Tuesday, January 6, 2009

The Prayers of Lab Rats

It's about time I got back to my reflections on God: The Failed Hypothesis by Victor Stenger. In my last post, I talked about Stenger's arguments against design of the universe. In this post, I turn to perhaps a more concrete topic: prayer.

In Chapter 3 of Stenger's book, entitled "Searching for a World Beyond Matter," Stenger argues against the existence of any non-physical part of the human being and against the effectiveness of prayer. I just want to briefly address his comments on the soul.

I am not sure why Stenger, supposedly arguing against the Judeo-Christian-Islamic God, bothers to refute such things as ESP and qi (chi). However, most Christians do believe in some sort of non-physical soul, which supposedly houses the will, certain emotions, and other abstract qualities of a human being.

I just wanted to make the point that this isn't the only possible Christian view. I found a wonderful article by Greg Bahnsen, which you can read here, in which he argues that a Christian can believe that a human is one substance, not two. This is currently the view I hold. I tend not to believe that the soul is a separate substance that exists outside of space and time. I could probably write a whole other post on this subject, but I will let it rest for now.

The real issue I wanted to address is prayer. Stenger wants to argue that prayer is ineffective. In his words, "Surely, with the millions of prayers being submitted daily, totaling billions in recorded history, some obvioulsy verifiable (not just anecdotal) positive evidence should have been found by now!" (p. 94)

Stenger submits as evidence against God's existence some scientific studies on the efficacy of prayer. Let's look at the methodology being used here.
In a three-year clinical trial led by Duke University physicians, the effects of intercessory prayer and other so-called noetic therapies such as music, imagery, and touch therapy were examined for 748 patients in 9 hospitals in the United States. Twelve prayer groups from around the world were involved, including lay and monastic Christians, Sufi Muslims, and Buddhist monks. Prayers were even e-mailed to Jerusalem and placed on the Wailing Wall.
Patients awaiting angioplasty for coronary artery obstruction were selected at random by computer and sent to the twelve prayer groups. The groups prayed for complete recovery of the patients. The clinical trials were double blind: neither the hospital staff nor the patients knew who was being prayed for.
The findings, reported in the journal Lancet, showed no significant differences in the recovery and health between the two groups. (p.99-100)

Apparently, the prayer of a lab rat availeth little.

Now it is important to analyze this critically. Let me just make a brief first pass at these results. First of all, why in the world would God answer prayers that were randomly distributed, healing some patients, and not others, who were involved in the experiment, merely on the basis of a computer's random choice? That hardly seems logical for a loving God to do.

Second, if you're going to study prayer scientifically, don't you have to come up with some definition of prayer? Maybe the people praying in this experiment didn't do it right, even according to their own faith traditions. (I've often wondered if Catholics ever space out during the rosary and do one too many Hail Mary's. No offense to you Catholics out there.)

The point may seem trivial, but then again, if trivial points like this can be made, it throws a wrench in the whole idea of experimenting on prayer. Still, I suppose Christians like me ought to have some sort of explanation of prayer that makes sense in the real wold. What is prayer, anyway, and what does it do?

I am not a theologian, and I can only give an amateur's opinion. However, let me start by saying what I think prayer is not. Prayer is not magic. Now magic can be tested scientifically (and is pretty much always found to be fake), because it is supposed to be pretty mechanical. You speak the right incantations, mix the right weird ingredients, and poof! You get a door that you can paint onto a wall to get inside the castle and save the princess. Or whatever.

Prayer is not magic. In Matthew 6:7-8, Jesus teaches, "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." Indeed, it appears that Jesus explicitly denies any sort of superstitious understanding of prayer.

What Jesus says next is also of critical importance. It is an outline for true prayer according to Jesus, and we Christians have come to call it "the Lord's Prayer." N. T. Wright has written a beautiful article on "The Lord's Prayer as a Paradigm of Christian Prayer." Wright emphasizes something that I think is absolutely crucial: "the Lord’s Prayer is not so much a command as an invitation: an invitation to share in the prayer-life of Jesus himself."

When we pray as Jesus taught us, we are not simply asking for things we want. We are becoming more and more servants in his kingdom, a kingdom that will save the world. We would all like to have some magical prayer formula to make everything perfect right now, but Jesus never said he had such a thing.

Here's a mystery to chew on for a while: Jesus himself prayed a prayer that was not answered. According to Matthew, he prayed three times in Gethsemane, "My Father, if it is possible let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want." Jesus didn't get what he wanted, but he did get what his Father wanted.

So what is the point of prayer, after all? If it can't really sway God, then why pray?

Perhaps the best answer is that we can only discover the true purpose of prayer by praying. I think it is one of those activities which becomes clearer the more it is done. I believe prayer is a transforming experience, designed to make us more like Christ, which means more like the kind of person God intends us to be. But I know prayer is also more than that; prayers are sometimes answered, and those answers sometimes give us clues about God's purposes.

As with my last post in response to Stenger, for me it all comes down to meaning and purpose. We offer up prayers to God because we are convinced that things in this world matter, and not just to us, but in a very real, cosmic sense. People, events, and the natural world all matter, not just because we experience them, but because God created them.

In Stenger's world, things just happen according to physical laws that have nothing to do with God. The human race as well as the entire world we live in is the product of chance. Events that happen can only teach us to learn the laws of physics better.

But in God's world, events that happen can tell us something about His purposes. Answered prayer is not meant to assure a person that he can control the natural world with his voice. Rather, it is meant to assure a person that history has meaning, and there is hope in sight not just for us, but for the whole world.

Therein lies the simple reason why you can't test prayer in a lab. Science looks for outcomes, but religion looks for meaning in outcomes.

In my mind, the question of whether God exists remains largely a question of whether events in the world have any objective meaning--that is, meaning in a cosmic sense, and not just to us. This is a metaphysical question, and that's part of the reason I disagree with Stenger each time he says science proves there is no God.

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