“No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish …”
– David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding
People who are suffering from illness are entitled to try any means to alleviate that suffering whether it be medical treatment, herbal medicine, acupuncture or any other so-called alternative medicines including, yes, even prayer. It is unfair and inappropriate to criticize people when they pray for divine intercession for their illnesses. In fact, prayer may have benefits that are scientifically consistent with what is known about psychology, physiology and psychosomatic medicine. As many investigators have discovered, state of mind-believing does have the potential to affect many things, including well-being. If and when it does, the processes would be compatible with what is understood about the mind-body connection.
But what some investigators claim to be seeking is evidence that prayer is answered with direct intervention from some supernatural agent, an answer that results in resolution of the medical problem. This resolution would be unexplainable within the boundaries of science and would be considered a miracle. It is appropriate and fair to criticize any scientists who pursue investigations into the efficacy of such supplications.
It is one thing to examine the effects of a person’s belief system on illness when there is a plausible connection between the belief, including prayer, and the body’s systems, but another to seek to investigate an effect that lies outside the known laws of science.
A recent medical journal article, which compared Evidence Based Medicine (EBM) with Faith Based Medicine (FBM), is an example of a growing number of such studies. The author of the article, while expressing incredulity over the position of supporters of FBM, nevertheless claimed that there was a “growing body of scientific evidence about the effect of prayer of various kinds on disease and treatment.”
But medical science and religious prayer are in two separate domains, and it weakens and demeans all of science when so-called investigators spend time and money trying to ascertain if there is indeed any miraculous or divine effect. In fact, scientists make a great mistake, when they acknowledge the investigative potential of prayer.
This article on EBM vs. FBM, and the subsequent claim quoted above, demonstrate the extent to which religious zeal is overwhelming this country (the United States) and putting the brakes on two centuries of scientific enlightenment. In fact, the light is already beginning to dim. It is astonishing that anyone with the education required to become a doctor of medicine would still cling to superstitions concocted by desert nomads over two millennia ago.
With regard to the medical claims of the “power of prayer” to heal, it must be assumed that God hears the prayer and then responds to the request by influencing the cells, the bacteria, or the body’s immune system, the potency of the medications, or other factors which are involved and are necessary for the restoration of function to the systems in question–cells, tissues, organs, etc. Would these phenomena be subject to scientific measurement, identification or verification? What would the subjects, patients, witnesses and investigators observe?
The most widely publicized example of the infection of scientific medicine with superstition was the fiasco of Columbia University Medical Center’s extraordinary study that claimed to have demonstrated that infertile women who were prayed for by Christian prayer groups became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have people praying for them. The study was published in The Journal of Reproductive Medicine and later commented on by Dr. Timothy Johnson, ABC News Medical Editor and Good Morning America commentator (among others), who stated, “A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising results …”
When it was eventually discovered that this study (and its three lead investigators and writers) were frauds, this hoax had already been frequently reported on by the print media, including The New York Times and newspapers worldwide. I am not aware of any retractions or corrections by the aforementioned “scientific reporters,” although there may well have been. Columbia University has been accused of “covering up” the hoax, and Dr. Bruce Flamm, a leading critic of the Columbia University study, is–understandably–indignant. He says:
In my opinion, the cover-up continues. The amazing results of the absurd study will remain posted on the JRM Internet site to be cited by others as strong scientific evidence for the supernatural healing power of distant prayer. This is a scientific atrocity.
Here is an example of the ferocious power of fanaticism, akin to that of anti-West Muslim antagonists, and as such it must be thwarted from invading the domain of science.
Even if this study had not been fabricated, its legitimacy would nevertheless be questionable. The researchers would eventually have had to connect their results in theory with other known and accepted biological, chemical and physical laws. Otherwise–even if replicated many times–it would still have to be considered “miraculous” and thereby be subject to David Hume’s admonition, “no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish …” which is why the Columbia study is relegated to the trash bin of science.
As for the alleged benefits of prayer on the ill, as pointed out earlier, it is not unreasonable to concede the calming, placebo, meditative or “other effects” which in all likelihood probably do exist, and focus the discussion instead on the metaphysical claims of the proponents, that the prayer was answered by God or one of his intermediaries. These latter include but are not limited to The Virgin Mary, Jesus Christ, St Christopher, and assorted angels and saints, and who in answering the prayer, apparently intervened in the known laws of physics, chemistry and biology which are essentially about “stuff” operating or behaving according to certain rules or laws in our universe (i.e., gravitation, electromagnetism, the “strong force” and “the weak force”), which have thus far been shown to be predictable.
In order for a medical prayer to be answered, the supplicant must transmit words or thoughts into the ether which are then received by the agent, be it God, The Virgin Mary or another supernatural figure. The agent must then, in the midst of all the myriad other concerns at hand (medical and otherwise), ignore these concerns, which include thousands of dying babies in Sudan; soldiers praying on battlefields for bullets and shrapnel to be directed away from them; prisoners (rightly or wrongly convicted) on death row praying for the Governor to change his mind and announce a pardon; probably billions of the earth’s 6,000,000,000 inhabitants who are also praying for something; and in the case of the Columbia study, proceed to the task at hand, i.e., the alteration of the ovum or sperm or both, of the person being prayed for. This alteration would have to include either transformation of the cell wall or nucleus or a change in the composition or motility of the sperm or, in general, an alteration of whatever was the cause of the infertility to begin with (the “stuff” or rules of operation). It would have to accomplish this feat even in cases where there was no atom, molecule, cell, or tissue to be altered, but rather an absence of the required particle(s).
And all this is to assume that prayer is to be limited to cases of infertility. But that’s only where the fraudulent investigators found it most practical to pull off their deception; why stop there?
Why wouldn’t prayer, if effective here, not also be effective in changing a pancreatic cancer cell into a normal pancreatic cell; or a nonfunctioning synapse in the cerebral cortex to either regain function or be replaced by a normal one–or even cause cells in the stumps of a thalidomide baby’s arms to replicate and grow into the fully formed arm, hand and fingers it was programmed (but thwarted) to become? If prayer can change the course of a reproductive cell’s development why not any cell? In fact, if prayer really works, why is it necessary for there even to be ovum, sperm, petri dishes and other accouterments of in vitro fertilization or pregnancy. There is already a powerful precedent (soon to be celebrated) for it to be otherwise. Why do not celibate women pray to become pregnant?
Any cell indeed. Why not a dead cell? According to traditional religion, prayer is not limited to the curing of disease, it is also useful in the “curing” of death. That is to say, a body that has ceased functioning even for as long as three days can be caused to function again, despite the decomposition that would ordinarily occur.[7, 8, 9] How would these dead and decomposed cells be restored to function?
The medical issues discussed above are but a microcosm of a broader crisis of religious zealotry in the United States, politics as well as other areas. But should science allow itself to become part of the restricting and threatening aspects of that crisis? Science is the only hope of continuing the enlightenment of the last few centuries and preventing it from being extinguished by the fear-possessed theists, who–rather than attempt to understand nature–prefer instead to deny it, and in so doing would deny it to the rest of us.
Science and its most important applied profession, medicine, seem to be succumbing to a tsunami of irrational thinking that is threatening to drown the country. The trigger seems to have been the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, and the fear, grief and need for comfort that accompanied it. But whenever it began, supernatural zeal, in all of its manifestations, is reaching tidal-wave proportions in the United States.
Recent Gallup polls indicate that as many as seventy per cent of Americans believe in “The Devil,” eighty-five per cent believe in God, and huge majorities believe in UFOs, psychic forensics and assorted other supernatural phenomena. In general, Americans are becoming obsessed with other-worldly and/or spiritual events. Politicians led by the Commander in Chief have either been caught up in the frenzy, or are fueling it for personal gain, but the end result is that the logical, skeptical, rigorous thinking-processes that undergird science and medicine are in jeopardy.
Up until recently, science and medicine have represented the remaining coherent link between the material universe and the minds that interpret it. But, sadly now, even here there has begun the encroachment upon this elegant domain of The Enlightenment–the eighteenth century’s island of rationalism in the sea of darkness. More and more frequently the media, especially television, are devoting countless hours to programming that reflects this abandonment of reason, including talk show hosts, such as Larry King, who interview shamans, seers, mind readers, those who speak to the dead, and, of course, healers. Amidst all of this are some scientists, or those who call themselves scientists (but who are really theists with an agenda), who proclaim with increasing determination that the evidence supports:
a) the existence of God,
b) the truths of The Bible,
c) the effectiveness of prayer, and
d) the fallacy of the intellect.
Various sciences, it is claimed (most notably archeology) have found proof for the location of Noah’s Ark, the physiognomy of Jesus Christ, the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem, and, of course, the failure of Darwinism. Now, even medicine, they claim, is demonstrating the superiority of the religious over the profane–that faith and prayer can succeed where professionals, potions and procedures cannot–with reports of studies that allegedly show the effectiveness of supplications to The Almighty or his representatives, all of whom are adept at intervening in, suspending, or altering, the known laws of physics, chemistry and biology.
One of the frequent laments of the Christian right is that we are not praying enough. George W. Bush regularly importunes for all to pray for someone or something, and he never fails to end a speech with “God bless you,” which is an implied prayer. Prayer is being touted as the great cure-all, now sadly even by some scientists and “medical experts” including psychologists, who in deference to the pressures from the religious right, proclaim that prayer aids in healing or longevity. Since many intelligent and rational people pray, perhaps it is possible for them to explain to a skeptic like me how it all works.
The scientific community should shed its image as timid, professorial thinkers and become militant vocal advocates of sanity who have had enough nonsense from theistic extremists who believe that the systematic universe of Newton-Galileo-Einstein is controlled by the bearded guy-in-the-sky who operates on whimsy. Superstition in all its forms, and that includes religion, has no place in science or scientific studies, especially medical studies.
Theists claim knowledge of and access to a supernatural world outside of the legitimate domain of science, which is the natural world. They claim that the forces and materials of the natural world are subordinate to and cannot affect this “other world”; cannot understand this unnatural or supernatural world; yet they demand that their world’s processes be allowed to cross the barrier–in both directions (e.g., prayer)–to influence and change the material phenomena of our natural world. They cannot have it both ways. Either empirical methods apply or they don’t, and if they do not then why are empiricists trying to investigate nonempirical matters?
The answer was posited half a millennium ago by Desiderius Erasmus, “They are looking in utter darkness for that which has no existence whatsoever.”
 Flamm, B.L., “Faith healing by prayer: Review of Cha, K.Y.; Wirth, D.P.; Lobo, R.A.; ‘Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer?'” Sci Review Alt Med, 2002; 6(1):47-50.