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Tom is an atheist who visits and comments on this blog from time to time. Earlier this week he posted a link to this study – this is basically it (and I quote):
Patients at 6 US hospitals were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: 604 received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; 597 did not receive intercessory prayer also after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; and 601 received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before CABG. The primary outcome was presence of any complication within 30 days of CABG. Secondary outcomes were any major event and mortality.
RESULTS: In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.
CONCLUSIONS: Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.
Here are my thoughts. The higher rate of complications in those who had been told they would receive prayer doesn’t have any bearing on the truth of whether prayer works or not, so I’m going to ignore that for today. I already know that atheists will write off my thoughts as excuses, but that’s the game we play I suppose!
I think the biggest question here is around what assumptions have been made. If the God being prayed to (and therefore tested in this study) is the God of the Bible, then we must start with the assumption that the Bible is true in its representation of God and His response to us. Knowing that the Bible commands us never to place God under test conditions (Deuteronomy 6:16, Matthew 4:7, Luke 4:12) the expected result proving His existence would be that prayer would appear, under these circumstances, not to make much difference.
It would be like me declaring that I am invisible until observed. No-one has any evidence to disprove my statement because any evidence would only serve as evidence in favour of it. In effect, the results of this test provenothing.
Nature of the test
I don’t know the entire Bible off by heart, but I don’t remember there being a single reference to anyone in there praying successfully for a doctor’s operation to not experience any complications. If there was, this would appear to be a legitimate experiment. As it is, even if there was an overwhelming protection against complications it would be hard to argue that this actually proved that the God of the Bible was answering the prayers, as it never suggests this will be the case.
Specifically, however, the test doesn’t specify which God is being prayed to – if the participants were praying to someone or something other than the God of Christianity, it doesn’t surprise me in the least that prayer seemed to have little to no effect.
The definition of success according to this test was ‘no complications in surgery’, however this is nowhere presented as a ‘successful’ answer to prayer according to the Bible. Again, the results present no surprise to a Bible-believing Christian.
Of course, the answer to this would be that the people praying were praying for no complications, so a positive answer would have been exactly that. However the Bible’s promise is that God will grant the desires of your heart to people who delight themselves in the LORD, rather than those who delight themselves in scientific study (Psalm 37:4).
So, bearing all the above in mind it’s hardly surprising that the intercessory prayer used in this test appeared to have no immediate effect on the surgery. Certain details have been missed out of these studies (it would be interesting, for example, to see the statistics showing percentage of complications based on location, surgeon, surgeon’s faith etc).
Clearly, the only way to properly test prayer would be to compare two situations side-by-side experienced in real life, one by a Bible-believing Christian and one by a non-Christian. And the results of this can be seen. Ask me, or any other Bible-believing Christian, if we believe prayer to work – the answer will always be yes. Here are just two examples of when I have personally experienced prayer working.
1. I prayed for a lady’s ovary to be healed; it was – the doctor couldn’t understand what had happened.
2. A friend’s hip had been causing him pain for a couple of weeks – I prayed for it to be healed; it was.
So here are my conclusions:
If knowing that you are being prayed for hinders the healing process, the chance that these individuals would have been healed would have been astronomically low.
The situations were that we were just sitting around praying – the chances of someone being healed of these issues out of nowhere is surely virtually nothing, so the fact that they were healed should stand a million miles out of the crowd.
Based on my experience prayer works. It would be selfish of me not to pray, and not to encourage others to pray. So here’s my encouragement: pray!