Saying prayers — when it’s all boiled down — is simply asking God for a miracle.  The “pray-er” is requesting the “prayee” (God) to suspend all known laws of the universe and to intervene on their behalf.  The appeal may be entirely worthy, on a world scale; or merely some trivial matter of personal selfishness.  Some people actually claim God saves them a parking space.

First, it must be accepted that one is praying to an “interventionist” God.  But how does one reconcile a God who is expected to intervene for personal trivia, but fails to intervene in world catastrophes?  Apologists claim, “God does not intervene in acts of natural disaster”.  “Natural”, really?  This, by default, concedes that there is a “natural world”, outside the realm of God.  The next logical question is, “why, then, does God also fail to act in the human inspired mass murder of millions of innocent people — from the Holocaust, to Pol Pot, and to Rwanda — to name a mere three?”  The response from fundamentalists becomes even less credible at this point.

From sportspeople thanking God for “divine intervention”, to warring religious factions claiming “God is with us”, are as deluded as King Canute (King Cnut, 1016) attempting to hold back the tide.  Miracles do not happen.  There is still $1 million to be won from the renowned skeptic, James Randi, if anyone can prove otherwise.

Believers in all manner of religions may well provide anecdotal stories to support the act of praying.  It may also be comforting for some people simply to pray, but the ultimate question still remains; does prayer really work?  Anecdotes, and theologians protesting its virtues, are simply not good enough.

So, why not apply science to the question of prayer?

Well, it’s been done, many times.  The most recent was the 2006 STEP project — “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer” — a comprehensive and rigorous investigation led by Harvard professor Herbert Benson.  It was a $2.4 million project funded by the Templeton Foundation, essentially science based but with strong religious connections.

STEP was a double-blind experiment involving 1,802 patients, all undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery at six hospitals.  Patients randomly assigned to 3 groups

Groups 1 and 2 were told they “may or may not be prayed for”.  Only Group 1 got the prayers.  Group 3 were told they “would” receive prayers.  The method of identifying patients and the wording of prayers were strictly monitored among the congregations of 3 widely separated churches.  The project was to determine any noticeable difference in “major complications or 30-day mortality” between the 3 Groups.

Group 1 suffered 52% complications (prayed to, but unaware).
Group 2 suffered 51% complications (no prayers, and unaware).
Group 3 suffered 59% complications (all knew they were being prayed for).

Some of the “prayed for” Group 3 patients had far worse complications than Group 2 — who received no prayers at all.  Certainly, this 16% inferior result for the “prayed to” is not conclusive, but it is highly embarrassing for the Templeton Foundation and for all the faithful who had banked on a better result.

Many theologians (belatedly) condemned the study and its outcome, claiming myriad excuses, although none questioned the strict scientific protocols that were used.  One can only imagine the chorus from all religions, had the project produced this 16% difference in their favour . . .!

Atheism SA Inc. active atheist assoc., Adelaide South Australia, for atheists, agnostics and non-believers.