Is the Scientific Study of Prayer Legit?

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Francis Galton was among the first scientists to design a prayer study, in 1872. The Victorian British polymath—infamously known as a founding figure of eugenics—realized that the most prayed for individual in England was the monarch. Every Sunday, Church of England congregants prayed for health and long life for the sovereign. Yet, compared to other well-to-do groups—clergy, gentry, military officers, “the sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence.” He concluded: “The prayer has therefore no efficacy, unless the very questionable hypothesis be raised, that the conditions of royal life may naturally be yet more fatal, and that their influence is partly, though incompletely, neutralized by the effects of public prayers.”

Galton started a trend that continues today by applying scientific methods and statistics to the study of prayer. He may have been the first to find prayer inefficacious via scientific study, but he was far from the last. And like some current research on prayer, his somewhat satirical study is not exemplary science.

Prayer Complications

Several years ago, a pastor asked me if the scientific study of prayer is legit. I replied, “That’s complicated.” At the time, I did not fully understand how true this is.

Why is it complicated? There are many reasons:

First, the research suffers from a variety of scientific flaws. Be it experimental design, mistaking correlation for causation, or other forms of researcher bias (both for and against). Think for a moment. The gold standard of research design is a randomized controlled clinical trial, but it would be problematic to have one group praying for ill outcomes (nor does it make sense to think God would grant them). Furthermore, dosage in prayer is irrelevant (the main flaw in Galton’s study). Even if hundreds are praying for a monarch to live long, a single prayer from outside the study could confound the results.

Second, prayer varies significantly. Some prayers are individual and others are corporate. Some are vocalized and others are silent. Some ask God to intercede and others listen for God’s prompting. It is safe to say that no two people pray the same way. Even in reciting the Lord’s Prayer in worship every Sunday, a person’s mood, stature, or focus may differ from week to week. These variables could matter but are not accounted for in most studies. In part, this is because not all prayer researchers are practitioners who understand the plethora of prayer among God’s people.

Finally, and most importantly, there is the matter of God’s participation. When Christians pray, in whatever form and context it occurs, we believe that God is involved. This means prayer is a place where the natural and the supernatural meet. As a prayer expert Kevin Ladd, notes, “The metaphysical core of prayer—what God does—is not accessible to science.”

Many outside of our churches and even some inside believe that God cannot act in response to our prayers. This is complicated by the fact that each of us has had the experience of seemingly unanswered petitions. Even if we believe God can act, why pray at all when God’s responses appear to be so haphazard?


  • Read about the 2006 randomized clinic trial that sought to determine the health benefits of prayer to individuals recovering from major heart surgery.
  • A medical educator in India looks at intercessory prayer and health studies detailing some of their flaws.

The Harvard Prayer Study

One of the largest prayer studies was conducted in 2006. It attempted a randomized clinical trial to see if prayer reduced complications following coronary artery bypass surgery in 1,802 patients who were treated in six different hospitals. It sought to standardize the prayers and avoid some of the previously mentioned pitfalls. Yet, based on the research design, Hope College psychologist David Myers offered reasons why “intercessory prayer will not exhibit significant healing power for the cardiac care patients of this experiment.”

One reason was scientific—the noise factor. Why would God favor a recruited group of intercessors over the loved ones who are also praying for the patients or those in the control group? (Myers probably could have also added concerns about how overall care and social support differ among the 1,802 patients.)

Myers’ other reasons were biblical and theological. For example, he said the prayer being tested was akin to magic. God does not only work via miraculous healing but also through doctors and nurses. Our prayers do not alter the ways God is always working for good in the world. As J.I. Packer writes, prayer “is not an attempt to force God’s hand, but a humble acknowledgement of helplessness and dependence.”

Moreover, Scripture warns us “not to put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16). When God answers such tests, like in the case of Gideon’s fleece (Judges 6), it is a demonstration of God’s grace and patience, not an invitation to treat “God as a celestial vending machine, whose levers we pull with our prayers.”

Finally, we know personally and historically that our prayers do not manipulate God, even for the most faithful among us. Despite continual prayers from the faithful, suffering continues. The most acute example of this was found in the Garden of Gethsemane. God did not lift the cup of suffering even for our Lord.

As Myers found and the LA Times declared in its March 31, 2006 headline, the largest study of prayer to date found that prayer has no power to heal. This, of course, does not mean prayer does not work. It simply means that testing prayer using the tools of science is at best complicated.

To that end, over the next few weeks, we’ll ask: Does science eliminate our ability to pray with confidence? And, with all of these complications, how can engaging science actually strengthen the church as it continues to pray? Hopefully, we’ll offer some ideas that help you respond to the questions so many of us have about prayer.

Cheers,

Drew

 

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