Sunday, April 02, 2006

Freethinker Sunday Sermonette: Pray, not again

Sunday is the time many pray for the well-being of loved ones and family members. If it brings comfort, it's probably no worse than any other kind of magical thinking used to deal with anxiety and fear. But if we are praying for a stranger, e.g., someone we don't know but our President suggests we all pray for X and his family, the data show you aren't going to do them any good. In fact the data show they do worse with our "help." But that's only if they know strangers are praying for them. What they don't know won't hurt them. Or help them.

That's what the results of yet another randomized controlled study of therapeutic praying seem to say, this one published in the American Heart Journal. The question was whether "intercessory prayer" by strangers works:
A study of more than 1,800 patients who underwent heart bypass surgery has failed to show that prayers specially organized for their recovery had any impact, researchers said Thursday.

In fact, the study found some of the patients who knew they were being prayed for did worse than others who were only told they might be prayed for -- though researchers who conducted the study said they could not explain why.

The patients in the study at six U.S. hospitals included 604 who were prayed for after being told they may or may not be; another 597 patients who were not prayed for after being told they might or might not be; and 601 who were prayed for and told they would be the subject of prayer.

The praying was done by members of three Christian groups in monasteries and elsewhere -- two Catholic and one Protestant -- who were given written prayers and the first name and initial of the last name of the prayer subjects. The prayers started on the eve of or day of surgery and lasted for two weeks.
Among those who were prayed for but only told they might be -- 52 percent had post-surgical complications compared with 51 percent in the patients who were not prayed for but told they might be. In the subject who knew they were being prayed for, 59 percent had complications.

After 30 days, however, the death rates and incidence of major complications were about the same in all three groups, according to the study published in the American Heart Journal. (Reuters)
My question is, why are we spending time, money and journal ink on this? Yes, I know some other studies purported to show an effect. If a study purported to show that Republicans were from Pluto, would we waste time debunking it? We already know they're from Kansas.

What makes me want to scream is the way this is taken seriously in a legitimate scientific journal. We even get a statement of caveats:
The patients in the study had similar religious profiles with most believing in spiritual healing and almost all also thinking that friends or relatives would be praying for them as well, he said.

"One caveat is that with so many individuals receiving prayer from friends and family, as well as personal prayer, it may be impossible to disentangle the effects of study prayer from background prayer," Manoj Jain of Baptist Memorial Hospital, Memphis, Tennessee, another author of the report.
Background prayer? Is that like background asbestos exposure? Am I, at this very moment, being bathed in a field of background prayer? Explains my headache, I guess.

This study isn't going to change anyone's mind, heart or other vital organ. If you want evidence that intercessory prayer to a benevolent God doesn't work, look around you. You think plenty of prayer hasn't been launched into hyperspace by the victims of genocide, poverty, disease, war and all the rest over the millenia? Has it worked? Of course, this evidence is subject to the objection that maybe the God(s) being petitioned isn't (aren't) benevolent. That would make praying to him/her/it/them essentially the same as devil worship: trying to propitiate a suprnatural force to avoid being harmed.

That will be the next study, no doubt.