I don’t describe myself as an atheist. I subscribe to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s declaration that I don’t really want to be associated with the stigma of activism that is carried with the term atheist. The term does describe my belief fairly well – I don’t believe in an active deity or that there is any proof of such a deity. It doesn’t mean there isn’t one, but there isn’t any evidence of it, and it would be difficult to prove such a deity exists. That is why I also consider myself a scientist, and I find that my line of thinking on this subject fits the term scientist pretty well.
However, I do feel it is time I speak up about the power of prayer. And I don’t mean in a positive sense, but in it’s measurable negative effect when it is not put into context. Social media such as Twitter and Facebook are full of people saying, “Pray for Newtwon,” “Pray for my family member,” “Sending prayers your way,” “Pray for me while I go to this job interview,” and other examples of people either requesting prayers for something or someone or praying as a response to some tragedy and making a declaration about it. Not only are most of these requests self-serving, but they are also illogical in that the god most people believe in (one of both omniscience and omnipotence) should not need you requests as he already knows whether or not you were going to pray and what the outcome will be. The prayer can also have a negative impact when requested or received from a large number of people.
One of the better studies on this negative impact was done by Herbert Benson. Dr. Benson actually is a pioneer in bringing spirituality into medicine. However, most of his work has been in self-mediation or prayer as a way of relaxing the body. This study showed how awareness of intercessory prayer actually caused more complications in heart patients. As stated in the Harvard University Gazette:
One theory is that those who knew so many outsiders were praying for them felt a stressful anxiety to do well. “It might have made them uncertain, wondering, Am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?” says Charles Bethea, a cardiologist at Integris Baptist Medical Center, who was part of the research group in Oklahoma City.
“We found increased amounts of adrenalin, a sign of stress, in the blood of patients who knew strangers were praying for them,” notes Dusek, who is also associate research director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute. “It’s possible that we inadvertently raised the stress levels of these people.”
In other words, when people knew they were being prayed for, it stressed them out.
This doesn’t mean self-prayer isn’t useful. Several studies done by Dr. Benson show meditation techniques (prayer, meditation, relaxation techniques, etc) can help in lowering blood pressure, stress hormones, and reduce the severity of depression and similar psychological conditions (example: http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/02/100223132021.htm). But praying to yourself is far different from declaring or requesting prayers.
Studies on people having “faith” are much more dubious, where patients are usually asked about their faith, and then asked about how they feel. As Steven Novella writes about one such study, they suffer from flaws of self-reporting. First, patients who are doing better will often report a more positive relationship with god. Second, the results are only a correlation with no thought as to how to study cause and effect. Dr. Novella summarizes:
Much of the research into the question of faith and health is similarly plagued by such flaws, which makes interpreting the research problematic at best.
However, my reading of the literature on this question leads me to conclude that there is a consistent signal in the noise – having a social network consistently positively correlates with better health outcomes. This can be through reduced stress and better practical and emotional support. Humans are social animals, and we simply do better when we are part of a social network than when we are isolated. Religion can provide a useful social network. Faith and religion itself, however, are not the important variable – it’s the social network.
A defense often used is “I have witnessed the power of prayer work.” Dean Marek, chaplain at Mayo Clinic, co-author of Dr. Benson’s study had this to say about the results:
…the study said nothing about the power of personal prayer or about prayers for family members and friends.
Working in a large medical center like Mayo, Mr. Marek said, “You hear tons of stories about the power of prayer, and I don’t doubt them.”
Christian “science” practitioner Katie Brown offers up her anecdotes as proof that prayer works:
I know a man who was once very sick and angry who later became a well, kind and caring person. Not only I but many others know this man and have seen the changes.
His restored health and improved behavior were the result of prayer.
She later states:
For many, this means increasing their understanding of prayer and the healing work of Jesus (and those who came before and after him). On that journey, life experience can be as valid as studies and statistics.
Mr. Marek is mixing the two types of prayer, personal prayer and prayer for others. He then goes on to say his anecdotes are proof prayer works. Ms. Brown uses similar anecdotal evidence as her “proof” and calls it a “science.” The plural of anecdote is not data. Many people say they have proof of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, but those anecdotes do not prove the existence of them either.
Prayer doesn’t fit well in the physical model of the world. If prayer truly worked, there should be evidence we could observe, and therefore study its effects. Even new as new physics theories are discovered, they have a basis in past theories and in the language of mathematics. One study meant to point this out was published in the British Medical Journal. The study looked at retroactive prayer, where patients with a a blood infection were prayed for after the infection had been cleared. The measurements included the mortality in the hospital, length of their stay in hospital, and duration of their fever. It actually showed a small, but positive effect.
The response to this study is interesting. Two researchers tried to find a way to fit these results into some scientific framework by stating it must be some yet unknown physical law controlling this phenomenon. As Bishop and Stenger responded in the BMJ:
Although the results of some quantum experiments may be interpreted as evidence for events in the future affecting events in the past at the quantum level, no theoretical basis exists for applying this notion on the macroscopic scale of human experience.
The human body and its parts, such as cells that are normally considered microscopic, are too large and contain too many particles to exhibit quantum effects in their collective behaviour. For example, the motion of the neurotransmitters that carry signals across synapses and constitute part of the mechanism for our thinking processes can be described without recourse to quantum mechanics. Of course, the atoms in biological systems are quantum in nature, as are the atoms in rocks, but their collective behaviour does not exhibit any quantum effects. Although multiple body quantum systems, such as lasers and superconductors, exist, proposals that the brain is somehow a quantum device are not supported by any convincing evidence. What is more, even if the brain were a quantum system, that would not imply that it can break the laws of physics any more than electrons or photons, which are inarguably quanta.
All science aside, the proposition that somehow a post on social media that you are praying for someone or a group of people after a tragedy, health crisis, or other negative event is helpful really bothers me. A prayer for others is actually a very selfish act. It is a self-meditation, meant to help the individual offering the prayer cope with a situation. I am not suggesting that a person shouldn’t find a way to deal with their own emotional action, but what I am suggesting is do not take that as “doing your part.” If you pray for victims of a hurricane because it is hard to see such destruction, then do your prayer and donate your time and/or money to help them rebuild. If you pray after a person or people are killed in a senseless act, do so, then get out there and get more active in your own community to prevent it from happening there. If you pray for someone’s family member who is seriously ill in the hospital, make sure you offer your help as well, and please don’t tell the ill person.
Prayer (self-meditation) is a way for an individual to deal with their own emotion. Please don’t project your emotions onto others. Instead, understand the context of prayer as a tool for your own healing, then take action to help others. My hope is the hashtag #prayers can be turned into hashtags like #helped, #volunteered, #hugged, #donated, #tookaction – actions that truly can make a difference.