Or better yet, wouldn’t He know when help is needed without being asked? How do I know what was God’s work or my own? Obviously, God doesn’t answer every prayer, or we would all be perpetually healthy and happy. We can assume there were innumerable prayers sent from Auschwitz, most of which went unanswered. Some people say that God answers all prayers, but that sometimes the answer is “No.” That seems indiscriminate and cruel. Of course, many of us can recall situations where our prayers seemed to have been answered. How can we separate random chance from actual Divine intervention?

A medical study published in the April 2006 American Heart Journal sought to investigate the power of prayer on the recovery of patients who had undergone coronary artery bypass surgery at six major medical centers. It involved 1800 patients, who were divided into three groups. Some patients did not receive prayers. The patients who received prayers were divided into two groups—those who knew they were getting prayers and those who didn’t know. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before the procedure. This was a rigorous, carefully monitored study that was designed to account for biases. The study concluded that intercessory prayer itself had no effect on recovery from cardiac bypass surgery, but those who knew they received intercessory prayer had a HIGHER incidence of complications than those who didn’t know they received prayers and those who got no prayers at all.

There is no doubt that the human mind has a powerful influence on its physical body. There are direct nerve connections between the brain and the adrenal glands. Hormones released due to mental stress clearly play a role in certain illnesses in the body. Other hormones released through states of calm can relieve certain physical illnesses. However, the idea that we can influence the well being of others through prayer is dubious at best and homicidal at worst. Some religions teach that blood transfusion or organ donation is unacceptable, and that one should simply pray for recovery. We need to reject that sort of thinking and accept what science has taught us.

I am not suggesting that prayer has no benefit. It undoubtedly provides inner peace for some. However, it is unlikely that any amount of praying will result in supernatural alteration of our world. In the interest of advancing our society, we need to realize that prayer cannot solve our problems, but the human mind can.

Maria Runde is a member of the La Crosse Area Freethought Society.

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