Measuring God’s Grace
I must admit that I find studies that try to find correlations between intercessory prayer and health outcomes a bit strange. The Study of the Efficacy of Intercessory Prayer, or STEP, is only the most recent study on intercessory prayer, and while others have already tried to show some kind of correlation between intercessory prayer and distant healing, until now we only have mixed results.
STEP claimed to be the largest prayer study ever conducted, using a sample of 1,802 heart bypass patients from six hospitals to measure the effects of intercessory or third-party prayer. It appears to be more rigorous and seems to address issues that the other studies do not address, but I want to question the dissonance between the philosophy of science that underpins such studies and the theological/spiritual construct that underpins the practice of prayer.
Physicians participate in scientific research to improve diagnosis and treatment. So I would like to represent the scenarios in which this research is useful. The point of scientific research is that we just don’t know what we’re going to find. With all of these studies there are three possible outcomes: positive correlation, no correlation, or inverse correlation. In other words, STEP could have shown that prayer helps health outcomes, prayer has no effect on health outcomes, or prayer worsens health outcomes.
What is the motivation behind these studies?
Suppose STEP had shown that intercessory prayer has a positive correlation: those for whom prayer is offered have fewer complications, statistically speaking. Would we then be in a position to offer prayer to a patient who is about to undergo a coronary artery bypass graft? What if the patient’s belief system is atheism, and he believes that distant healing through the power of the mind is wishful thinking and incompatible with current evidence? Those of us who practice medicine, would we still recommend that this person submit to intercessory prayer? Would we call a patient who refuses intercessory prayer non-adherent or non-compliant?
Clearly, there would be ethical issues to resolve if the sentence is positively correlated. Some patients will not want to engage in pre-modern practices such as prayer, even if scientific evidence, which would still be weak, has shown some benefit.
Or suppose, as with all interventions, that prayer has really serious side effects, or even that intercessory prayer proves to be correlated with worsening complications: people pray for you and make it worse. Would it then be the responsibility of doctors to advise patients not to pray? Would those whose faith is more important than life itself be considered unwise for praying? Will we try to prevent parents from praying for their children because this could be harmful to them, at least to a percentage of them? I can imagine Child Protective Services getting involved in taking children away from parents who persisted in such pre-modern practices that science now proves to be harmful.
Or suppose there is no correlation between intercessory prayer and complications, which is in fact what STEP found. Now what? Do we give our praying patients that knowing smile that says, “Well, at least it won’t hurt you if you pray?” Of course, doctors would never do such a thing. But armed with scientific knowledge, doctors have done much more serious and serious things than look askance at the strange and magical thinking of a patient.
I cannot imagine that those of us who practice medicine would change our practices based on any of the possible results of these types of studies. So what is the purpose of making them?
Perhaps these studies are being done because some think that medicine needs to be a little more humane. Certainly an openness to the patient’s belief system, which often includes something like prayer, could help keep humanity in medicine. But then, if that’s true, showing that prayer works—scientifically speaking—would go against the very urge to humanize, because to say that prayer is important only if it “works” misses the point about patient importance and consistency. belief systems to maintain his dignity.
Or, perhaps these studies help affirm the faith of those of us with religious faith, or to put it more pleasantly for those secularists who prefer to be spiritual rather than religious, for those of us with spiritual yearnings or deep respect for the mystery of the world. . Perhaps by showing that there is scientific evidence for what we have always believed, we feel vindicated before the court of reason or science. People of faith have often lived with a bit of shame, as faith is often claimed to be irrational, as if faith needs science to prove to us once and for all that we are not irrational, as if science be the arbiter of all truth and wisdom.
Or is it really just that doctors need one more tool in their toolboxes? Perhaps these studies are really trying to find all the potential things that could help or harm patients. But it’s not that doctors need another tool: prayer. Using prayer as a tool reduces prayer to something it is not: a means to control the world. Certainly, there are more effective tools than prayer, because if there was a clear correlation between prayer and health outcomes, it would already be in the toolbox.
Philosophy of science and theological question
Motivation to study intercessory prayer aside, there are still much deeper problems with attempts to study intercessory prayer. To understand this point, I will have to engage in a little philosophical reflection on science, although doing so inevitably does an injustice to the complexity of the philosophy of science.
The purpose of science is to say what is true across many cases. Science tries to say, this elephant is like that elephant, to say what is true of all elephants, or at least a percentage of all elephants. In therapeutics research, the scientist attempts to hold a myriad of variables constant in order to control for some intervention, be it a pill, a surgical intervention, or, in this case, prayer.
But what interests me most is the theological point that follows this philosophical point. What people of faith believe is that if prayer works and someone is healed, this is a unique event unlike all other events and therefore, by definition, cannot be reproduced. People of faith have never used prayer to efficiently control the world. Sure, people of faith have certainly prayed for help in times of trouble, illness, and death. But people of faith have always understood that if God acts, it is by divine motivation. It is the grace of God’s action.
Furthermore, to say that these studies on intercessory prayer have nothing to do with God, as STEP claims, means that they are not studying prayer at all, but rather a pale and pathetic secularized and “scientific” remnant. To remove prayer from its theological, religious, and spiritual context is to remove something that is not prayer. So what are these scientists studying? Whatever it is, it is not prayer as I understand it.