The Fatal Flaw in Double Blind Prayer Experiments

16 07 2010

We have all likely seen the reports on these “double blind” prayer experiments. The idea is to test whether prayer “works”. Here is how these experiments work. First, a group of people with longer-term illnesses is identified, usually these people are hospitalized so that results can be tracked. Next, a group of people is identified to pray for these ailing people.

These types of studies, in addition to trying to determine whether prayer works, have been used as evidence for and against the existence of God. The U.K. radio program, Unbelievable?1, recently featured a discussion between U.S. atheist and professor of physics, Victor Stenger and British Christian and statistician, David Bartholomew on the issue of whether double-blind prayer studies prove or disprove the existence of God.

Bartholomew took the same position that C.S. Lewis took during his lifetime, that these studies prove nothing regarding prayer or the existence of God. Gregory and Christopher Fung quote Lewis as saying, “The trouble is that I do not see how any real prayer could go on under such conditions…Simply to say prayers is not to pray; otherwise a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men for our experiment.”2

One of the most recent of these studies, conducted by the Harvard Medical School, was The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP). The study, conducted over 10 years, with the cost of $2.4 million, produced the kind of results that C.S. Lewis would not have been surprised to see. This study included over 1,800 patients with heart conditions requiring surgery. The patients were divided into three groups: one group knowingly received prayer from a group of Chrisitans; the second and third group were told that they may or may not receive prayer; with one receiving prayer and the other not. The first group for whom prayers were offered to their knowledge, actually did worst of all, followed by the group that didn’t know that they were receiving prayer but actually did. The group that did the best was the one for whom no prayers were offered by the research prayer group.

The researchers were actually not surprised by the results as they suspected that the first group might have felt pressure to get better knowing that prayers were being offered. Evangelicals have offered other reasons for the results, such as that many of those who didn’t receive prayer from the research prayer team probably did receive prayers from family members and friends. However, I would like to add another idea to the mix.

Even though these are double-blind experiments, there are actually three parties involved, and the third party cannot be blinded to the study. Of course, God is that third party and God is fully aware of what is going on in these experiments. Victor Stenger asserted on the radio program that God would want to answer prayers for those who are sincerely seeking him, he would want to make himself known. Stenger argues that a God who hides himself cannot exist. He says that a good God, a moral God would not deliberately hide himself from people who are open to the possibility of his existence. Stenger says that given positive results of this type of prayer study he would immediately return to the church of his youth, the Roman Catholic church.

I have a few things to say about this argument. First, I don’t believe that God hides himself from his creation. The Apostle Paul tells us in the first chapter of the Book of Romans that “what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.” (v. 19) Paul explains that God’s “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they [we] are without excuse.” (v. 20) This hardly seems to be describing a God who “hides” himself. On the other hand, I do believe that God keeps an epistemic distance from his creation so as not to force us to believe, and this may be to what Stenger is actually referring.

The main issue is that God is not necessarily interested in our believing that he exists. What, you ask, God doesn’t want me to believe that he exists? That is not what I am saying. God could make it very clear to all creation that he exists in any number of ways. But, what would that accomplish? He would have a world of people at a point in history who know he exists; however, would that mean that he would necessarily have more people who trust in him? I don’t think so. In fact, many would come to resent God forcing himself upon his creation.

Suppose that the government came along and decided that they would choose who your spouse was going to be, do you think that the knowledge of your intended spouse’s existence and selection would cause you to love him or her? No, in fact, many would resent being told who to marry and many would resist that union. So why, given the irrefutable knowledge of God’s existence, would it lead Victor Stenger or anyone else to love and trust in him? People, especially Americans like Stenger, don’t like being bullied, and that is just how many would take this kind of imposition of God into the lives of his creation.

I, like the Apostle Paul, think that there is enough evidence for God’s existence for those who are open to honestly considering that evidence. I think that the evidence is quite good for God’s existence and am laying out some of those evidences this Summer in a class that I am teaching. However, this same evidence is rejected by people every day. In other words, God is not going to force the issue, but he is willing to make himself known to those who diligently seek him out.

So, let’s scrap these prayer experiments and remember that God is not a cosmic vending machine. We cannot simply put in our prayer token, push a button and look for that packaged answer to prayer. God is a person who is fully aware of what is going on with these studies and what impact would come from giving positive results. It is interesting that these studies sometimes do produce results that some interpret to show that prayer “works,” yet still, unbelievers make excuses as to why the study was flawed. So, I would beg to differ with Dr. Stenger and say that no matter what the results, it won’t change in what a person puts his or her trust. It may make them more likely to pray, but not more likely to trust in the God who hears those prayers.

1. Unbelievable? 3 Jul 2010 – Is God a failed hypothesis? Pr 2 – Victor Stenger vs. David Bartholomew
2. What Do Prayer Studies Prove? Gregory and Christopher Fung, Christianity Today, May 15, 2009

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