Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Daniel Dennett - A Bad Reason to Reject Intercessory Prayer

Maumee Bay State Park, Ohio
When atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett faced life-or-death surgery some of his Christian friends (yes, Dennett has such) were praying for him. Of course Dennett feels praying is a waste of time, but the fact that these friends were "thinking of him" proved to be "a wonderful tonic." (Daniel Dennett, "Thank Goodness," in Louise Antony, ed., Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life, 116)

Obviously, on atheism prayer doesn't work since prayer has no Listener. Dennett writes: "We now have quite solid grounds (e.g., the recently released Benson study at Harvard) for believing that intercessory prayer simply doesn't work." (Ib.)

What about the Benson study? It's one of a number of studies on the efficacy of intercessory prayer. In 1988 Dr. Randolph Byrd published "Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population" (Southern Journal of Medicine). Of this study Indiana University professor Candy Brown writes:

"It was a prospective, randomized, double-blinded, controlled study-the gold standard of rigorous scientific research-that enrolled 400 subjects and found positive effects from distant intercessory prayer "to the Judeo-Christian God." Protestant and Catholic "born-again" Christians were given the patient's first name, condition, and diagnosis. Intercessors were instructed to pray "for a rapid recovery and for prevention of complications and death." Patients in the prayer group had less congestive heart failure, fewer cardiac arrests, fewer episodes of pneumonia, were less often intubated and ventilated, and needed less diuretic and antibiotic therapy." (Candy Gunther Brown, "How Should Prayer Be Studied?")

In 1989 Dr. William Harris published, in the Archives of Internal Medicine, "A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit." This was:

"a prospective, randomized, double-blind, parallel group controlled trial of the effects of intercessory prayer on 990 coronary patients. The group that received prayer from intercessors who believed in a "personal God who hears and answers prayers made on behalf of the sick" had better outcomes than the control group." (Brown, op. cit.)

And Candy Gunther Brown has more recently published Testing Prayer: Science and Healing (2012) and "Study of the therapeutic effects of proximal intercessory prayer (STEPP) on auditory and visual impairments in rural Mozambique" (Southern Journal of Medicine, Oct. 2010). 

The Benson study (Dr. Herbert Benson) was published in the American Heart Journal in 2006 ("Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer: Study Design and Research Methods"). Candy Brown writes:

"Similar to Byrd and Harris, Benson led a prospective, randomized controlled trial that enrolled 1,800 coronary patients. Intercessors were given the first name and first initial of the last name of each subject and told to pray "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications."
The New York Times(link is external) picked up on Benson's conclusion: patients who received intercessory prayer fared no better than those who did not. And those who knew they were the recipients of prayer actually did worse—presumably because of anxiety that their condition seemed bad enough to warrant prayer."
OK. But...   

"What the New York Times did not advertise is that many of the intercessors enrolled by Benson may not have qualified for inclusion in either Byrd's or Harris's study. This is because the only Protestant intercessors enrolled belonged to Silent Unity of Lee's Summit, Missouri. Unity is a New Thought group, a New Religious Movement that traces its origins to the late nineteenth century. Unity leaders have long denied that prayer works "miracles," and have even called petitionary prayer "useless." Rather than understanding prayer as supplication to a personal deity outside the self, many Unity practitioners envision prayer as affirmative thoughts and words." (Brown, op. cit.) 

The Benson study, therefore, is an example of how study methods may predetermine results. Unity "pray-ers" adhere to "a very different idea of prayer than that held by many other Christians—such as the Pentecostal and Charismatic groups that are experiencing wildfire global growth because of their expectant prayers for healing and dramatic claims of answered prayers. Consequently, Benson's results do not say anything about whether or not the prayer methods used by Protestant "born-again" or pentecostal Christians are effective." (Ib.)

Brown says there is an additional problem with the Benson study:

"Most researchers—like Byrd, Harris, and Benson—focus on distant intercessory prayer. Intercessors are given the first name and condition of someone they do not know and told to pray for a complication-free recovery. Researchers base conclusions on the efficacy of prayer solely on whether subjects in the experimental group exhibit better health than those in the control group.
But when people actually pray for healing, they often get up close to someone they know, touch the person, and empathize with their sufferings—what I call proximal intercessory prayer, or PIP. Double-blinded, controlled trials are not the only—or even the best—way to gauge the effects of this kind of prayer practice." (Op. cit.  For more see Brown's Testing Prayer.) 
So, Daniel Dennett's "solid grounds" for believing "intercessory prayer doesn't work" appear to be shifting sands. Thanks to the Internet we can always find "reasons" in support of whatever position we hold. In the meantime I have decided to continue, today, my 45-year experiment in intercessory praying.