Prayer: a Pseudo-Pseudo-Science

By Jeff Laird

I was recently asked to respond to a claim that prayer is a form of "pseudoscience," since peer-reviewed studies typically show no statistically significant benefit of prayer in medical outcomes. My response, in short, was to ask, "Who said prayer was a statistically-controlled phenomenon?" Whenever someone trumpets the fact that "controlled" studies haven't shown benefits to prayer, I remind them that the very thing they're (ostensibly) trying to measure is, itself, uncontrolled: the will of God. That's hardly a novel idea, and the Bible doesn't support the idea of God being a cosmic butler.

Popular culture holds a deep misunderstanding of prayer which lends itself to these kinds of attacks. It's unfortunate to see this prejudice bleed into the scientific realm, as researchers try to run "controlled" studies on something not subject to scientific controls in the first place. More to this particular point, prayer cannot be defined as a pseudoscience; Biblical Christianity doesn't present it as any kind of "science" at all. Of course, faith healers, self-appointed prophets and prosperity preachers depict prayer like an iron-clad, sure-fire license to print your own money. But that's another issue.

True pseudosciences, such as homeopathy, telekinesis, and polygraph machines (lie detectors), make claims about certain physical rules. They're ideas which supposedly rely on the scientific method, but when tested, cannot be verified scientifically. And yet, prayer is not a mechanical "input A, output B" kind of system. It's a request, made to an intelligent and self-directed being, who is under no obligation to respond in any particular way. Keeping this in mind is key to answering this objection.

Consider a hypothetical experiment which would more accurately reflect prayer: pick out somebody in a crowd and have random people approach them, asking for favors within their ability. Then perform a "controlled" study of the results. We'd expect to find that some of those requests will be granted, some will be ignored, others will be changed slightly. Whether or not the requests are granted will depend greatly on the relationship between the person making the request and the person being asked. And, what comes of the request will be up to the will of the person being asked.

You'd expect to see the same results if you "studied" the interactions of students with a classroom teacher, parents with children, managers with employees, friends among friends, and so forth.

In other words, the test subject is not obligated to do everything, or anything, just because she is asked — they are not in any sense "controlled." Actions which go against the test subject's wishes, she won't do. Anything she doesn't think is good for the requestor, presumably, she'd also refuse. Identical requests from two different people might wind up with different results. A particular person might not get a "yes" answer to every request — even if they're a good friend. The fact that dozens of people asking a test subject for something produces inconsistent results doesn't mean it's pointless to ask. It just means those people are talking to a living, thinking, willing being.

God, as far as prayer is concerned, functions exactly this way.

The fact that different people, and different situations, obtain different results from prayer can't be construed to mean God does not exist, or that praying is pointless. God is not obligated to give us what we want, like a genie. He's not bound to obey our requests like a servant. Praying is not like creating a chemical formula which produces deterministic results. Prayer is making a request, and whether or not that request is granted is ultimately a question of God's will, not our own (Proverbs 28:9, Romans 9:15). This is why Jesus' model prayer immediately expresses submission to the will of the Father (Matthew 6:9).

Christians and non-Christians alike often fail to remember this. It's the reason we refer to a "yes" answer from God as an "answered prayer." In point of fact, getting a "no" from God is still an answer. Jesus Himself asked the Father to grant a request, and the Father's answer was: "no" (Luke 22:42). This is probably the biggest hole in pseudo-scientific attacks on prayer: stacking the deck by claiming that the only answer which counts as an answer is "yes."

By that logic, statistically, there is no reason for my kids to ask me for anything, ever. After all, when we go to a store, 99.99 percent of their "can we buy that" requests are turned down. So, I guess those pleas are "unanswered." Am I non-existent? Cruel? Or just better equipped to know what's good or bad for my children to have in that particular moment, even if they're 100 percent convinced that life's not worth living without "it"? Oh, but we need the triple-chocolate cookie dough pop tarts!

Biblical Christianity does not treat prayer as a science, or voodoo, or magic, or anything of that sort. It's an appeal, a conversation, which the Hearer is free to accept or reject. Those who represent prayer as a form of magic, or a mindless law of nature, misrepresent both God and what it means to pray.

Image: Courtesy Jeff Laird

TagsBiblical-Truth  | Current-Issues  | God-Father  | Science-Creation

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Published 9-28-15