Saturday, June 30, 2007

Prayer studies: From one-way skepticism, deliver us

For some reason, Arts and Letters Daily, which I often visit, is always publishing materialist stuff, whether it is well sourced or not, but almost never non-materialist stuff.

Anyway, here’s a really silly piece from CSICOP - a group of unidirectional materialist skeptics - denying that prayer works.

Now, I agree that there are some serious logistical difficulties in determining whether prayer works. The main one is - how can you be sure that no one is praying for a given person? Ridding the world of prayer would be no easy task. Some old, venerable, and popular religious organizations pride themselves on the fact that no minute passes without prayers offered up, all over the planet How can you be sure that you are not touching their invisible wires?.

The “skeptical” piece linked above, thought worthy of publication by Arts and Letters Daily, opines as follows on studies of intercessory prayer:
To date, such studies of intercessory prayer have not shown it to improve health-care outcomes. In contrast to thoughts themselves, the brain activity from which thoughts arise does consist of energy—electrochemical energy within neural circuitry. Reading this teeming energy in millions of circuit neurons and translating it into the thought or prayer arising from it seems theoretically impossible for even a supernatural being.

But what can this mean? Who knows what a supernatural being can do? Surely that was never a serious object of study?

The only relevant reference I could find in the article, which significantly lacked detail, was to the famous STEP study. In this study, inept handling of offers for intercessory prayer inadvertently reversed the enormously powerful placebo effect that many patients experience (you get better because you believe you will).

Quite the contrary, offers of prayer without a suitable context turned prayer into a nocebo effect (you get worse because you believe you will).

Far from demonstrating that intercessory prayer does not work, the study demonstrated that it can work all too well - that is, ineptly handled, intercessory prayer can become a nocebo effect. (Logically, then, correctly handled, it should be a positive effect.) There are still key problems with understanding what, exactly, is happening with intercessory prayer, of course, but the STEP study definitely showed, by reversing the effect, that it made a difference.

Mario Beauregard and I discuss the STEP study and its findings in The Spiritual Brain, to be released in September. Meanwhile, I advise you to be skeptical of the sort of “skepticism” that does not even discuss the details of the STEP study.

Why not? Because that would mean acknowledging that prayer can work, in principle, which is bad for their business.

Golly, if this is the best that unidirectional skeptics and materialists can do - get me a broom, somebody, and a pile of recyclable trash bags.

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.

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