Friday, July 15, 2005

applying the scientific method to prayer

Using the scientific method to reach empirical data concerning God will never work. Yet this is what a few scientists have done recently in a study/experiment reported in the medical journal Lancet.

The experiment, called Mantra II, involved 748 patients who underwent treatment at nine hospitals around the country for heart problems between 1999 and 2002.

The researchers then sought the help of 12 congregations of various Christian denominations, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists around the world to pray for some of the patients, giving them names, ages and descriptions of the illness.

According to the Washington Post which ran the story: "The scientists then divided the patients into 4 groups. The first quarter had people praying for them. The second quarter received a nontraditional treatment known as music, imagery and touch (MIT) therapy, which involved breathing techniques, soothing music, touch and other ways to relieve stress, such as imagining calming images. The third group received both prayer and MIT, while the fourth received nothing."

And at the end of the experiment what did these scientists find? According to the Lancet: "No significant difference was found for the primary composite endpoint in any treatment comparison." For us medical lay folks that means there was no difference among the four groups.

I don't think these scientists get it. Praying to God on behalf of the sick is not like putting one's coins in the slot of a vending machine and then expect to get your goodies and treats in the end.

Moreover, the healing that God may provide the patient for whom we are praying are oftentimes beyond the physical. The spiritual consolation and the peace that God grants those who are ill in response to our prayers cannot be quantified empirically. And that's because God himself cannot be quantified.

According to Rev. Raymond Lawrence, director of pastoral care at New York Presbyterian Hospital in New York: "Prayer can be and is helpful...But to think that you can research it is inconceivable to me. Prayer is presumably a way of addressing God, and there's no way to scientifically test God. God is not subject to scientific research."

To read the article from the Lancet, look here. You may have to register. To read the Washington Post article on the study, see here.

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