According to The New York Times (3/31/2006), the world of prayer science is all in a dither. A new study has apparently demonstrated that "prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery." The study was a big, expensive deal: ten years of work at a cost of $2.4 million (contributed by the ever-zealous Templeton Foundation, a powerful supporter of prayer research). The details are utterly and weirdly fascinating. "Researchers monitored 1802 patients at six hospitals who received coronary bypass surgery. The patients were broken into three groups. Two were prayed for; the third was not. Half of the patients who received the prayers were told that they were being prayed for; half were told that they might or might not receive prayers. The researchers asked the members of three congregations -- St. Paul's Monastery in St. Paul; the Community of Teresian Carmelites in Worcester, Mass.; and Silent Unity, a Missouri prayer ministry near Kansas City -- to deliver the prayers, using the patients' first names and the first initials of their last names. The congregations were told that they could pray in their own way, but they were instructed to include the phrase "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.'" The shocking result: "researchers found no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not." Prayer, it would appear (or intercessory prayer as this variety is called), does not change things.
I admire the dedicated men and women of science who put heart and soul into this project, but with all due respect, I must question both their conclusions and their protocols. For starters, the inference that prayer doesn't work is far too broad. Inasmuch as the scientists engaged only Christians to pray, all that they proved was that Christian prayer doesn't work. It's marvelously ethnocentric to suggest that just because Christians tanked, other religions could not succeed. It was Bailey Smith, the President of the Southern Baptist Convention, who authoritatively proclaimed that "God does not hear the prayer of a Jew." And yet, in a stunning theological upset, the scientific evidence now proves that God Almighty does not hear the prayers of Christians. But such a conclusion is itself far too hyperbolic. In actual fact, all that the study established is that God did not hear the prayers of three particular groups of prayer-providers. It's certainly a black mark against the Teresian Carmelites and their friends, and it will be a cold day in hell before they see another Templeton prayer contract, but there's nothing to say that Southern Baptists, even Bailey Smith himself, with his private line to the Almighty, might not have had more sway with the Great Jehovah.
If the researchers had not been so blindly and thoughtlessly ethnocentric, they might have solicited the prayers of people of various faiths, especially those praying to different gods. Or even better: they might have assembled disparate groups of prayer providers. In one set, for example, there would be a Catholic, a Jehovah's Witness, and a Hindu; in another, a Muslim, a Wiccan, and a Methodist; in a third, a Scientologist, a Baptist, and a Muggletonian. Although the number of possible permutations is intimidating, the cause is noble: to determine impartially which of these groups can best cut the prayer mustard. It's wrong to put the entire burden on Christians. Scientists need to mix and match the various religions so that they can discover the most effective synergistic combination, or as it might better be called, the appropriate prayer cocktail.
In addition, the study is guilty of flagrant mishandling of dosage. There was simply no control over the amount of prayer that was administered. Just as traditional medicines come in cubic centimeters, prayer comes in units of time. Let's say that one person praying for one minute yields one prayer unit. Pending further study, there's no way to establish exactly how many prayer units a heart patient might need. For a bypass, fifty prayer units might be a minimum dosage, but perhaps twice or three times as many units might be necessary to alleviate the symptoms a hallucinator of witches, extraterrestrials, or other supernatural beings. It's entirely possible that the prayers in this study failed simply because they didn't meet a minimum prayer-unit threshold. Moreover, it's important not to over-prescribe. For all we know, excessive prayer might precipitate iatrogenic illnesses. And it's also a question of efficiency: once an optimum dosage can be established, prayer providers can go about their business and not waste their time generating superfluous and expensive prayer units.
Moreover, prayer scientists seem to have given no serious consideration to the group power of prayer providers. Given the present abysmal state of prayer science, it's still unknown whether prayers are more effective when delivered by just one or a very few providers, or in large choruses. Jews seem to think that a minyan, or quorum, is ten, but hard science has not confirmed this number. It's therefore imperative to experiment with different size groups in order to establish a proper medical-minyan. This is not easy, or inexpensive, but it's essential. It would indeed be unfortunate if it turns out that a thousand prayer providers are necessary to improve the condition of just one bypass patient, but good golly, the Ancient of Days works in mysterious ways, and it's not for us to question His prayer needs.
There are some other areas in which more scientific rigor is required. A) different diseases: just because prayer didn't work for bypasses doesn't mean it won't work for scrofula. Perhaps some diseases are more prayer-responsive than others. B) fervor: prayer science has made the naive error of assuming that all prayer providers are equal. Yet the unalterable laws of random distribution determine that some people will pray more effectively than others. In point of fact, it's entirely likely that some prayer providers will be more effective with one disease than another. If I were a patient, I'd be mighty bent out of shape (and might even seek legal recourse) if I were assigned a prayer provider who had a proven track record with ulcers but who amounted to zilch for my hip replacement. C) identification: prayer providers were given only the first name and initial of their prayee. But "Bob S." is entirely too vague-- there might be hundreds of "Bob S"'s all over the world undergoing bypass surgery at any given time. How the blue blazes is the Lord of Hosts supposed to know which particular "Bob S" is meant? Fortunately, there's an easy solution to this problem. Prayer providers should continue to pray for Bob S., but just remember to add the last four digits of his social security or major credit card number.
I'm not the only person disappointed with this study. According to the Times, "Bob Barth, the spiritual director of Silent Unity, the Missouri prayer ministry, said the findings would not affect the ministry's mission. 'A person of faith would say that this study is interesting,' Mr Barth 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.'" Bob B's assertion that "prayer works" is anecdotal thinking and has absolutely no merit whatsoever, but I can't imagine a single person who wouldn't agree with him that prayer science is "just getting started"-- and also that it has a long bumpy road to travel. Fortunately, the Bush administration invested over $2 million of our tax revenues in prayer research, with more in the pipeline, so some revolutionary breakthroughs in the spiritual sciences soon might be achieved. We'll be waiting.