We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Science & Prayer (iii)

A group of mothers at prayer
In the two previous postings (here) and (here), I presented briefly the findings of an American research team, which studied the therapeutic qualities of intercessory prayer among evangelical and Pentecostal Christians in Mozambique.  The study provided data showing that individuals with hearing and seeing impairments experienced improved hearing or seeing after having someone pray with them personally.  The published version of their research is available online (here).  I also presented Dr. Steven Novella's critique of the research (here), which dismisses its findings as meaningless.  His conclusions seem to be based largely on his own theological biases, and he did not actually account for the flaws he claims are in the data or adequately explain why the methodology used by the Mozambique team was unscientific.  On the basis of his own comments, he seems to be biased against prayer and does not want to entertain data that might contradict that bias.

The point here is that the Mozambique study does suggest that prayer has a therapeutic value for those who believe in the power of prayer.  Regular readers of Rom Phra Khun know by now that one of the things I'm doing here is building a case for the value of science for the practice of faith and theological reflection.  This study is just one more building block.  It does not prove there is a God.  Such proof lies beyond the capabilities of science as we know it today.  It does not prove that God answers prayer.

The study is helpful, however, in two ways.  First, it reinforces confidence in the real value of praying with those in need of prayer.  This study suggests that intercessory prayer does work under certain conditions.  It doesn't say why praying with people is helpful, just that it is—measurably so in this case.  In the most general sense, this study is one more piece of evidence pointing to the value of living a life of faith for those who live such a life.  It is not conclusive.  It is simply one more data point.  Still, those who practice prayer with those who believe in prayer are not surprised by these scientific findings, restrained and limited as they are.  They only point to a possible conclusion that people who live in faith have already concluded from their own experience: prayer works.  We believe that God participates in our prayers, but whether or not God or a god is involved is beside the point here.  Prayer works.

Second, in an evolving universe created at the outset by God and since then superintended by the Spirit of God working within the parameters of the original creation we would expect that intercessory prayer would have "therapeutic value."  I remain convinced that on the whole credible scientific data reveals a universe that is compatible with the idea that it is created by God.  Not all of it does, but in general it does.  There have been prayer studies, for example, that suggest prayer isn't of any value, but those have to do with "distance intercessory prayer" (DIP) and sometimes seem designed to prove prayer doesn't work.  If I am correct, the more time devoted to discovering the actual healing value of prayer and the more scientists study prayer without an agenda one way or the other, the more they are going to find that prayer heals and can be a valuable element in the healing process given certain circumstances.  All I'm saying is that this is precisely the kind of scientific conclusion we would expect in a universe created by God and superintended by the Spirit.  That's all.

As for Dr. Novella's skepticism, one can understand it.  However, as a scientist he has a responsibility to deal with the data without pre-judging it on the basis of his own theological bias against a particular kind of god he thinks is implied by the conclusion that "prayer works".  His critique of the Mozambique study fails because he makes too much of its methodology while failing to deal with the data itself.  Twenty-four believing Christians experienced measurable improvement in their hearing or seeing impairments after a Christian leader sat and prayed with them.  Is that not data worth exploring rather than dismissing it out of hand?  One would think so.

I would like to return to all of this one more time, tomorrow.