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

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Science & Prayer (iv)

A group of mothers at prayer
In the last three postings, I have been looking at a research project on intercessory prayer conducted by an American team in Mozambique (here) and the criticism of that project by Harvard Medical School professor, Dr. Steven Novella (here).  The research team found that one on one prayer with 24 Christians suffering from hearing and seeing disabilities resulted in measurable improvement in their conditions—measurable by standard auditory and visual tests.  Dr. Novella dismisses these findings as meaningless because they are based on an unscientific methodology.

What is fascinating in Dr. Novella's critique of the Mozambique findings is that it is essentially a theological critique.  As I quoted yesterday, he partly bases his critique on his theological observation that, "I find that argument that a deity is better able to heal when the person asking them to do so is physically close to the person they are praying for absurd, lame, and convenient."  Now, the Mozambique team was careful not to claim that a deity had anything to do with their results.  They concluded that "prayer worked" because it results in measurable therapeutic benefit.  In their report, they state that they chose to study hearing and seeing conditions because they could be measured, thus limiting the influence of subjective feelings of being healed on the results.  The team also called for further studies to test their results and further explore the possibilities of using one on one prayer as a therapeutic aid esp. in remote areas where it is difficult to get modern medical care.

Dr. Novella changes the definition of "worked" in the conclusion that "prayer worked" in this instance.  He ignores the claim that prayer worked because it led to healing, which healing he dismisses as being subjective without explaining why the standard measures suggest that it wasn't merely subjective.  For him, apparently, "prayer works" means that there must be a"deity" involved and that the research team was actually trying to prove that God answers prayer.  He finds the whole notion ridiculous.  It appears that his theological prejudices have led him to misread the findings of the research.  Furthermore, his comment about a deity that "is better able to heal when the person asking them to do so is physically close to the person they are praying for" suggests that he has a narrow and superficial conception of God.  Like many non-theist scientists who have never studied theology and show disdain for it as a field of study, he has accepted as his definition of God one that is about as unsophisticated as you can get: the grandfather who sits on the rim of the universe and pulls our strings at his whim.  Christian theology has worked out over the centuries any number of other views of God, which would make more sense of the Mozambique data if we wanted to associate the data with a deity.

Prayer is a complex phenomenon, which requires a number of approaches if it is to be understood scientifically.  And that study has to be strictly about the phenomenon itself, leaving to others conclusions about whether or not God is involved.  Science can document the therapeutic value of prayer.  It cannot link that value to God.  Faithful followers of Christ can take the findings of science and find in them a universe compatible with a Creator God.  We don't expect Dr. Novella to agree.  It is fine that he doesn't.  However, I want to be clear here.  In the case we have studied, he disagrees for theological reasons, not scientific ones.