There is perhaps no greater test of faith than when it comes to health. Health concerns can very often have life-threatening consequences. It's within this realm that I'd like to put faith and the power of prayer to the test. Imagine for a moment that a loved one is deathly sick or injured. If you had one choice, would you take him/her to the doctor, or would you instead opt for prayer? It's a simple question with real consequences. The answer should give us some indication on just how much faith we really have. Most people, even most religious people, would choose the doctor over prayer every time and this answer should tell us something.
When faced with a life and death situation, a rational person will choose something tangible because of the significantly greater likelihood of success. In the case of religious people, their actions speak much louder than their words. A religious person may say (and perhaps believe) that God can heal the sick, but that faith is only worthy of words. The actions of a religious person in our scenario are completely different. If they truly believed that God can have a physical impact in our world, then why would they make Him the backup plan? Why would their actions conflict with their stated beliefs?
I love presenting this scenario because it takes away all ontological positions and arguments. It forces us to examine God in a "rubber hits the road" type of fashion. Arguing over the validity of Noah's Ark, Muhammad's revelations, or Krishna's contributions to our life on Earth becomes absolutely irrelevant. A rational person recognizes this and this is why we'll find a rational person rushing to see a doctor instead of a priest. The most devout religious believers may probably cry "foul" with the question of choice being asked in the first place, but why? Is this not a legitimate question? If we apply the Omni Paradox to the situation, we could come to the conclusion that if He wanted to save someone, He could. God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all-loving, correct? If someone legitimately believed that God could save a life, the doctor then becomes unnecessary on the simple premise that no doctor could ever be more powerful than God. If God has time to listen and answer prayers, surely He has time to save a life. The "religion vs. medicine" argument is the ideal topic precisely because of the seriousness of the outcome.
In 2009, Dale and Leilani Neumann of Weston, WI were found guilty of homicide in the March 2008 death of their daughter Madeline. Madeline, also known as Kara, had a treatable form of diabetes. The Neumann's relied on prayer for treatment. As their daughter became so weak that she couldn't eat, drink, walk, or even speak, people surrounded her and prayed as she lay on the family's floor. Only when she stopped breathing did anyone bother to call emergency personnel. While the courts questioned their decision, nobody could question their faith in Jesus Christ. After the trial, Dale said "We live by faith. We are completely content with what the Lord has allowed to come down, but he is not done yet." So here we have a deeply religious couple who believed in Jesus and prayed in his name ("If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer" Matthew 21:22) for the health of their daughter. The Neumanns put their faith in Jesus to the test. The outcome was tragic and completely avoidable. Jesus did not come. Their prayers were not answered. Their child could have been saved by qualified medical personnel. As I have stated multiple times in this book, religion is dangerous and has the power to warp minds. The Neumanns are perfect examples of this.
Carl and Raylene Worthington of Oregon chose God instead of a doctor for their sick 15-month old daughter, Ava. Church members gathered at the Worthington's home to pray for Ava. They gave her a dab of wine with water, anointed her with oil, fasted, and prayed. They believed in the "power of prayer", and as the Neumanns did, they put faith above medicine with the same tragic and avoidable outcome. This example, and every example like it, completely contradicts the Bible. James 5:14-15 says that a prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well and the Lord will raise them up. The Lord did not raise this child up and make her well. God did nothing.
Prayer alone is incapable of saving someone requiring serious medical attention. We can't pray away cancer. We can't pray away a heart attack. We can't pray away diabetes. When someone's life is on the line, their survival instinct will take over and God, correctly, becomes an impotent after-thought. What should this tell us about the true power of God and the true power of prayer to produce tangible results?
The most scientifically rigorous study ever conducted into the power of prayer was done by the John Templeton Foundation, which funds and conducts research relating to the questions of human purpose and ultimate reality. They generally do this by providing grants for high-level scientific research projects. Before you subconsciously (or consciously) place the atheist moniker on the Templeton Foundation because of their focus on science, realize that this is not the case as demonstrated by some of their critics. Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most well-known atheist in the world, criticizes the Templeton Foundation in his book The God Delusion by saying that the Templeton Prize is "a very large sum of money given...usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion." Peter Woit, a mathematical physicist at Columbia University, has stated "they unambiguously are devoted to trying to bring science and religion together, and that's my main problem with them." Neil DeGrasse Tyson once said, "Templeton seeks out widely published religion-friendly scientists to receive an annual award whose cash value exceeds that of the Nobel Prize." Paul Davies, a Templeton Foundation Board of Trustees member, refuted these perceptions by stating "The benefactor, Sir John Templeton, bemoans the way that religious leaders often claim to have all the answers. Imagine, he says, consulting a doctor about an ailment, only to find him reaching for a volume of Hippocrates. Yet priests rely on ancient scriptures to deliver spiritual guidance...In none of these projects is anything like a preferred religious position encouraged or an obligation imposed to support any religious group."
I think it's worth mentioning the critics before we get into the results from the study because it helps set the stage. When the voices from the critics are considered alongside the results of the study, I believe that the results become even more interesting and illuminating.
The goal of the study was to determine the effects of prayer on the recovery of people who underwent heart surgery. This $2.4 million study was led by Harvard professor Herbert Benson over the course of nearly a decade and included 1,802 patients from six different hospitals undergoing coronary artery bypass surgery. The patients were randomly placed into three groups. As a control, Groups 1 and 2 were told that they may or may not receive prayers for their quick recovery. Group 1 received prayers and Group 2 did not. Group 3 was told that they were going to receive prayers, and in fact, they did. Three Christian churches were used for the prayers. As a scientific control, the congregations were given only the patients' first names and last initials. Each member of the church could pray in their own way, but each had to include the following phrase in their prayers: 'for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications'. The goal was to evaluate the effects that intercessory prayer would have on the patients.
* Group 1, which received prayers but were not certain about receiving them, saw complications occur in 52% of the patients.
* Group 2, which did not receive prayers but were also not certain about receiving them, saw complications occur in 51% of the patients.
* Group 3, which received prayers and knew that other Christians were praying for them, saw complications occur in 59% of the patients.
The results were pretty clear. Not only did prayer not help those patients, it actually made things worse. Patients who were prayed for saw more complications than those who had no prayer. The reason most often cited by critics is that of "performance anxiety". If Jesus is not just a spiritual God, but rather one that has the ability to directly intervene in our lives, what conclusion can we draw from the most scientifically rigorous study ever conducted?
If someone uses prayer and it makes them feel good or it gives them the motivation to keep a positive attitude, then there can be a beneficial element to it but that doesn't mean that a divine entity was involved. The same effect can be reached regardless of the specific god being prayed to. There is value in the comfort that one feels when asking for help from a divine power, particularly when help seems so far out of reach. Positive thinking is no substitute for qualified medical care though. Likewise prayer is no substitute for qualified medical care either. Prayer alone is medically and tangibly ineffective.
I encourage every religious person to put faith to the test by keeping track of their prayers and the associated results. I would suggest assigning a difficulty level next to each prayer request where 1 is a simple prayer request and 10 is an impossible request without divine intervention. If a prayer is for someone who happens to be sick or hurt but is being medically attended to, that's a 1 or 2 due to the fact that qualified medical personnel and the person's own body figure heavily in the outcome. If a prayer is for someone who has lost a limb to have God give that person his/her limb back without medical attention, that's a 10. Adjust the situation accordingly and examine the results. How many high number prayer requests did God "answer"? How many prayers went unanswered? The point behind this exercise is to call attention to all of the unanswered prayers. This becomes much easier the moment we bring some accountability to it. It also allows us to see the impact of cognitive dissonance. If God doesn't answer, it's because His ways are mysterious or He has something better in mind. As George Carlin once said, "Fine, but if it's God's will, and He's going to do what He wants to anyway, why...bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me! Couldn't you just skip the praying part and go right to His Will?"
The simple fact of the matter is that God doesn't answer prayers that are impossible. He never has and He never will. Jesus lies to his disciples in Mark 11:24. It does not matter what someone prays for, how hard they pray, how many people pray for the same thing, how righteous the believer is, or how honorable the prayer is. Prayer might make someone feel better as a coping mechanism, but it doesn't provide tangible, meaningful results. Prayer is nothing more than mental self-gratification. If someone prays for something impossible like the re-growing of a lost limb, those prayers will always go unanswered. In fact, there is no single recorded case where an amputee's prayer has ever been answered. The key here is probability. An "answered" prayer will always have the potential to occur within the normal laws of probability. For example, cancer has been known to go into remission on its own, therefore we shouldn't automatically assign God as the reason when someone's cancer goes into remission. It's estimated that cancer will go into remission on its own in approximately 1 out of every 100,000 cases57. It's estimated that 22% of all breast cancer cases will experience spontaneous regression, so it would be intellectually dishonest to rush to insert God as the reason when we find ourselves on the receiving end of a positive result like this. Someone from another faith or even an atheist could achieve the same result. Coincidences are rarely meaningful but our ability to notice and associate meaning to them is a phenomenon that fascinates both believers and skeptics. The "power of prayer" can be more accurately described as the "power of coincidence".
Answered prayers are a big part of validating religion. Many prayers involve asking for a miracle, so it's worth asking what exactly is a miracle? The Scottish philosopher David Hume sums it up nicely by saying that a miracle is not just the suspension of the laws of nature, but it's a suspension of the laws of nature in favor of the person asking for the miracle. This presents an egotistical challenge however. As Hume proposes, either the laws of the universe have just been suspended for someone's personal benefit or the person reporting such a miracle is either simply mistaken or unaware of the event's natural probability. It seems to me that there is something quite arrogant about claiming a miracle. If I were to make a miraculous claim, I would essentially be saying that my miracle was so important that it was worthy of suspending the laws of the universe to produce. With the sheer number of miracles being claimed on a daily basis around the world, the laws of the universe would appear to be far looser than one might imagine - mere guidelines in fact. Fortunately there is no empirical evidence of any sort to support this outcome and therefore there is no empirical evidence to support belief in miracles.
When He's not killing them in a global flood, it is often said that God has a soft spot for children. I have difficulty reconciling God's love of children to the child mortality rate in our world. In 2010, 7.6 million children under the age of 5 died58. Two thirds of those deaths were preventable. In the time it will take you to read this paragraph, 10 children under the age of 5 will have died of a preventable death. Most of the parents of these children will pray to God and their prayers will not be answered. What if their prayers are unanswered because they're praying to the wrong God? What if their geography prevented them from being "saved" by Jesus because they never heard the story in the first place? Those children get rewarded with hell on earth as well as hell in the afterlife. I question the morality in believing this.
When it matters most, rational people will, either consciously or subconsciously, dismiss prayer as an ineffectual solution. Whether they want to admit it or not, they know that God is impotent to affect real change. That is the real takeaway. God doesn't regrow limbs no matter how many people might pray for it. He never has. He never will, and actions always speak louder than words.