12 October 2004

--- How Can Science Test Prayer's Power?

An article from the NYT health section expresses concern over the effectivity, if any, of prayers in healing sickness.

"Critics express outrage that the federal government, which has contributed $2.3 million in financing over the last four years for prayer research, would spend taxpayer money to study something they say has nothing to do with science.

'Intercessory prayer presupposes some supernatural intervention that is by definition beyond the reach of science,' said Dr. Richard J. McNally, a psychologist at Harvard. 'It is just a nonstarter, in my opinion, a total waste of time and money.'

"Prayer researchers, many themselves believers in prayer's healing powers, say scientists do not need to know how a treatment or intervention works before testing it." [New York Times]

Personally, I believe in the power of prayer over sickness. What I find hard to believe is the probability that science will ever find a way to document the effectivity of prayer. Oftentimes, science makes use of experiments to find evidence and proof that this and that method works. In medicine, we even have a term for it: evidence-based medicine.

Simply put, this means that if you have no evidence, it probably isn't credible, or worse, it does not really work.

Medications or cure methods that get approved for use are determined by a rigid and lengthy array of tests, experiments, and examinations.

Experimenting or testing prayer will be difficult, if not, almost impossible.

"Even those who defend prayer research concede that such studies are difficult. For one thing, no one knows what constitutes a 'dose': some studies have tested a few prayers a day by individual healers, while others have had entire congregations pray together. Some have involved evangelical Christians; others have engaged rabbis, Buddhist and New Age healers, or some combination.

"Another problem concerns the mechanism by which prayer might be supposed to work. Some researchers contend that prayer's effects --- if they exist --- have little to do with religion or the existence of God. Instead of divine intervention, they propose things like 'subtle energies,' 'mind-to-mind communication' or 'extra dimensions of space-time' --- concepts that many scientists dismiss as nonsense. Others suggest that prayer may have a soothing effect that works like a placebo for believers who know they are being prayed for.

"Either way, even many churchgoers are skeptical that prayer can be subjected to scientific scrutiny. For one thing, prayers vary in their purpose and content: some give praise, others petition for strength, many ask only that God's will be done. For another, not everyone sees God as one who does favors on request." [New York Times]

I think this is a case of hey-I-know-it-works-but I can't-prove-it-yet. The very essence of prayer is faith, which happens to be a very BIG word itself. Faith is believing mostly in things that cannot be seen or quantified. Quantification and observation, however, are the handmaidens of science. That is the problem, here. I simply cannot see the two meeting at this point.

In conclusion, I like to share with you this fascinating remark by a good reverend:

"'There's no way to put God to the test, and that's exactly what you're doing when you design a study to see if God answers your prayers,' said the Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence Jr., director of pastoral care at New York - Presbyterian Hospital - Columbia University Medical Center. 'This whole exercise cheapens religion, and promotes an infantile theology that God is out there ready to miraculously defy the laws of nature in answer to a prayer.'" [New York Times]

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