Randal Rauser: A Response to Scientific Studies on Failed Prayer

The topic of scientific prayer studies recently came up on Twitter. As an outcome of that exchange, I committed to responding to the failure of one particular prayer study to establish a link between prayer and healing. The study in question is discussed in an article titled “Power of prayer flunks an unusual test” where it is described as follows:

Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for “a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications” for specific patients, for whom they were given the first name and first initial of the last name.

The patients, meanwhile, were split into three groups of about 600 apiece: those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren’t prayed for but were told it was a possibility.

And here is the deflationary outcome:

Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.

Let’s focus on the fact that Christian prayer showed no effect on “complication-free recovery.” Does this provide a good reason to believe that Christian petitionary prayer is ineffectual?

I don’t believe so. And I will organize my response into three main reasons.

Is prayer analogous to treatment?

First, double-blind tests of particular treatments depend on the assumption that the same treatment is being applied to all members of the test groups. There is good reason to believe this does not occur in the case of prayer studies. Here I’ll note two important considerations.

To begin with, Christians have reason to believe that the effectiveness of particular petitionary prayers is informed at least to some degree by the relationship the one who is praying has to God (e.g. James 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”(ESV)) If various people are praying as part of a study, it follows that the effectiveness of their particular petitionary prayers could be shaped by the prior relationships of the one praying. Needless to say, the precise nature of each individual intercessor’s relationship to God would not be available to those conducting the prayer studies.

Christians also have reason to believe that the power of particular prayers is informed by the specific degree of faith exercised during the praying of that particular prayer (e.g. “Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)

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SOURCE: Christian Post, Randal Rauser