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About Intercessory Prayer: A Proposal... Maybe

Gil Gaudia

In March of 2005, my article "Searching in the Darkness: About Prayer and Medical Cures" was published as a commentary in Medscape General Medicine.[1] I was motivated to write it after seeing that there were fifteen articles listed in Medscape on the subject of "intercessory prayer," and I found it hard to believe that so many researchers would spend their time on such an endeavor. Many of these studies were aimed at investigating the possibility that prayer could influence the outcome of a variety of medical conditions ranging from infertility to cardiac surgery. This occurred shortly after the exposure of "the Columbia University prayer fiasco"[2] and I believed that, in its aftermath, we would begin to see a diminution of interest in this allegedly scientific area of research. Yesterday, I put the word "prayer" into Medscape's search engine, and to my astonishment, it provided me with a list of 136 articles.

In disbelief, I went to Google, and entered the search words, "intercessory," "prayer," "cure," and "medicine," and it yielded 206,000 "hits"--an avalanche of articles that are now apparently available about this current preoccupation of American medicine.[3]

Let me emphatically state that I do not criticize anyone for praying for themselves or anyone else if they choose to. Nor do I deny that there may be benefits to some individuals that stem from prayer and similar practices such as meditation or relaxation. Along with placebo effects, the alleged benefits may be the result of feelings of well-being, optimism and confidence, that result from praying. I agree, all of this may exist. I hasten to point out, though, that some studies indicate that there may also be certain disadvantages that accrue from similar psychological and physiological mechanisms.[4]

But the interaction of psychology and physiology is not the reason why I am writing about this issue. The real point is what most people mean when they say, "I'll pray for you." The meaning implies a request for intercession from a "higher power." What these references to prayer mean, is that the wishes of the supplicants will be heard by some agent and--if the agent is convinced to act--the course of events will be changed for the better, in accordance with the prayer.

Here's the incredible irony of all of the previous "experiments." Every one of them has been seeking evidence of a most trivial kind (that could even be mistaken for a placebo effect, or a statistical artifact) from an alleged power of the most unimaginable magnitude. Power which presumably was the source of the incredible creation of hundreds of billions of galaxies, which are composed of hundreds of trillions of stars, dotted with singularities and "black holes" possessing immense gravity and crushing annihilatory densities; all of which are dancing with exquisite accuracy in spectacular elliptical orbits over a span of fourteen billion light years; power that has designed astonishingly complex molecular systems, composed of amazingly intricate atomic foundations, all operating according to the mechanics of gravity and other little-understood forces which bind atomic nuclei together while swarms of electrons maintain their balance around their stupendously dense centers in microscopic imitation of the grander galaxies; power which orchestrated the rules of light propagation and spectrums of colors all arranged in fantastically diverse, visible as well as invisible, wavelengths and patterns.

Meanwhile, they seek evidence of this breathtaking immensity by searching for a measurable difference between the arterial blood flow of a few cardiovascular patients who were prayed for and a few other unfortunates who were not, a difference in blood pressure between one group of hypertensives who were prayed for and another who were not. It is as if one were asking a composer with a quadrillion times the musical capacity and comprehension of a Ludwig Von Beethoven to demonstrate his musicianship by writing out the notes to "Mary had a Little Lamb."

It is disheartening to see the number of supposedly educated and intelligent professionals who are involved in the futile process of attempting to investigate that which cannot be part of the physical universe, and hence, not open to scientific examination. As I quoted him in my earlier article Desiderius Erasmus described these people as "looking in utter darkness for that which has no existence whatsoever."[5]

Leading the field in these studies is Duke University which has a long history of interest in arcane practices, going back to the work of J. B. Rhine as early as 1927. Rhine was interested in mediums, the afterlife, telepathy and clairvoyance and as the originator of the terms "extra sensory perception" (ESP) and "psychokinesis" (PK), he provided "legitimacy" and material for prestidigitators, psychics and entertainers like Uri Geller (of spoon-bending fame), while maintaining that he was advancing a new field of science he called "parapsychology."[6]

The issue is about prayer to a deity or his representative--beings that do not exist within the known physical universe, a qualification acknowledged even by educated believers, which should include medical researchers. What has to be understood is that those who believe in God and the power of prayer, are speaking of concepts that are not material and therefore not part of the real world. Yet they want to connect these phantasms with the scientifically demonstrated forces and structures of the physical world, and moreover, have their influences measured in experiments.

If they were speaking of magic or sorcery, they would, and probably do, agree that these ideas are ridiculous and consist of superstition at best. In only one area, the field of Judeo-Christian theology, are the very same phantasms accorded the status of legitimate entity, and amenable to scientific scrutiny. Why? Why are Judeo-Christian ideas--superstitions by any accepted taxonomy of logic--allowed to maintain a grip on, not only political, social and economic values in our society, but on scientific ones as well?

The Proposal

I have an idea about how to put this question to rest and settle things in a rational and truly scientific manner, one that would yield clear-cut results. Critics who claim that skeptical scientists are biased against religion will now have an easy solution at their disposal, and that will be in the form of a definitive experiment. I propose an experiment on intercessory prayer, the results of which will leave no doubt about God's ability to heal the sick or the infirm. I got the idea after being inspired by the whydoesgodhateamputees.com website. The experiment is simple, and it could provide us with the definitive proof of the power of prayer--and a lot else that has to do with religion.

This is how it could be done. All that would be required is the recruitment of thousands of amputees as subjects (who undoubtedly would love to regain their lost limbs) and millions of believers who will earnestly pray over them, who--given the current American obsession with religion--should not be hard to locate. The investigators could employ as many universities and people as possible--all the willing believers in the country if necessary--to pray every day for a year that at least one amputee would have a limb regrown, and then, at the end of that year, examine all the thousands of amputees for signs of regenerated limbs.

If those who believe in the efficacy of prayer were to pray that at least one amputee in the sample group would regenerate a new limb, and if this were to occur, it could offer incontrovertible proof of the power of intercessory prayer.

Any amputee to be included in the experimental group would be examined beforehand by a panel of physicians to ascertain that he or she is indeed an amputee. DNA samples would be taken before and after from the subjects to ascertain that the amputee identified at the beginning would indeed be the person who was examined a year later. There would be no limit placed on the sample size. No need for randomization, t-tests, analyses of variance, factor analyses, significance levels or confidence intervals. The subjects would present themselves at the end of the year and be examined to see if a single missing limb had been regenerated. Any priest, minister, rabbi or lay person would be permitted to recommend subjects for the experiment, and any could observe the examination for the regenerated limbs. There should be no limitation on the number of amputees, people who pray for them, and observers to keep everything on the up and up. When a single limb has thus been observed to have been regenerated, then we will have seen unequivocal evidence for the power of prayer.

How petty and insulting to whatever deity these investigators claim to be investigating when the most they can ask of that which has created biological systems from algae to sequoia giganticus and amoebas to human brains: "Let me see if you can fertilize this ovum in a Petri dish with one of your hands tied behind your back."

Let's see a real test put before the immovable object; the irresistible force; the ultimate omniscience, the omnipotent, omnipresent supremacy of all that the believers in a supernatural being endow that Master Architect with. The creator of the entire universe would have no problem recreating a limb.

And Now About The "Maybe"

Oops! Forgot about David Hume![7] The warning issued by the great Scottish philosopher goes like this: "No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be even more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish...." Hume concludes his point by saying:

When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, [or a limb regenerated?] I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.

You have my apologies, Mr. Hume, maybe a limb won't do after all.

References

[1] Gaudia, Gil. "Searching in the Darkness: About Prayer and Medical Cures." Medscape General Medicine. Commentaries. March 2, 2005.

[2] Cha KY, Wirth DP, Lobo RA. "Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer?" J Reprod Med. 2001;46:781-787.

[3] Lundberg G.D. "Evidence-based medicine or faith-based medicine?" Medscape General Medicine. 2004;6(4). Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/494069.

[4] Benson, J. Dusek, J. Sherwood, P. Lam, C. Bethea, W. Carpenter, S. Levitsky, P. Hill, D. Clem, Jr., M. Jain. "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer." American Heart Journal, April 2006, Vol. 151, Issue 4, Pages 934-942.

[5] Stenger V.J. "Has science found God?" Free Inquiry. 2001, Vol. 19, Number 1. Available at: http://www.secularhumanism.org/index.php?section=library&page=stenger_19_1.

[6] Gardner, Martin "The Obligation to Disclose Fraud," Skeptical Inquirer, 1988, Vol. XII, No. 3.

[7] Selby L. From David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Bigge, ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1902 pp. 114-16.




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Published:
  2007-03-31

Categories:
  Skepticism, Science and Religion

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