Friday, March 31, 2006

Like a prayer

The most rigorous and longest-running study of the power of prayer to date has just been published, according to the New York Times, and the results are earth-shattering: nothing happens.

Not so fast, says Bob Barth, the spiritual director of Silent Unity, the Missouri prayer ministry. "A person of faith would say that this study is interesting," he said, "but we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started."

Without staking out a personal position on what prayer can and cannot do (really! isn't it a question of whether there is or isn't an active God?), the problem with the scientific study of prayer isn't, as the NYT article says, "the unknown amount of prayer each person received from friends, families, and congregations around the world who pray daily for the sick and dying," but the human tendency to misunderstand probability -- to interpret infrequent but personally and socially signficant aberrations from the "norm" as signs of an active God. If I pray for someone with a one in ten chance of surviving a disease, and that person happens to survive, am I really seeing "prayer at work," or am I erroneously elevating to the status of divine intervention what is actually an "inevitability"? That is, if there are 100 people in the world suffering from a disease with 10% survivorship, aren't the odds good that around 10 people will survive, no matter what? It's a big world -- something unusual is bound to happen to someone. That's why someone always seems to win the lottery, no matter what the odds.

The one clear result from the study was that if you know you're being prayed for, you are more likely to suffer complications, "perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created." The researchers agreed that, if anything, "the role of awareness of prayer should be studied further."

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