Prayer and Medicine

We’ve seen this story before; the only “news” in it is that the study demonstrating that there was no appreciable effect of prayer on patients undergoing heart surgery (indeed, in terms of raw numbers, the prayed-for patients actually did worse) is being published in a peer-reviewed medical journal, which I assume has some prestige within the medical academy.

What caught my eye in this story was the wealth of column space given to religious people attempting to rebut the results of the story. “Critics said the question of God’s reaction to prayers simply can’t be explored by scientific study. ‘[W]hy would God change his plans for a particular person just because they’re in a research study?’ ¬∂ Science ‘is not designed to study the supernatural.'”

This is a slippery and deceptive response. Science studies facts, phenomena, and causes. Either prayer has some effect on the objective, external world, or it does not. That is a factual proposition. The hypothesis that prayer has the power to change the objective, external world can be objectively measured and tested. It can be disproven. That makes it susceptible to scientific study.

Looking to prayer — saying words, thinking hopeful thoughts, begging for divine intercession in a desperate situation — this doesn’t seem like religion or faith to me. I would call it “magic.” Wave or hold your hands in a particular way, say certain magic words, exercise your willpower in a certain way, and the laws of physics and biology will be temporarily altered according to your desires. It should surprise no one that upon statistical analysis, this sort of thing works no more often than would be expected by the operation of chance.

Magic is religion in its most primitive form, if it is even properly considered religion at all. Substituting magic for medicine is antiscience.

If science is incapable of studying the supernatural, so too is religion is not designed or intended to study matters within the realm of the objectively factual. Religion is intended at its best, to offer insights into the study of human behavior and morality. At its worst, religion is an instrument of political control used to subvert morality. Most of the time, it’s somewhere in between — sometimes benign (like when it encourages people to give to charity) and sometimes malign (like when it encourages people to strap dynamite to their chests and blow themselves up in the hopes of taking a few infidels out, too).

But religion is mostly about the numinous — it’s about the fate of things that are incapable of verification or measurement, and their relationship to other things equally incapable of being observed. Religion concerns itself with matters that by definition are beyond human comprehension or experience. “God works in mysterious ways” or “God has a plan and a purpose that we don’t fully understand” are common phrases offered by the faithful when they are unable to explain something otherwise — when a religious person relies on these kinds of statements, they are really saying, “I give up, there is no rational answer to your question.” And indeed, particularly given the existence of an unmeasurable, unseen, infinitely powerful, infinitely intelligent, and apparently infinitely subtle actor interfering with a variety of observable phenomena, it’s astonishing that any scientific observation has taken place at all.

So I must conclude that religion and science are, at the end of the day, incompatible. I reach this conclusion sadly; I know there are many religious scientists and many people who hope for a happy and productive social dialog between the faithful and the scientific. But religion is based on irrational experiences and irrational thoughts. (That doesn’t mean these thoughts or experiences are bad, by the way.) It is emotional. Science is, in those terms, the opposite of religion — science must be as rational as it can be, it must be as unemotional as it can be.

Science advances by the act of disproving previously-advanced propositions in response to newly-gathered information. Religion is based upon the act of maintaining the truth of previously-advanced propositions no matter what information is proffered against it.

In this case, the question is whether prayer has the power to heal. As objectively measured, it does not. Those who hold a religious belief in the power of prayer will simply not care about the objective facts of this study. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it!” is perfectly good logic to the religious person. (To religious readers: substitute “Lenin” or some other name you want for “God” in that sentence and you may begin to understand the reason why I recoil from such ‘logic’.) So to the religious, the study simply doesn’t matter; science is incapable of measuring the power of prayer. But to the scientific, the study is devastating to the hypothesis that prayer affects the external world at all. A hypothesis was advanced and disproved. Science marches on.

Prayer may help a sick or suffering person cope with their situation. It may help those who love and care for the sick person cope, as well. This palliative effect ought not to be ignored and the easing of people’s pain and suffering should be a significant focus of enlightened, moral medical practice. But this should not be confused with a cure. And religion should not be confused with science.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.