About Prayer

Prayer is the simply act of talking to God in our heads.  Most time spent in prayer isn’t spent reciting formal prayers like the Lord’s Prayer, but simply asking God for help in one area or another.  Many people reserve prayer only for important topics, such as the health of loved ones or world peace.  Mother Teresa represented the opposite extreme.  Her goal was to address every thought in her head at God so that the act of thinking or consciousness itself became an act of prayer.  As an idea, I must admit that I prefer the later view even though I have been unable to do it.  The importance of prayer, after all, isn’t what we say, but the fact that we keep our thoughts close to God. 

A Better Life from Prayer

Even skeptics have to agree that prayer works in one sense: those who pray have measurably “better” lives.  People who pray regularly have statistically advantage in every area we might consider important. They are healthier.  They live longer.  They are more financially successful.  They are stay married longer.  They are happier with their lives in general, and so on. This has been tested any number of times by a great many population studies and no one disputes the evidence.    Interestingly enough, through we get similar positive correlations with simply believing in God, these results are much more striking when we look at those who pray regularly. 

There are, of course, a number of explanations between the positive correlation between prayer and a happy life.  There is, after all, a placebo affect: people given sugar pills generally respond positively to the “treatment.”  In the area of health particularly, skeptics consider religion the ultimate placebo.  In other areas, skeptics naturally point out that people who are successful may simply pray more because they have more for which to be thankful.  In other words, prayer doesn’t cause success, but rather it is the result of it.  Others point to the practical long-term advantages of “morality.”  As we have mentioned before, most of what we describe as immoral behavior is simply much more risky than morale behavior.  Those who pray condition themselves mentally to behave in certain ways that produce a “good life” regardless of whether or not prayer works as actual communication with God.   As with the overall success of religious societies, the apparent success of prayer doesn’t prove that God exists.  

The “lifestyle” connection between faith and successful living was studied specifically at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical College of Virginia in Richmond in 1998.  The goal of this study of  1,902 twins was to filtered out differences in genetics and social background which could account for the relationship between success and religious practice.  They found that those halves of twins who were prayed tended to have less severe depression and a lower risk of addiction to cigarettes or alcohol than their less religious doubles.  They tended not to smoke or drink or not do either excessively. Their marriages were more stable and their formed a network that can catch and support people when they are ill. 

So, prayer certainly affects life style which can in turn determine our long-term happiness.   This doesn’t necessarily mean that prayer works as advertised, that is, as communication between ourselves and God.   After all, everyone who prays isn’t necessarily happier and healthier.   Many (perhaps most) prayers are not answered, at least in the affirmative.  

Scientific "Proof"

Strangely enough, however, a number of studies about the efficacy of prayer have produced results which are less ambiguous than most evidence about the divine.  Several are worth mentioning.

Between August of 1982 and May of 1983, 393 patients in the San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit participated in a double blind study to assess the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer. Patients were randomly selected by computer to either receive or not receive intercessory prayer. All participants in the study, including patients, doctors, and the conductor of the study himself remained blind throughout the study, To guard against biasing the study, the patients were not contacted again after it was decided which group would be prayed for, and which group would not. The patients who had received prayer as a part of the study were healthier than those who had not. The prayed for group had less need of having CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) performed and less need for the use of mechanical ventilators. They had a diminished necessity for diuretics and antibiotics, less occurrences of pulmonary edema, and fewer deaths.  

A similar study of cardiac patients conducted at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri headed by William Harris, Ph.D. was published in the October 25, 1999 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine.  Harris and team examined the health outcomes of nearly 1,000 newly admitted heart patients at St. Luke's. The patients, who all had serious cardiac conditions, were randomly assigned to two groups. Half received daily prayer for four weeks from five Christian volunteers. The other half received no prayer in conjunction with the study.  The participants were not told they were in a study. The people praying were given only the first names of their patients and never visited the hospital. They were instructed to pray for the patients daily "for a speedy recovery with no complications."  Harris concluded that the group receiving prayers fared 11 percent better than the group that didn't, a number good enough to qualify a drug as “effective” according to FDA guidelines.

This year, in the September edition Journal of Reproductive Medicine, a study involved 199 women undergoing in vitro fertilization at the Cha Hospital in Seoul, Korea. The women were randomly divided into two groups. Unbeknownst to the women or to their doctors, women in one of the groups were prayed for by Christian prayer groups in the United States, Canada and Australia. The groups began praying 5 days before the initial fertility treatments and continued for 3 weeks.  The research was funded entirely by the hospital and without any backing by any religious organization. The women who had been prayed for had a 50% pregnancy rate, compared with the 26% success rate for the women who had not been prayed for. For women between the ages of 30 to 39, the results were even more disparate, with 51% of those who were prayed for becoming pregnant, compared with 23% of the women in the other group.

I suspect that, over time, new studies will arise that contradicts the result of these and similar studies.  As I have said before, life seems to be designed to keep these issues ambiguous.  Dedicated skeptics, such as Dr. Gary Posner, will always obfuscate the matter even in the absence of contradictory studies.   They will attack existing studies as sloppy, grouping good solid, scientific studies like those above with the flaky studies conducted by “paranormal psychologists” in an effort to discredit the good with the bad.  They will point out that there is no way to quantify prayer.  In the above studies, people not involved directly in the study—friends, relative, and so on, could have been praying more for the “control” group that the prayed-for group.  Since there is not way to cut off outside prayer or measure it objectively, no study of prayer will ever satisfy a serious skeptic.   This is how it should always be.  Belief must always be a matter of choice.

 Personal Experience

Personally, it doesn’t matter to me very much “why” prayer works.  I believe that my conversations with God are real and, often, two-sided.   From a very practical point of view, I have had enough experiences where prayer clearly did work that I will always pray simply because it is clearly in my personal benefit to do so. 

Recently for example, I had an interesting experience.  I had just finished the radiation treatment to my throat and neck.  After six weeks of treatment, I was pretty weak and my throat, neck, and mouth were raw, covered with sores.   That afternoon, for some reason, perhaps a new medication I was given, I began throwing up.  It wasn’t long before I was spitting up blood from the sores in my throat opened by the stomach acid.  It was a new level of pain.  Once I finished throwing up, I didn’t want to start again.   Then, almost comically, I got the hiccups.  Each “hic” threatened a new round of retching.  It was terrifying.

Strangely enough, I have always prided myself on being able to control hiccups.  One of my many silly conceits has always been that, unlike most people, I can relax my diaphragm and stop hiccups almost instantly.  Of course, this hasn’t worked that well since my neck surgery.  Whether it was the operation or the pain medication, it now took me much longer to control hiccups. 

At that moment, I found it impossible.  I was not only trying to relax so I could control the hiccups, but after each “hic” as was trying to control my stomach so that I didn’t start vomiting again.  I didn’t have a chance at stopping them and, worse, I knew it.  Another conceit bites the dust.  So, instead of relying on my own ability, I said an Our Father, asking God to take away the hiccups.  From the moment I started paying, I didn’t “hic” again.  I didn’t start throwing up again, and, hopefully, the worst of all the cancer treatment was over. 

Of course, like all real-life intervention of God in our lives, there was nothing conclusive here.  I choose to believe that I was given a small, personal gift by a generous God and that I was given that gift because I asked for it. 

Why does God care about us asking for things?  God can see what we need or want without our asking.   Why is the asking important?  Again, I think that it has less to do with God’s nature than our own.  Often, we stand in the way of God or anyone helping us.  Like my hiccups, our own arrogance and delusions of self-sufficiency get in the way of our ability to receive help.  As with everything else, we have to make a choice.  God gave us the great gift of our lives, but along with that, he gave us the ability to choose.  If we don’t choose to ask, it makes it much more difficult for us to get help.