Measuring God’s grace

I must admit that I find studies that attempt to find correlations between intercessory prayer and health outcomes a bit odd. The Study of the Efficacy of Intercessory Prayer, or STEP, is only the most recent study on intercessory prayer, and while others have already attempted to show some sort of correlation between intercessory prayer and distance healing, we have only mixed results so far.

STEP claimed to be the largest prayer study ever conducted, and it used a sample of 1,802 cardiac bypass patients from six hospitals to measure the effects of intercessory, or third-party, prayer. It seems to be more rigorous and seems to address issues that the other studies do not, but I want to interrogate the dissonance between the philosophy of science that underpins such studies and the theological/spiritual construct that underpins the practice of prayer.

Clinicians engage in scientific research in order to improve diagnosis and treatment. So I would like to play out the scenarios in which this research proves useful. The point of scientific investigation is that we just do not know what we will find. With all such studies there are three potential outcomes: positive correlation, no correlation, or inverse correlation. In other words, STEP might have shown that prayer assists health outcomes, prayer has no effect on outcomes or prayer worsens outcomes.

What is the motivation behind these studies?

Let us suppose that 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 coronary artery bypass grafting? What if the patient’s belief system is atheism, and they believe distance healing through the power of the mind to be wishful thinking and incompatible with current evidence? Would those of us who practice medicine still make the recommendation for this person to submit to intercessory prayer? Would we call a patient who refuses to have intercessory prayer non-adherent or non-compliant?

Clearly, there would be ethical problems to sort out if prayer has a positive correlation. Some patients will not want to enter into pre-modern practices like prayer, even if scientific evidence, which would still be weak, has shown some benefit.

Or suppose, as is true of all interventions, that prayer has really serious side-effects, or even that intercessory prayer is shown to have a correlation with worsening complications — people pray for you and you do worse. Would it then be incumbent upon doctors to advise patients not to pray? Would those whose faith is more important than life itself be considered reckless for praying? Would we try to stop parents from praying for their children because this could potentially be harmful to them, at least to some percentage of them? I can imagine Child Protective Services getting involved to take children away from parents who persisted in such pre-modern practices shown by science now to be harmful.

Or let us suppose that there is no correlation between intercessory prayer and complications, which is in fact what STEP found. What now? Do we give our patients who pray 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 far more serious and grave things than looking askance at a patient’s odd, magical thinking.

I cannot imagine that those of us who practice medicine would change our practices based on any one of the potential outcomes of these sorts of studies. So then what is the purpose in doing them?

Perhaps these studies are done because some think that medicine needs to be a little more human. Certainly an openness to the patient’s belief system — which often includes something like prayer — might help to keep the humanity in medicine. But then, if that is true, showing that prayer works — scientifically speaking — would go against the very impulse to humanize, for to say that prayer is important only if it “works” misses the point about the importance and coherence of patient belief systems to maintaining their dignity.

Or, perhaps these studies help to affirm the faith of those of us with religious faith — or to put it more palatably for those secularists who prefer to be spiritual and not religious — to those of us with spiritual longings or profound respect for the mystery of the world. Perhaps by showing that there is scientific evidence to what we have always believed, we feel vindicated before the judgment seat of reason or science. People of faith have often lived with a little embarrassment as faith is often claimed to be irrational, as if faith might need science to prove to us once and for all that we are not irrational — as if science is the arbiter of all truth and wisdom.

Or is it really just that doctors need one more tool in their toolboxes. Perhaps these studies really are about finding all potential things that might help or harm patients. But it is not as though doctors need another tool — prayer. Using prayer as an instrument reduces prayer to something it is not: a means to control the world. Certainly there are more effective tools than prayer, for if there had been a clear correlation between prayer and health outcomes, it would already be included in the toolbox.

Philosophy of science and the theological question

Motivation for studying intercessory prayer aside, there are still much deeper problems with attempts to study intercessory prayer. To understand this point, I shall have to engage in a little philosophical reflection on science, although doing so inevitably does injustice to the complexity of the philosophy of science.

The purpose of science is to say what is true across many instances. Science tries to say, this elephant is like that elephant, in order to say what is true in all elephants, or at least in a percentage of all elephants. In research into therapeutics, 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 instance, prayer.

But what is most interesting to me is the theological point that follows this philosophical point. What people of faith believe is that if prayer works and someone is healed, we are dealing with a unique event unlike all other events and thus, by definition, it cannot be reproduced. People of faith have never used prayer to efficiently control the world. Sure, people of faith have most certainly prayed for help in times of trouble and illness and death. But people of faith have always understood that if God acts, it is by divine motivation. It is the graciousness of the action of God.

Moreover, 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 some secularized and “scientized,” pale and pathetic remnant of it. To pull prayer out of its theological, religious and spiritual context is to pull something out that is not prayer. So just what is it that these scientists are studying? Whatever it is, it is not prayer as I understand it.

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