The Deity in the Data
What the latest prayer study tells us about God.By William Saletan
April 6, 2006
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.
7. God ignores third parties. Why should God do what a fax from one stranger tells another stranger to ask for on your behalf? The person God's going to listen to is you—and maybe you want relief or salvation more than life. As one author puts it, "What we have in mind for someone else may not be what they have in mind for themselves."
8. God takes His time. Maybe the study didn't follow patients long enough, the authors suggest: "The occurrence of any complication within 30 days of surgery may not be appropriate or relevant to the effects of intercessory prayer." When ordering from Heaven, allow at least one month for shipping.
9. God has a backlog. Patients' names were faxed to intercessors "starting the night before each patient's scheduled surgery," according to the protocol. Was that too late?
10. God ignores you if you don't pray hard enough. "Maybe the people weren't praying very hard," a monsignor tells the St. Petersburg Times.
12. God helps those who help themselves. "Many if not most of the wonderful hospitals in this country were built through the intercessory prayers of religious communities of various denominations," a member of the study team observed during the teleconference. "Theirs was the prayer of action instead of word." Deeds, not pleas, save lives.
13. God does not hear the prayer of a Christian. The protocol says prayers were delivered by members of a Benedictine monastery, a Carmelite community, and a Protestant prayer ministry. "We were unable to locate other Christian, Jewish, or non-Christian groups that could receive the daily prayer list required for this multiyear study," the authors explain. Oops! Maybe Jerry Falwell had it backward.
14. God chooses His own outcome measures. The study measured the effect of prayers on "postoperative complications defined by the Society of Thoracic Surgeons." But as the accompanying editorial notes, "many prayers for the sick contain the implicit objective of easing the passage of the spirit out of the body, an outcome which, by Society of Thoracic Surgeons definition, would be coded as death." If God doesn't pass your test, maybe you're using the wrong test.
15. God doesn't participate in studies. The authors say 1,493 people refused to participate in the study because they had other priorities or were "not interested in clinical research." Why should God, who has a lot more to do and nothing to learn from a study, react differently? "I don't see him cooperating in a test," opines a Baptist theologian.
16. God hates being told what to do. Several clerics argue that the kind of intercessory prayer used in the study is "manipulative … of divine action" and sinfully treats God "as our instrument." The editorial accompanying the study, noting that patients who were prayed for "had worse absolute rates of complications" than those who weren't, asks "whether it was the intercessory prayer per se that may be unsafe." Is the prayer study, like so much in the Bible, a sign of God's wrath? "Researchers must be vigilant in asking the question of whether a well-intentioned, loving, heartfelt healing prayer might inadvertently harm or kill vulnerable patients," the editorial concludes.
17. God is malevolent. Patients who received prayers were marginally more likely to develop complications (52.5 to 50.9 percent) and substantially more likely to develop major complications (18.0 to 13.4 percent) than patients who received none. You can't blame the major-complication gap on psychology, since both groups were told that they might or might not be prayed for. In the teleconference, one of the study's authors tried to explain the gap away—"We don't feel confident statistically that that difference is at the level of significance barely that it's actually perhaps real"—whatever that means. But another called it a "possible hotspot," and the editorial warns that in clinical research, "assumptions of Divine benevolence … could only be considered scientifically naïve," since "in the history of medicine there has never been a healing remedy that was actually effective without having potential side effects or toxicities."
Warning: The surgeon general may determine that prayer is hazardous to your health. That's what can happen when faith sets out to prove its power through science.William Saletan is Slate's national correspondent and author of
Bearing Right: How Conservatives Won the Abortion War.