The Deity in the Data
What the latest prayer study tells us about God.
Brother, have you heard the bad news?
It was supposed to be good news, like the kind in the Bible. After three years, $2.4 million, and 1.7 million prayers, the biggest and best study ever was supposed to show that the prayers of faraway strangers help patients recover after heart surgery. But things didn't go as ordained. Patients who knowingly received prayers developed more post-surgery complications than did patients who unknowingly received prayers—and patients who were prayed for did no better than patients who weren't prayed for. In fact, patients who received prayers without their knowledge ended up with more major complications than did patients who received no prayers at all.
If the data had turned out the other way, clerics would be trumpeting the power of prayer on every street corner. Instead, the study's authors and many media outlets are straining to brush off the results. The study "cannot address a large number of religious questions, such as whether God exists, whether God answers intercessory prayers, or whether prayers from one religious group work in the same way as prayers from other groups," the authors shrug.
Bull. If these findings involved any other kind of therapy, doctors would spin hypotheses about the underlying mechanisms and why the treatment failed or backfired. And that's exactly what theologians and scientists are doing as they try to explain away the data. They're implicitly sketching possibilities as to what sort of God could account for the results. Here's a list.
1. God doesn't exist. This is the simplest explanation, favored by atheists. You pray, but nobody's there, so nothing happens.
2. God doesn't intervene. This is the view of self-limiting-deity theorists and of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. God may be there, but He's not doing anything here.
3. God is highly selective. The positive effect of prayer on the study's participants "could be smaller than the 10% that our study was powered to detect," the authors suggest. Maybe God heeds prayers, but not enough of them to reach statistical significance.
4. God ignores form letters. According to the study's protocol, if you were assigned to pray for patients, the only information you got about them was a daily fax listing their first names and the initials of their surnames. A script told you to pray in each case "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications." This cookie-cutter approach may have "impacted the quality of the prayer," according to a scientific editorial that accompanies the study. Form letters don't impress Congress; why should they impress God?
5. God requires a personal reference. "Intercessory prayer makes much more sense in community, in family, [where] we're concerned about the well-being of one another," one of the study's authors argued in a teleconference on the findings. A congressman may care whether your lobbyist knows the congressman, but what God cares about is whether your intercessor knows you.
6. God is unmoved by the size of your lobbying team. The authors lament contamination from "background prayer" as though it were radiation. Patients "may have been exposed to a large amount of non-study prayer" from friends and family, they warn, possibly swamping "the effects of prayer provided by the intercessors." Evidently, the 1,000 prayers delivered on your behalf by strangers in this study added no discernible effect to the prayers God heard from people who knew you.
Will Saletan covers science, technology, and politics for Slate and says a lot of things that get him in trouble.
Photograph of hands folded in prayer on the Slate home page by Patrick Seeger/Deutsch Presse Agentur.