The Power of Prayer

This is timely, considering my objection to Gov. Manchin’s remarks yesterday:

Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery, a large and long-awaited study has found.

And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created, the researchers suggested.

Because it is the most scientifically rigorous investigation of whether prayer can heal illness, the study, begun almost a decade ago and involving more than 1,800 patients, has for years been the subject of speculation.

The question has been a contentious one among researchers. Proponents have argued that prayer is perhaps the most deeply human response to disease, and that it may relieve suffering by some mechanism that is not yet understood. Skeptics have contended that studying prayer is a waste of money and that it presupposes supernatural intervention, putting it by definition beyond the reach of science.

I am a little surprised that the results were negative, because if you had asked me beforehand, I would have told you they would find nothing at all- no statistically significant relationships whatsoever. I have no idea how large the relationships were, how they controlled for things, etc., but I would bet it was rigorously done given how contentious there findings were going to be.

At any rate, the one thing the study did not apparently look at was who prayer is really designed for- the people praying, not the target of the prayers. When those miners were stuck in the mine in Sago, no amount of prayer was going to help them get out. Prayer did, on the other hand, really help the families of the victims. It gave them something to do and it gave them a sense that they were doing somthing to help, as well as bringing the group together in a shared activity when they needed suuport the most. So, regardless what this study shows, I wouldn’t say prayer is useless, because prayer is helping someone in these circumstances.






104 replies
  1. 1
    Marcus Wellby says:

    Belief in something – anything – greater than yourself can help you through many otherwise overwhelming obstacles. Whether this is a belief in a religion, a cause, or even your family it doesn’t matter. It just matters that the belief and commitment are genuine.

    Many people pray as a part of their deep religious beliefs, others pray because they want to make a “desperate deal with god”. Prayer won’t allow you to strike some bargain with god — but if you have true faith in your religion it can help to cope with anything. The key is faith. God isn’t Santa Claus and “askin’ for stuff” isn’t going to work.

  2. 2
    Santa Claus says:

    Well, I listen to prayers, anyway.

  3. 3
    fwiffo says:

    Feelings of hopelessness are overcome by positive action. Prayer is just a substitute. Sure, it gave them something to do with their time, but maybe they could have done something effective with it? Like, spend that time and energy creating a group to lobby the government for improved mine saftey regulations? Not only would it give them the sense they were doing something to help, it actually would help!

    I feel sympathy for these people, but all prayer gave them was fuzzy feelings.

  4. 4
    don surber says:

    John, it seems important to you that people not pray. Yoiur objection to the governor, a Catholic, expressing a belief in a higher power, was amusing. You are entitled to your beliefs. Why not be a little bigger and allow Joe Manchin to indulge in his beliefs.

    How do you measure the success of prayer when you know not what the goal of a prayer is?

    Pope John Paul II prayed eight hours a day. I compare the world of 1978, when his papacy began, to the world of 2005, and see a positive difference, much of it attributed to a Polish pope who supported Solidarity

    By the way, I am a lifelong protestant who nonetheless was exposed to the story of the prophecy of the Fatima at a very early age. It was a prophecy fulfilled when the Holy Father survived assassination and the Wall fell. Reagan, Weinberger, Walesa and millions more had a hand (“I have no hands but yours”) but God promised those three little kids through the Virgin Mary

    Believe what you will but in tryiing to enlist science to disprove faith you travel the same road the creationists travel as they try to disprove science

  5. 5
    JD says:

    Don, I don’t think thats what John was saying at all. Why do people love twisting his words for seemingly no reason? His only point was that Manchin’s remarks were disrespectful, on a rather large level, towards the families of 12 miners who weren’t as lucky as the “Miracle Miner.” Hardly proof of a higher being…unless that higher being wanted those other 12 dead for their sins.

  6. 6
    Nikki says:

    Sure, it gave them something to do with their time, but maybe they could have done something effective with it? Like, spend that time and energy creating a group to lobby the government for improved mine saftey regulations?

    Lessee, your loved one is trapped in a mine, you have no idea whether they are dead or alive, so in the hours that you spend waiting to hear if they are safe, you decide it’s time to start lobbying the government for improved mine safety regulations? You wanna rethink that?

  7. 7
    John Cole says:

    John, it seems important to you that people not pray. Yoiur objection to the governor, a Catholic, expressing a belief in a higher power, was amusing. You are entitled to your beliefs. Why not be a little bigger and allow Joe Manchin to indulge in his beliefs.

    Don, read this paragraph again:

    At any rate, the one thing the study did not apparently look at was who prayer is really designed for- the people praying, not the target of the prayers. When those miners were stuck in the mine in Sago, no amount of prayer was going to help them get out. Prayer did, on the other hand, really help the families of the victims. It gave them something to do and it gave them a sense that they were doing somthing to help, as well as bringing the group together in a shared activity when they needed suuport the most. So, regardless what this study shows, I wouldn’t say prayer is useless, because prayer is helping someone in these circumstances.

    Now tell me again how I don’t want people praying?

  8. 8
    Jim Allen says:

    Lessee, your loved one is trapped in a mine, you have no idea whether they are dead or alive, so in the hours that you spend waiting to hear if they are safe, you decide it’s time to start lobbying the government for improved mine safety regulations? You wanna rethink that?

    Yes, it’s far better to say a prayer than to throw cadavers.

  9. 9
    Andrew says:

    People recoverer faster when they are happy and in a pleasant environment. Patients in recovery rooms with a window have statistically signficantly higher rates of improvement than people in interior hospital rooms!

  10. 10
    Mr Furious says:

    …unless that higher being wanted those other 12 dead for their sins.

    Well, according to one fucked-up preacher and his congregation, that’s exactly what happened.

    I don’t think John cares at all if you or anyone else prays, Don. I think he might object to having it thrust in his face, especially by public officials, and I think he rightly and realistically questions what it all means, that’s all.

    John, I too am surprised that somehow there is a negative effect. I would have expected (and bought) a placebo-type positive benefit.

  11. 11
    muddy says:

    Well, I’m happy to see this study, if only to counteract the previous flawed study that purported to show that the people who were prayed for improved, even when they didn’t know they were being prayed for. I was in the hospital and had that one jammed down my throat about 100 times. People would ask, can I pray for you? And I’d say, do as you please, you don’t need my permission. I don’t believe in it, but if it makes you feel good, go for it. But oh no, they’d all carry on about “the study that proved it”. Like you don’t feel bad enough being in the hospital, let’s give you shit because you’re not a believer, and see, even *science* has proven prayer. I kept wanting to say that they had not done a good job praying as I did not get better, but of course that would have been laid on my sinful head as well, or it was just the will of god that I be sick. Also, if the person did not have to know about the prayer, why even ask me if they are allowed to do it? Just so that I know how prayerful they are I guess, and show the proper gratitude? Aieee.

  12. 12
    WyldPirate says:

    I can’t really disagree with your assesment that prayer helped the feeble-minded dolts take their mind of what was going on with their trapped family members. It’s good that the drooling mouthbreathers were occupied. Otherwise, they might have gone on to attack the rescuers or the mine officials (although the latter might well deserve to be attacked).

    Karl Marx was wrong about a whole shitload of things, but he was right on the money when he said “religion is the opiate of the masses”.

  13. 13

    Everyone is an atheist to every religion except one. I doubt that anyone in the Balloon Juice Community thinks that when Allah died he flew up to Heaven riding on a winged horse, and I’ve seen lots of derision about the virgins waiting up there for each suicide bomber, yet have no problem believing a religion where a guy walks on water and rises into heaven WITHOUT the winged horse. Virgin births, etc.

    Dennett’s new book talks about evolutionary advantages to groups of people with religious beliefs. That is, God may not exist but believing in it may be an advantage for a community. Members will be willing to die, for ex, for what is presented as God’s Desire. Divine fascism. Works well.

    So religious belief and prayer may not help on the healing side, but works well on the killing side.

  14. 14
    Jim Allen says:

    I can’t really disagree with your assesment that prayer helped the feeble-minded dolts take their mind of what was going on with their trapped family members. It’s good that the drooling mouthbreathers were occupied. Otherwise, they might have gone on to attack the rescuers or the mine officials (although the latter might well deserve to be attacked).

    While the John Coles of the Right of Center may believe that, I suspect John Cole would be a bit more circumspect in his wording than you attribute to him.

    Karl Marx was wrong about a whole shitload of things, but he was right on the money when he said “religion is the opiate of the masses”.

    Actually, he was wrong about that, too. Turns out that opium was the opiate of the masses.

  15. 15
    fwiffo says:

    Lessee, your loved one is trapped in a mine, you have no idea whether they are dead or alive, so in the hours that you spend waiting to hear if they are safe, you decide it’s time to start lobbying the government for improved mine safety regulations? You wanna rethink that?

    No, I mean exactly what I said. Prayer gave them nothing but fuzzy feelings. There are all sorts of positive things a person can do during almost any adversity like this. They could get the fuzzy feelings AND accomplish something important. OK, maybe working to improve mine saftey is too close to the situation and too emotional during the crisis. There are other things they can do. Hell, they could volunteer at a soup kitchen or donate blood or something. They’d get those same positive feelings of being able to “do something” while at the same time making a positive contribution to the world. Prayer is a placebo. Actually doing something is much more fulfilling.

  16. 16
    demimondian says:

    I was surprised by the deleterious effects of being prayed for, too. That’s just…weird. The explanation offered by the study organizers seems kind of facile to me, at least at first glance.

    It has one advantage, though — next time someone says “Well, I’ll keep you in my prayers,” hoping to make me feel that they love the sinner despite hating the sin, I’ll fell perfectly justified in asking them why they’re trying to harm me.

    I’m going to disagree with JC on the issue of whether prayer helped the Sago thirteen — if it helped any of the rescuers move the next piece of wood, then it helped the trapped miners, too.

  17. 17
    demimondian says:

    Turns out that opium was the opiate of the masses.

    Only in the Far East, where it was cheap. In Britain, alcohol was the opiate of the masses.

    And to reinforce your point, the Methodists (religious types) spent a lot of years trying to free people from that opiate through religion. Odd thing that the God types might actually care about their congregations, isn’t it?

  18. 18
    Jim Allen says:

    In the beginning, God created the earth, and he looked upon it in His cosmic loneliness.

    And God said, “Let Us make living creatures out of mud, so the mud can see what We have done.” And God created every living creature that now moveth, and one was man. Mud as man alone could speak. God leaned close as mud as man sat up, looked around, and spoke. Man blinked. “What is the purpose of all this?” he asked politely.

    “Everything must have a purpose?” asked God.

    “Certainly,” said man.

    “Then I leave it to you to think of one for all this,” said God.

    And He went away.

    “The Books of Bokonon — Book One, verses 2-4”

  19. 19
    drindl says:

    Thanks, Bob, what’s the name of Dennet’s book? Sounds interesting. I’ve always wondered whether religious faith was an evolutionary advantage. Would we have done better or worse as a species without it?

    Since throughout history vast numbers of people have been persecuted or killed in wars ignited by religious beliefs, you could say that was detrimental–or maybe that it was positive because it kept the population in check.

    Of course, plagues have the same effect.

  20. 20
    norbizness says:

    Don: You seem to forget that the study was commissioned and funded by people who believed in the power of prayer (the John Templeton Foundation from the UK). The fact that somebody took the money and wasted it on this shit is quite another matter, though. It would have been better spent on ALF pogs.

    Now, if somebody wants to get on that mind-body connection, I’m all for it.

  21. 21
    ppGaz says:

    I prayed for this thread … and here it is.

  22. 22
    Jim Allen says:

    I prayed for this thread … and here it is.

    Unfortunately, the mere fact that you prayed for it means it isn’t going to get any better.

  23. 23
    canuckistani says:

    I’ll take a whack at this one, and then put on my Atheist Club asbestos flame-suit. Prayer is bad, because it teaches people to rely on a magic spirit to solve their problems for them, instead of solving their problems on their own or with their community. If the miners families wanted to do something positive, they could donate blood, make soup for the rescuers and their families, write angry letters, or a dozen useful things that I can’t think of because I wasn’t there.

    Frankly, I could never figure out why true-believer Christians wouldn’t want their relatives to die, so that they can go to heaven and live in bliss for all eternity. My best guess is that their relatives are like mine, and have some serious repentance to get done before they’ll get to heaven.

  24. 24
    ppGaz says:

    Unfortunately, the mere fact that you prayed for it means it isn’t going to get any better.

    Amen.

  25. 25
    Jim Allen says:

    Frankly, I could never figure out why true-believer Christians wouldn’t want their relatives to die, so that they can go to heaven and live in bliss for all eternity.

    Keep in mind that many of these same folks can believe that God was powerful enough to create the world in 6 days, but not powerful enough to build a system where life forms can evolve and change and adapt to shifting surroundings over millenia.

  26. 26
    Rosie the Riveter says:

    Working on getting mine safety regulations actually enforced would have been a good thing for the Sago miners’ families to do because that’s what killed those poor guys. The one good thing I see coming out of this tragedy is that it may raise public awareness of the cushy relationship between mining companies and the Bush administration and perhaps prevent other miners from dying.

    As for scientific studies of the power of prayer, why do people want to pin God down on a specimen slide? If we had positive proof that God either existed or didn’t exist, faith would become meaningless.

  27. 27
    ppGaz says:

    Keep in mind that many of these same folks can believe that God was powerful enough to create the world in 6 days, but not powerful enough to build a system where life forms can evolve and change and adapt to shifting surroundings over millenia.

    Chuckle.

    But … BLASPHEMER!

  28. 28
    Larry says:

    The worst part of hell is the incessant praying.

  29. 29
    Blue Neponset says:

    Frankly, I could never figure out why true-believer Christians wouldn’t want their relatives to die, so that they can go to heaven and live in bliss for all eternity.

    I understand you aren’t trying to be too offensive to us true-believers, but that comment is in poor taste, to say the least.

  30. 30
    drindl says:

    I don’t think people are trying to be offensive. I think it’s just a relief to have a few folks in a room enjoying their freedom of speech without a religious fanatic going apeshit because someone made a remark that he construed as offensive.

    Religionists get away with a lot of outrageous behavior because it’s so politically incorrect to criticize them.

    But in any case, I don’t really understand why the comment is in poor taste. Honestly. If one really believes that heaven is a better place why wouldn’t one want everyone they love to go there immediately?

  31. 31
    Blue Neponset says:

    I think it’s just a relief to have a few folks in a room enjoying their freedom of speech without a religious fanatic going apeshit because someone made a remark that he construed as offensive.

    Well, I didn’t mean to wreck the party, but I found canuckistani’s remark to be in poor taste and I said so.

    I don’t really understand why the comment is in poor taste. Honestly. If one really believes that heaven is a better place why wouldn’t one want everyone they love to go there immediately?

  32. 32
    Blue Neponset says:

    Oops, hit submit too soon.

    I don’t really understand why the comment is in poor taste. Honestly. If one really believes that heaven is a better place why wouldn’t one want everyone they love to go there immediately?

    If you can’t understand why I found that comment to be in poor taste then I would be wasting my time trying to explain it to you.

  33. 33
    capelza says:

    Blue Neponset….I am a “believer”, though I separate civic from religious. I don’t see how it is offensive either. I have often wondered the same thing myself. It’s an honest question. That I have yet seen answered.

  34. 34
    ppGaz says:

    Canuck doesn’t have any loved ones, so he doesn’t get it?

    I’m just suggesting an explanation. But this is Balloon-Juice, not the Mormon Tabernacle. We can say snarky and rude things here, eh? I pray that it is so.

    Canuck is partly right about the prayer-magical thinking connection. But affirmation is a powerful instrument and it isn’t necessary to reject it just because it isn’t grounded in facts and science. The idea that we have to pick between one and the other is the stuff of the rightwing assholariat. Faith and reality are not incompatible. If they were, we wouldn’t have the empire of science that we now have. We always managed to handle the ambiguities …. until the Dobosonites and phony “christians” came along to claim that ambiguity is the work of Satan.

  35. 35
    capelza says:

    As to the “I’ll be praying for you” thing. Please don’t tell me, just do it. What do you want, a brass plaque saying “This prayer donated by…?”

    It seems to fall into two camps. Those who are trying to honestly helpful and don’t realise that the added burden of trying to live up to their prayers might actually be an additional emotional burden.

    The second camp are the self-righteous, “I have a direct line to God and you don’t you worthless sinner” types. They can bite me. I generally tell them to save their breath. I’m not an athiest, but I can play one on TV.

  36. 36

    I think what happened is that the people found out that it was Pat Robertson praying for them, and they got all worried that Pat might be trying to take all their money.

    People who believe in the power of prayer remind me of the old story of the guy sitting on the roof of his house as the flood waters rise. A canoe, a boat and a helicopter come by trying to help and each time he refuses their aid saying “God will save me.” When he’s finally at the gates of Heaven he demands of God, “Why didn’t you come save me?” to which he responds “What are you talking about? I sent a canoe, a boat and a helicopter for you.”

  37. 37

    The second camp are the self-righteous, “I have a direct line to God and you don’t you worthless sinner” types. They can bite me. I generally tell them to save their breath. I’m not an athiest, but I can play one on TV.

    I always liked the line from Ladyhawke.

    “I talk to God all the time, and no offense, but he never mentioned you.”

  38. 38
    demimondian says:

    But in any case, I don’t really understand why the comment is in poor taste. Honestly. If one really believes that heaven is a better place why wouldn’t one want everyone they love to go there immediately?

    Speaking as another “believer”, I’ll go a step beyond that. It is a well-founded question, and one that should be answered.

    And, as is often the case, it has an answer. Life itself is a priceless gift from God, whether that life is earthly or heavenly. When my saved loved ones still live, I benefit from their presence and their love — and my well-being is also important. As long as they are happy and comfortable, and capable of enjoying the good things of this world, then I want them here, to share in their joy at His creation. Once, however, they pass beyond that point, I will pray that He takes them to end their suffering — because anything else would be greed on my part.

    If you think that such a view has bearing on the Schiavo case…you’re right. I think that the actions of the self-styled “Christians” who sought to save her “life” is nothing short of blasphemy.

  39. 39
    capelza says:

    Last thing…from personal experience, at a time of great personal tragedy, I had some of these praying folks tell me that God works in mysterious ways and that he has a plan and that they would pray for me. I told them the next time, God should just send me a fax with the plan and spare the mystery at such a terrible cost.

  40. 40
    drindl says:

    Thank you capelza. I would even accept a brief email.

  41. 41
    Blue Neponset says:

    I have often wondered the same thing myself. It’s an honest question.

    The main reasons are selfish. I love my friends and family and there would be a huge hole if my life if any one of them were to die. That is one reason people say I lost my wife to Cancer or I lost my son to a drunk driver. Something precious was taken from you and that hurts. Except for the sociopaths among us, I expect everyone can understand that.

    Regarding the idea of wanting your loved ones in a “better place”, I have actually prayed for people to die because they were suffering terribly and there was nothing that could be done for them. So, in that case I did want them to go to a “better place”. That is the main reason I find that earlier comment offensive.

  42. 42
    drindl says:

    I appreciate what you said also, Demomondian. I don’t mean to toss all religious people into the same basket. I have friends, religious Catholics and Jews and maintream Christians who are some of the finest people I know. I just am tired of being shoved around by the fundies. I was raised as one and I know what they believe in and it’s certifiably loony.

    Anyway, I wouldn’t say I don’t believe in God. I just believe God is DNA.

  43. 43
    Jim Anchower says:

    Prayer did, on the other hand, really help the families of the victims. It gave them something to do and it gave them a sense that they were doing somthing to help, as well as bringing the group together in a shared activity when they needed suuport the most.

    Despite the fact that they weren’t doing anything to help at all.

    I don’t mean to be raw, but religion and prayer is a crutch of the weak.

  44. 44
  45. 45
    SeesThroughIt says:

    Now, if somebody wants to get on that mind-body connection, I’m all for it.

    You and me both!

    Also, situations like this always remind me of a class exchange from the “Godfellas” episode of Futurama where Bender is lost drifting through space and a distraught Fry seeks out a pastor for help:

    Fry: Is there anything religion can do to help me find my friend?
    Pastor: Well, we could join together in prayer.
    Fry: Uh huh…but is there anything useful we can do?
    Pastor: No.

    I’m also a huge fan of that article in The Onion–Cbasketball Player Blames God for Loss. “God, in his infinite wisdom, found it necessary that I blow that wide-open layup.”

  46. 46
    jg says:

    Snakes on a plane!! All you blasphemers are going to heck.
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    I’ll see you there :)

  47. 47
    ppGaz says:

    The Hell you say!

  48. 48

    drindl, it’s Daniel C. Dennett’s BREAKING THE SPELL. I haven’t started it, I’m reading a comparative study/biographies of Jung and Reich by John Conger right now, and it’s a little tough sledding, but there’s a review of Dennett’s book in this week’s New Yorker.

    The definite biological advantage is to those who interpret what “God” wants and does. They are the ones that define the culture and society. Not much advantage with the rest of the suckers who march off to war or work in the mines, or cover their bodies, or hate themselves for being gay or getting an abortion or just wanting to whack off once in a while in opposition to the rules that “God” laid down.

    Actually, early Christianity had an advantage with its extreme, “socialist” concerns for the care of others. That attracted the outcasts of society, and at the time the elite weren’t all that interested in the lives and deaths of peasants and slaves. It grew, and philosophical themes, which touched on the nature of humanity, attracted the upper classes. Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire it became a kind of two-faced religion, on one hand presenting the caring side for general consumption and on the other being a creed for killing non-Christians.

    It’s sort of like religion takes advantage of the schizophrenic, bicameral nature of the mind. That’s why societies with too much religion tend to go “crazy.”

  49. 49
    sean says:

    I love the Alf reference, norbizness.

    Milhouse: I traded your soul for Alf pogs. Remember Alf? He’s back. In pog form.

  50. 50
    jaime says:

    “Dear, Jesus. GIMME GIMME. GIMME. GIMME. GIMME.”

    Ah, Wonder Showzen.

  51. 51
    Jim Allen says:

    I always liked the line from Ladyhawke.

    “I talk to God all the time, and no offense, but he never mentioned you.”

    I prefer the exchange with Peter O’Toole as Jack (who thinks he’s God) in “The Ruling Class”:

    Society Lady: “When did you first realize you were God?”
    Jack: “When I realized that every time I was praying I was really talking to myself.”

  52. 52
    capelza says:

    Growing up in Missouri, I watched each high school football team pray in a huddle for victory. Somewhere around there, I got the feeling that maybe God wishes we’d pray a little less, and practice our scrimmages (or whatever they are) a little more.

  53. 53
    Capriccio says:

    Since we’re passing out useful and relevant book titles, may I suggest The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris.
    From the blurb:
    “Most controversially, he maintains that ‘moderation’ in religion poses considerable dangers of its own: as the accommodation we have made to religious faith in our society now blinds us to the role that faith plays in perpetuating human conflict. While warning against the encroachment of organized religion into world politics, Harris draws on insights from neuroscience, philosophy, and Eastern mysticism in an attempt to provide a truly modern foundation for our ethics and our search for spiritual experience.”

  54. 54

    Capriccio, I’ve got Sam Harris’ book in the trunk of my car. I got about forty pages into it and found I was agreeing with everything, which started getting boring. I’ll pick it up again, though.

  55. 55
    fred says:

    There is an interesting similarity between belief in the efficacy of prayer, and belief in quasi-scientific stuff like morphic fields and the magical powers of quantum mechanics, let alone the eastern/new-agey stuff where a bunch of people in florida meditate on peace in isreal and suggest they have an effect. It seems to me that this is a deep human desire, to want to be able to have an impact through mysterious/magical/mystical channels when reality affords no mechanism for actually having that impact. It’s not always about Christianity for Christ’s sake.

    I agree with John that prayer (be it Christian,new-age, or whatever) can serve a valuable purpose for family members during the interminable wait to find out the fate of a loved one (sorry I’m not going to go work in a soup kitchen when my kid is trapped in a mine; I’d be a bit distracted). Personally, however, I dislike prayer in the hands of random strangers who pray while continuing about their lives w/o any direct impact or change. For these people I think prayer often serves no purpose but to make them feel good while providing an excuse for avoiding substantive action.

    Distinguishing between the two groups is often fuzzy (which group were you in during Katrina or 9/11?), but I think you get my point.

  56. 56

    I don’t mean to be raw, but religion and prayer is a crutch of the weak.

    I don’t think religion by itself is a crutch, but I do think that some people use it that way.

    I hear a psychologist on TV a year or so back talking, and he said that back in the 1950s when he first started practicing the highly paranoid were railing against the Commies coming to get them. Today, they’ve latched onto religion and are railing against something else.

    As ppGaz’s note points out about the War on Christian club, there are a lot of really insane people in this world and if we listen to think unquestioningly we let them run the aslyum.

  57. 57
    rilkefan says:

    I would have told you they would find nothing at all- no statistically significant relationships whatsoever.

    The way I’m doing the math (sqrt(300)/600 etc) puts this effect at a couple of sigma, not something to write home about (in my field, 4 or 5 is required for a discovery).

  58. 58
    ppGaz says:

    takes advantage of the schizophrenic, bicameral nature of the mind.

    Not a Jaynes fan, are you?

    (Origin of Consciousness … etc).

  59. 59
    canuckistani says:

    Thanks for the straight answer, demimondian. It was a serious question, and although it wasn’t intended to offend, I wasn’t trying to spare feelings either. I did in fact have the Schiavo case partly in mind when I asked it. The fact that you have a nuanced answer to the question, however, means that you probably aren’t the person I wanted to understand the thinking of. I’m more curious about the absolutists, whose thinking I do not fathom at all.

    Now you see, owing to the way my mind works, I would have supposed doubt was at the root of the question. But I am interested to see a (within the parameters of religion) sensible faith-based answer.

    Blue N, you lost points by basing your answer on selfishness, with its implication that if you were a better person, you would want to see your loved ones in heaven. Your answer may be more honest, but it doesn’t make for convincing theology.

  60. 60
    marky says:

    I’m with you, Canuckistan.
    If the holy rollers really believed in the infinite reward of heaven, they would immediately kill all converts to send them on an express to heaven. After this, they would repent, rinse, and repeat.
    The reason Canuck’s comment offended people is that it rubs the hypocrisy of belief in one’s face. If Heaven really is such an ultimate, infinite reward, there’s no reason to stick around here. The truth is, as most of us realize, otherwise.

  61. 61
    canuckistani says:

    Canuck doesn’t have any loved ones, so he doesn’t get it?

    No one loves atheists, and we don’t love anyone. We’re just animals that walk upright and make speech-like sounds.

    Canuck is partly right about the prayer-magical thinking connection. But affirmation is a powerful instrument and it isn’t necessary to reject it just because it isn’t grounded in facts and science.

    It is my contention that if affirmation does work – and it might – then there is at the root of it a rational explanation that we may not understand now, but will understand in the future. There is nothing that isn’t grounded in facts and science, even if the foundation is buried out of sight. I will never speak the words “I do not understand this; it must be God’s doing”.

  62. 62
    Krista says:

    Last thing…from personal experience, at a time of great personal tragedy, I had some of these praying folks tell me that God works in mysterious ways and that he has a plan and that they would pray for me. I told them the next time, God should just send me a fax with the plan and spare the mystery at such a terrible cost.

    You’re a better woman than I. I would have kicked them in the head.

    I know this born-again fellow whose uncle was dying slowly and painfully from cancer. Instead of just offering to speak with him and listen about his thoughts on life, death, the afterlife, etc., he stuffed a bunch of religious literature in his uncle’s mailbox, rang the doorbell, and RAN AWAY!

    I know I should be more tolerant, but I really have to grit my teeth when someone starts bringing up religion to me, because in my experience, very rarely have any of these people backed off when asked, very politely. My indifference to religion has slowly turned into animosity, mostly due to people who just don’t stop pushing.

  63. 63
    demimondian says:

    Ah, Canuck — the challenge, of course, is to prove they we aren’t all animals that walk upright and talk. Prove to me, please, that I actually love anyone, and that it isn’t just a side-effect of the evolved urge to mate and have the offspring of that mating survive to mate in their own time.

    I have a nuanced answer to that, too, though: as far as I’m concerned, discrete knowledge is incompatible with faith. If I know, then I don’t have to believe, and, as a consequence, if God acts in this world, then he can’t leave calling cards.

    That’s close to why I don’t offer the doubt-based answer to the “why not kill them outright” question? (The doubt based answer is “Since they might actually not be saved, I might be comdemning them to Hell, or, at least, denying them Heaven, and denying them a chance at salvation.”) If there is a just God, and if each person is responsible for his or her own acts, then He will not punish someone else for my acts, but only for their own. Thus, my killing them can’t affect the ultimate disposition of their soul — if they’ve damned themselves, they’ve damned themselves, independent of whether I murder them or not.

    This, by the way, is the reason that Calvin adopted the notion of predestination — God must have known at the moment of creation what the ultimate disposition of each human soul would be. I don’t find that argument compelling…but somehow, I don’t think that a long treatise on moral theologicy and theodicy would be appreciated here on BalJuice…

  64. 64
    Alex says:

    Prayer is bad, because it teaches people to rely on a magic spirit to solve their problems for them, instead of solving their problems on their own or with their community.

    Actually, I remember some evangelical spokesman (a guest on Dr. Laura’s radio show) hypothesizing something very similar to this when asked why conservative Christians have a higher divorce rate than any other religious (or non-religious) group. He said that very religious couples who are experiencing difficulties could end up relying too much on prayer and not enough on actually communicating with *each other*. Even this guy – someone who presumably believes in the power of prayer – didn’t think that it was an adequate substitute for couples therapy.

  65. 65
    Blue Neponset says:

    Your answer may be more honest, but it doesn’t make for convincing theology.

    That is mostly because my answer was just plain common sense. If you want to have an honest debate about theology then let’s have one. Asking me why I don’t pray for my family to die just seems like a stupid question to me.

    If Heaven really is such an ultimate, infinite reward, there’s no reason to stick around here.

    That is just it. Heaven is suppose to be a reward for being a decent human being. Why would there be a reward for dying? Any asshole can do that.

    Also, how the hell do I know if someone is going to go to heaven or not? Maybe someone who looks to me like he should get past the pearly gates beats his wife and kids and cheats on his taxes. You can never know what is in the heart of another person.

  66. 66
    Sirkowski says:

    They were praying the wrong god.

    BLOOD – FOR – BAAL!
    BLOOD – FOR – BAAL!

  67. 67

    ppGaz, I’m not a Jaynes fan per se, and my knowledge is based on a magazine article in THE SCIENCES magazine that I read probably 15-20 years ago. I may not even be using his theory of the bicameral mind correctly. The term kind of snuck into my post, although the concept does have a certain resonance with the discussion.

    (Jeez, another book to read.)

    In that particular post I was thinking more Janus and less Jaynes, you know, two-faced. If I recall, Jaynes said that ancient man presumed that the voices in his head were God, or Gods, speaking; that ancient man hadn’t fully incorporated that inner dialogue as something solely a part of his own mind and not an outside agent.

    Certainly, there are plenty of people with similar belief systems walking around today. You know, like when a certain numbnuts has discussions with his “Higher Father” about whether or not to lie in order to wage a war.

  68. 68
    Capriccio says:

    Bob in Pacifica: Yes, the first part of The End of Faith may be redundant for anyone at all familiar with the role of religion in history (and there aren’t many, which is why I’m all for yes, indeed, please, let’s teach the role of religion in history…the whole story). But if you skip to the last couple of chapters, you’ll find Harris struggling with the big important question of how do we get to where religion is supposed to take us without religion.

  69. 69
    SeesThroughIt says:

    My indifference to religion has slowly turned into animosity, mostly due to people who just don’t stop pushing.

    I hear you on that. I’m still largely indifferent to religion because, hey, different strokes for different folks. Whatever gets you through the day is A-OK with me. But when people try to push their religion on me or try to claim some inherent superiority due to their religion (to which I typically shoot back, “I don’t need god to tell me to do good things, and I don’t do them to score brownie points with god or dodge hell–I just do them because you’re supposed to do them. If you need god to tell you that, you’re not as advanced as you think”)…oh, that indifference turns to animosity with the quickness!

  70. 70
    marky says:

    Hey Blue,
    There’s a whole political movement in this country based on certain knowledge of who’s not going to Heaven. These people don’t hesitate in trying to legislate based on their fairy tales. Maybe you’re one of those Bin Laden loving pinkos, but millions of red-blooded Americans agree with my characterization of Christianity.

  71. 71
    snorkel says:

    At the Catholic funeral of a relative who had committed suicide, amidst all the sobbing (mostly out of guilt for not having recognized the deceased’s desperate depression), the voice of a young child was heard: “I don’t get it. Why is everyone crying just because Daddy went to Heaven?” I thought, that is the voice of someone who really believes in Heaven. There is no way the rest of us, with our sobs, truly believed that the deceased was in a better place.

  72. 72
    canuckistani says:

    Demimondian-
    The bit about the walking animals who don’t love was meant to be a joke. We are as capable of love as any religious person, though how much that is is an interesting philosophical question best dealt with drunk.

    As for predestination, I like the idea. I like the idea of salvation being divorced from the doing of good works, so that any good I do is pure and unsullied, and cannot be accounted for as trying to buy my way into heaven.

    Blue N-
    I think the good people here would love to see a good theological scrap. I bet they’re bored with picking on the John Cole’s of the right. Why don’t you pray for your family to be taken up to heaven this very night? I’m not going to suggest for a second that you should; I want to know why you don’t. You must have a better reason than mean old selfishness. If I knew that an eternity of bliss in God’s presence awaited them, I’d be on my knees begging God to scoop them up as soon as they were ready to go. Wanting them to live on the earth is like wanting them to stay in your prison cell with you.
    Then I would ask why God would create me with a gaping flaw in my personality guaranteed to ensure my damnation. And why angels will help old ladies find lost rings, but not prevent genocide. And whether God rewards the sincere with football victories.

  73. 73

    I know I should be more tolerant, but I really have to grit my teeth when someone starts bringing up religion to me, because in my experience, very rarely have any of these people backed off when asked, very politely. My indifference to religion has slowly turned into animosity, mostly due to people who just don’t stop pushing.

    I guess it depends on how patient you are.

    My mother is the type to invite Jehovah Witnesses inside when they come knocking so that she can tell them about being a Presybyterian. :-)

  74. 74

    The placebo effect is well documented. There is no reason a prayer can’t work the same as a sugar pill.

    I would guess the people who were prayed for could have been more sick then the ones who were not. Thus the higher death rate.

  75. 75
    drindl says:

    Hey, I bet just about any republican in congress can tell you who’s going to heaven — them. I mean, Tom DeLay will surely be going to heaven– he was the star speaker at this week’s War On Christianity powwow.

    That was one of my earliest problems growing up a fundie – there were all these perfectly horrible people in my church who were certain they were ‘saved’ — and I thought man, spend eternity with these folks? I don’t think so.

  76. 76
    Blue Neponset says:

    Yo marky,

    but millions of red-blooded Americans agree with my characterization of Christianity.

    Do I have you to thank for keeping the Jesus Freaks from taking over? If so, I want to say thank you, thank you so much and please keep soldiering on you poor oppressed thing.

  77. 77
    Blue Neponset says:

    If I knew that an eternity of bliss in God’s presence awaited them, I’d be on my knees begging God to scoop them up as soon as they were ready to go.

    As I noted earlier how the hell do I know if someone is going to go to Heaven or not? Do you think there is a checklist or formula I can use to determine that?

  78. 78
    demimondian says:

    Hey, I bet just about any republican in congress can tell you who’s going to heaven—them. I mean, Tom DeLay will surely be going to heaven—he was the star speaker at this week’s War On Christianity powwow.

    I’d pray for their extermination, the whole lot of them, but I have the advantage of expecting to gloat over their eternal torment from the comfortable slot I’m guaranteed in Heaven. The fact that they expect our mutual positions to be reversed is merely conclusive evidence of their irremediable error.

    Or something like that…

  79. 79
    canuckistani says:

    As I noted earlier how the hell do I know if someone is going to go to Heaven or not? Do you think there is a checklist or formula I can use to determine that?

    Well, you don’t know of course, God does. You aren’t praying for their deaths in whatever random state they happen to be in, you pray God to take them when they are in a fit state to enter heaven. I’m simply presupposing that your faith in your chosen path is strong enough to remove any possibility of doubt that the afterlife is what you are expecting.

  80. 80
    Blue Neponset says:

    You aren’t praying for their deaths in whatever random state they happen to be in, you pray God to take them when they are in a fit state to enter heaven.

    Why would I do that? Life is a journey not a destination.

    I’m simply presupposing that your faith in your chosen path is strong enough to remove any possibility of doubt that the afterlife is what you are expecting.

    It isn’t. You are describing perfect faith in God, that doesn’t exist. Even Jesus had his doubts.

  81. 81
    demimondian says:

    If I knew that an eternity of bliss in God’s presence awaited them, I’d be on my knees begging God to scoop them up as soon as they were ready to go.

    So you would pray for him to let them die as soon as they were really ready to do so. That doesn’t sound like praying for their immediate assumption to me, which is what you originally asked about.

  82. 82
    ppGaz says:

    There is nothing that isn’t grounded in facts and science,

    Uh, yes, that’s the very definition of “faith.” Belief in the absence of proof, or despite evidence to the contrary.

  83. 83
    jg says:

    Even Jesus had his doubts.

    Just ask Mick Jagger, he was there.

  84. 84
    drindl says:

    I remember my aunt [who is 80] was trying to comfort me when my mother died, citing references from the Bible [can’t remember which book] about the streets of gold in heaven [I beleive there was also some reference to precious stones] and the ‘mansions in my father’s house’. It sounded like a real estate development from hell–maybe there was a golf course, too.

    It was so literal, like 40 virgins waiting for you. Like take people’s biggest fantasy, and promise them that if they just follow the rules. That’s the way you talk to children. I realize the more sophisticated factions don’t think like that, but the fundies do. It seems like arrested development.

    What really comforted me when my mother died was the idea that her body would break down and become part of nature’s recycling … the grass, the trees. “Dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt returneth” — a part of the Bible that is scientifically verifiable. I dreamed that she spoke to me through the wind rattling the dead leaves on the street.

  85. 85
    canuckistani says:

    Why would I do that? Life is a journey not a destination.

    I would have thought life was trivial and insignificant compared to eternity in the presence of God.

    Even Jesus had his doubts.

    Ah. Doubt. There’s the magic word. The sign of a reasoning human being. I’ll stop needling you now, you aren’t my enemy. I don’t really want you to pray for the deaths of your family members. Not that I believe in the power of prayer, but imagine if they found out.

    So you would pray for him to let them die as soon as they were really ready to do so. That doesn’t sound like praying for their immediate assumption to me, which is what you originally asked about.

    It was correctly pointed out that praying for immediate death was irresponsible, since they may not be in a suitable moral state at the present. Let us say that if I were certain, I would pray for their instant death the moment they qualified for entry into heaven. God would know when that was.

  86. 86
    canuckistani says:

    There is nothing that isn’t grounded in facts and science,

    Uh, yes, that’s the very definition of “faith.” Belief in the absence of proof, or despite evidence to the contrary.

    Then let me speak with more clarity and precision: I should have said I do not believe in anything that isn’t grounded in facts and science. And science isn’t a matter of belief. I can swing that pendulum myself, I can watch an orange turn green, I can see the moons of Jupiter. No faith or belief required. I do not believe in the supernatural. Note that I do not say “I believe there is nothing supernatural”, for you are correct, that statement involves a leap of faith. But when I see lightning, I wonder what natural process causes it. I never ask what I have done to provoke the wrath of Zeus.

  87. 87
    ppGaz says:

    I should have said I do not believe in anything that isn’t grounded in facts and science.

    Hmm. What would you have done 200 years ago, then?

  88. 88
    ppGaz says:

    But when I see lightning, I wonder what natural process causes it. I never ask what I have done to provoke the wrath of Zeus.

    Sure, but there is a lot more to faith than wondering what the physics of lightning might be, or deciding that they are the wrath of Zeus.

    For example, I have faith in the American Experiment, even though a good deal of current evidence might be said to indicate that it has failed ;-)

  89. 89
    Rome Again says:

    Thanks for digging this up John. As someone who has religious beliefs much different than the norm, I get very irked when complete strangers want to pray for me or someone in my family for whatever situation might be going on. I find it completely rude of them to assume that I would want them praying to their god (who I’m sure I don’t worship, believe in or even wish to acknowledge) for me when I have my own belief in God (which I’m sure my God would be completely alien to them). It seems to be a battle of “my God is bigger, so I need to pray to him for you”. Who are they to say their god is who prayers for my needs or those of my family should be going to?

    Now I have something to cite to state that it would probably do more harm than good, thanks! :)

  90. 90
    marky says:

    Gillnitz:
    The placebo effect is problematical. A recent meta-analysis suggested there is no such thing. The question is not relevant to whether prayer can help a person who does not know he is being prayed for.
    I do understand the negative effect though—i would be pissed as hell if some holy rollers came into my hospital room and told me they were going to pray for me.

  91. 91
    Tim F. says:

    I would guess the people who were prayed for could have been more sick then the ones who were not. Thus the higher death rate.

    That was my interpretation, although I assume that they would have controlled for the degree of illness. I may not be the praying sort (about as far from it as you can get without becoming unpleasant about it, in fact) but I’ll gladly put in for a special favor if a loved one gets close to that dark threshold.

  92. 92
    rachel says:

    Sick person: Urk!
    Friends and Relatives: Although we’d prefer for God to heal our loved one, may God’s will be done, whatever it is.
    God: OK then!
    Sick person: *dies*
    Friends and Relatives: Oh, woe! Why was our loved one taken from us? It must have been God’s will.
    God: Damn skippy. And I’ll be back for the rest of you later, so do right while you still can.

  93. 93
    Ron A. Zajac says:

    John Cole is merely doing damage control. What this study threatens to damage is a strangely popular notion that prayer objectively does something for the prayer target. It’s really that simple, and there are legions of people out there who believe that. The irony, of course, is that this study will not change their minds, for the same reason that they pray in this particular mode; because reality is not one of their strong points.

    This reminds me of a funny experience.

    I used to live around Dallas, Texas, and fairly often found myself in the company of christian fundamentalists. I had just sprained my foot very badly, was still in a lot of pain, and had gone with my family to a park. I was so miserable though, that I chose to just sort of languish in the back seat of the car, laying down with my eyes closed, trying to ignore the pain. Someone knocked on the window. It was Denny, a xian fundie guy of my acquaintence. He opened the door, and after some preliminaries, offered to pray over my foot. I’m a liberal–quite open-minded–and I said, “Sure; feel free!” He “laid his hands” on my swollen appendage and prayed fervently, out loud. Afterwords, we talked for a minute or two. Then Denny asked if my foot felt any better. “Actually, not really; but thanks anyway!” Denny thought a second, then said, “Sometimes the healing takes a while.” I said, “Yes, I’m sure that’s true.”

  94. 94
    DZ says:

    I am the product of an atheist father and a fundamentalist, evangelical mother. They were terrific parents, and they made their relationship work for 52 years until the death of my father. As a consequence of this experience, I have tried for my entire adult life to respect and engage with the religious even though I am an atheist. I want nothing more than to have other people’s religion kept out of my life and away from my family (and no theocratic fingers in my pockets), but I beleive that the time may have arrived for me to become the militant and belligerent atheist that I am constantly accused of being.

  95. 95
    Seattle Slough says:

    I think this study proves the power of prayer.

    Think about it – the Devil surely knew about this study and of course the Devil doesn’t want people to pray, so obviously the Devil would have sent all his demons and power to kill and harm as many of the study participants as he could. Thanks to the power of prayer, the Devil could only cause a few “complications.” Ha! Imagine how helpful prayer is when you aren’t involved in this big well-known study that draws so much satanic attention.

    Go Jesus! Yay!

  96. 96
    canuckistani says:

    Hmm. What would you have done 200 years ago, then?

    Tough to say. It’s hard to know how a different education would make me turn out. I’m sure there are many fundamentalists who are as smart as I am or smarter, but were never taught to think critically, or were raised in an atmosphere where blind faith was regarded as a virtue.

    I’d like to think I’d have been a natural philosopher along the lines of Ben Franklin or Erasmus Darwin.

  97. 97
    Perry Como says:

    The effects of prayer depends on your level. Cure Light Wounds isn’t free, after all.

  98. 98
    smartalek says:

    If someone offers to pray for me, or for any loved one of mine who is sick, I would just say thank you, and move on. It doesn’t even matter whether they are offering the prayers out of sincere a belief that it will help, or simply to allow them to feel that they are doing something for someone else. It’s a nice gesture either way, and merits appreciation. What possible benefit is there from a rude response to someone’s wishing you well, even if it’s not in the way that you would phrase it yourself?
    As to the whole question of whether religion has, on the whole, been a net benefit or a net loss for the species — how could we ever run a proper calculation? Way too many variables, over way too long a time, and no valid way to determine what the outcomes, sans the religious impluse, would have been.
    What ought to be clear, though, is that religion — like virtually anything else material or immaterial — is itself value-free. And as with anything else — a hammer, a handgun, love, rage — it can be wielded to ends that are either good or bad, depending upon who is doing the wielding. The same religious impulse that was used to rationalize the near-extermination of the native peoples of the Americas is the same religious impulse that enabled the abolition of slavery in both the old and the new worlds.

  99. 99
    Rome Again says:

    If someone offers to pray for me, or for any loved one of mine who is sick, I would just say thank you, and move on. It doesn’t even matter whether they are offering the prayers out of sincere a belief that it will help, or simply to allow them to feel that they are doing something for someone else. It’s a nice gesture either way, and merits appreciation. What possible benefit is there from a rude response to someone’s wishing you well, even if it’s not in the way that you would phrase it yourself?blockquote>

    Aha, but there is the rub. If you believe in God, you probably also believe in his adversary (many people believe God has an enemy). Personally, I have a belief that certain people who ask to pray for me are actually praying to that enemy (not a hard concept to come up with, actually… the Bible states that people would follow one who is not God).

    I don’t want anyone praying to God’s adversary for my well-being or that of my family. Can you understand that?

  100. 100
    Rome Again says:

    Sorry Smarkalek, I thought I blockquoted and bolded that correctly, let me try that answer again:

    Aha, but there is the rub. If you believe in God, you probably also believe in his adversary (many people believe God has an enemy). Personally, I have a belief that certain people who ask to pray for me are actually praying to that enemy (not a hard concept to come up with, actually… the Bible states that people would follow one who is not God).

    I don’t want anyone praying to God’s adversary for my well-being or that of my family. Can you understand that?

  101. 101
    DougJ says:

    I’m glad to see you out there supporting faith-based medicine, John. This would be a perfect course in the Conservative Studies programs being proposed at Volokh and Scrutator.

  102. 102
    Robert says:

    Oh come on … look at how all those prayers helped that cute little Terri Schiavo.

  103. 103
    Terrii Schiavo says:

    I think I can feel my big toe.

  104. 104
    Bill Frist says:

    I saw her big toe move on a video.

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