Saturday, September 17, 2011

Prayer for Agnostics

When I wrote the blog entry “Prayer for Atheists” I did not even think about whether its contents would cause doubt to be cast on the strength of my atheist convictions, but it has; three times at least. I must admit that the core of my atheism rests upon very little. To be transparently honest I do most of my not believing in any god by simply not believing, and this is an activity of very little substance.

As far as the “Prayer for Atheists" post was concerned I was outed for not presenting evidence that prayer does not work. There have been multiple studies done on Prayer. Francis Galton conducted some of the first published studies on prayer in 1872; he found it had no effect. In the almost one hundred and forty years afterward prayer continues to show no effect in controlled studies. Why did I not present this information? Shouldn't I take the time to point out the false promises of a central religious ritual in an entry named for it?

The main reason I did not effectively champion the anti-prayer studies was that I did not really think about doing it. I was too busy not thinking about magic sky-buddies to get around to pointing out how silly it is to try and talk to any of them. However, there is another reason to not champion the prayer efficacy studies. That reason is that they are all fatally flawed.

I have not worked at NIH for fast approaching two decades. One of the exciting new features on the Bethesda campus when I last did was the mysterious National Institute of Alternative Medicine. Quacks or not the NIAM folks were much more interesting with their incense and rattles than the other researchers whose centrifuges and scintillation counters seemed to continually leak.

The research of the NIAM appeared to involve more emotion than reason, and the researchers were more often heard singing, laughing, or yelling than their more stoic counterparts in real medicine. Those of us who would venture across campus drive from the National Library of Medicine to see some magic tree or bush-planting ceremony would swap stories of strange NIAM antics. One story of two intercessory prayer researchers has stuck with me.

They were arguing about mechanism. Was it some theist central power or some diffuse star-wars-like “force”? The discussion heated to an argument that filled the multistory glass-window-walled foyer with echos and recriminations. As the one researcher stormed off the other issued this fateful threat:


I realized that this self-centered fool would not have been the first person to pray for that group. At sometime someone would have prayed that all good things would happen to everyone for all time. Why would that prayer be any less important than any prayers following it?

This gets to the heart of the studying prayer problem. Since it is supposed to act by mechanisms that cannot be measured -or even observed- it is impossible to know what is going on in an experiment. It is so untestable that it is unknowable.

In order to test prayer one would have to design a system of prayer efficacy. Some prayers would have to be more effective than others. Perhaps it is the language the prayer is spoken in? Perhaps there is a inverse square law that relates the distance of a prayer to the amount of effect one might have on a prayeee? We can create intricate possible theories of the transmission and reception of prayer magic, but since we make them up they have no intrinsic validity. What does it tell us about anything if we can disprove a notion we know was woven from fantasy and imagination?

A rational mind would look at this quandary and state that if anything is this unknowable then there is nothing to really know about it. Even people who pray cannot ever know if their prayers work any action ever. Even if prayer did perform magical actions their frequency, direction, and magnitude would be indistinguishable from random events. In other words even thinking about the magic of prayer is a waste of time.

There are schools of theology that maintain that prayer has a special effect on a supernatural realm that is unencumbered by reality. I do not blame those people for not reading my blog. I'm sure they have better things to do, and I hope they do those things away from sharp objects or busy roads.

Those who read my blog are more critical. If you think that prayer does amazing intercessory magic I can provide no argument that would be more effective than just asking you to examine the details of what you think prayer does. Ask yourself: “Self: How can I know this?”, and the foundations of belief will start to erode.

If you are able to open yourself up to the idea that prayer doesn’t do anything real you are a prayer agnostic. Realize that even asking the question: “does it do anything magical” is in itself the product of flawed reasoning. If you then ask yourself “it must have some use even though it is not magical” then you have become a prayer atheist.

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