Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 3: Prayer Studies

Just this week, a Christian I trust related a story of miraculous healing that was told to her by a Christian she trusts. It seems that a man had been in a coma for 30 days. In a scene reminiscent of Acts 19, a garment was conveyed from a man of prayer and laid over the invalid. A few more prayers and 5 minutes later — the man arises!

How can stories like that fail to restore my faith? By the end of this post, you’ll understand why I’ve become a little jaded.

Parts 1 and 2 of this little series brought us to the point where I was still an evangelical but my faith needed to be strengthened. I had heard that scientific studies proved prayer to be effective in healing the sick, and decided that would be a good place to start.

I did a lot of rooting around on the Internet. To the extent that I could trace the claims (most of them were unsourced), the majority originated with a study led by Randolph Byrd, M.D.. This report was typical:

One of the most quoted scientific studies of prayer was done between August of 1982 and May of 1983. 393 patients in the San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit participated in a double blind study to assess the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer. … The patients who had received prayer as a part of the study were healthier than those who had not. The prayed for group had less need of having CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) performed and less need for the use of mechanical ventilators. They had a diminished necessity for diuretics and antibiotics, less occurrences of pulmonary edema, and fewer deaths. Taking all factors into consideration, these results can only be attributed to the power of prayer. [emphasis mine]

My experience with creationists had taught me to check the facts, and then the facts behind the facts.

Lo and behold, it turned out to be true!! The prayed-for group did have better outcomes in 6 categories! (The seventh, “fewer deaths,” was not at a statistically significant level, even though it was specifically prayed for.) However, what the evangelical Websites and even the abstract of the study itself failed to mention is that no significant difference was found in the other 20 outcomes that were measured.

Are we to believe that God cares about whether someone needs diuretics but is indifferent to whether they have gastrointestinal bleeding?

The outcomes that did improve only did so to the tune of 5 to 7 percent compared to the control group. Are we supposed to attribute that barely noticeable result to the mighty creator of the universe?

There were also plenty of methodological problems, documented in this critique by Gary Posner, M.D.. But it gets worse. Following standard procedure in science, another group tried to replicate Dr. Byrd’s result. 

Christianity Today — more or less the official journal of mainstream evangelicalism — was good enough to report the result of the follow-up study.

The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), conducted under the auspices of Harvard Medical School, was by far the most comprehensive of its kind. The study required 10 years and $2.4 million…

The result: The group whose members knew they were being prayed for did worse in terms of post-operative complications than those whose members were unsure if they were receiving prayer. The knowledge that they were being prayed for by a special group of intercessors seemed to have a negative effect on their health.

The two groups that were unsure of whether they were receiving prayer were also compared. One group actually received prayer (the same group mentioned above), while the other did not. This time, the group that had received prayer experienced more major complications than the group without additional prayer. In other words, the study seemed to show that prayer—at least prayer from strangers—might be bad for one’s health.  [emphasis mine]

But in a manner with which I was becoming increasingly familiar, they find a way to spin the evidence 180 degrees. Christianity Today continues:

Ironically, STEP actually supports the Christian worldview. Our prayers are nothing at all like magical incantations. Our God bears no resemblance to a vending machine. The real scandal of the study is not that the prayed-for group did worse, but that the not-prayed-for group received just as much, if not more, of God’s blessings. In other words, God seems to have granted favor without regard to either the quantity or even the quality of the prayers. By instinct, we might selfishly prefer that God give preferential treatment to those who are especially, deliberately, and correctly prayed for, but he seems to act otherwise.

True to his character, God appears inclined to heal and bless as many as possible.

Folks, you just can’t make this stuff up. But it is so very typical of what I heard in the evangelical church.

Although I had hoped that checking out the studies on intercessory prayer would strengthen my faith, the studies and the untruthful or contorted reporting of them by evangelicals only made my doubts grow. Even where I had been assured there was hard evidence, there was none.

The image that kept occurring to me was that I was standing on a floor made of a thin sheet of balsa wood. It was cracking under me and I kept trying new places to stand, only to find that those cracked as well.

But what of the man who came out of the coma? There was a time when that one third-hand report would have been enough to keep my faith-batteries well-charged for months. Now I look at it differently. Just as Dr. Byrd cherry-picked a few barely positive outcomes to report in his abstract and ignored the other 20, so incidents like this must be taken in the context of the thousands of people who awake from comas with no prayer, or fail to awake after much prayer. Heck, people were probably praying for this man for the entire 30 days, and would have continued to pray for 300 more. If he had awakened after any of the other prayers, that would have been cited as equally miraculous. And if he had never awakened, we never would have heard about it.

People awake from comas all the time. Cancers go into remission, backaches are healed, and the lame walk. Healing any of those things through prayer doesn’t mean a thing unless done as part of a controlled scientific study. And all the studies have shown little if any effect. If God really wants to show his power and mercy, let him regrow the limb of even a single amputee.

There is actually an entire Website devoted to that suggestion: WhyWontGodHealAmputees.com. Read it and see if you can offer a reason why God would be in the miracle-working business … but only if the miracle is not too hard.

While you’re doing that, I’ll prepare the next installment in this series. You’ll hear why I came to believe that my fellow evangelicals and I embodied one of the strongest refutations of the evangelical faith.

P.S. -  If you think you have a killer miracle story, please be sure it’s not a magic trick or a fraud.

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28 responses to “Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 3: Prayer Studies

  1. I have a great miracle story. Only God could have done this!! When I got my first job out of college, I applied for it, went to the interview, and was hired. I was reminded by my family though that they prayed for me which is why I got the job. God is so amazing….

  2. I can’t wait for part 4.

  3. Re: Magic
    Your comment is the thing that really troubles me about religion. So many people are so quick to give credit for all of the good that happens to their god, failing to acknowledge the hard work of the person/people involved. “We thank you for this meal” — why not thank the person who was wonderful enough to cook it for you? Or the one who raised the food to begin with? Or even acknowledge the chicken that was once a living being is now dead so you can eat?
    At the same time, all of the negative occurrences are blamed on, not god, but people who have no control over the situation whatsoever. Hurricane? Must be the gays. Earthquake? Those abortionists! So god gets all of the credit for the good that happens, but takes none of the blame for the bad things. Wish I could get a job like this!

  4. Lol yeah was just making a joke.

  5. A very good read. Can’t wait for part 4!

  6. I knew it was a joke, but I also know enough people who are quite serious when they do this. I have been reading some of your past postings (came here from reddit and decided I like it here!) I am a former Catholic, and many of your thoughts closely echo my own. Thanks for being so open about your journey. I’ve been enjoying reading about it.

  7. I was wondering if you might make more post in the future about things in the bible that are falsifiable. How you felt when you decided it couldnt or didnt happen, and how you perceive/react to people who still believe it. Specifically things that have been proven incorrect yet that are still told to churchgoers as fact. I.E. Noahs Ark, Exodus, etc..

  8. I know you are doing some of that now, but I guess i just meant more detail on specific revelations.

    • I might do as you suggest, but one thing standing in my way is that it’s so easy to make those kinds of claims and so time-consuming to debunk them. Just think about what you have to know in order to believe in Noah’s Flood (just a couple of chapters in the Bible, plus faith) and what you have to know in order to debunk it (several courses worth of science).

      As for how I felt, you’re going to hear more of that in this series!

  9. Fantastic articles, I am quite enjoying reading about your journey towards the realization that strikes many people who grew up in this atmosphere of blind faith. As one who was raised in a loosely religious (Non-creationist) household and developed his own sense of logical questioning and ultimately lost faith, this series strikes a chord with me. The impressive thing is that you made the decision that so many men and women refuse or never think to do: Look at the actual evidence and make your own decision.

    “Welcome out of the cave my friend. It’s a bit colder out here, but the stars are just as beautiful.” -Anon

    Anyway, keep up the good work, and I look forward to your next installment of the series.

  10. Interesting treatment of subject matter, but if I may play devil’s advocate (oh the delicious irony of it): I would suggest that your entire argument is thinly veiling the much more egregious question, “How could a loving God allow people to suffer and die?” question, and you have added the addendum, “even those that are receiving prayerful petition for healing”. I realize this may be an oversimplification of your premise, but to be fair, prayer for miraculous healing was the only type of prayer you referenced.

    Looking at why, with or without prayer, a loving God would allow any person to suffer unjustly is a question that has less to do about the validity of prayer and more to do about the nature of God and His relationship to man. Or, even further removed, does God exist at all? However, if your definition/understanding of prayer is simply our finite ability to communicate with an infinite and powerful God, it is logically absurd to derive any sort of conclusion from a scientific study, no matter how peer reviewed or double-blinded the study was. You are simply dealing with a subject matter that, in all ways, transcends the limits of scientific measurement. It would be tantamount to attempting to determine the alkalinity of the Ocean by testing it in two places. I would conclude by asking if those who believe in Science are willing to admit and accept its limitations and constraints in the same way that they ask those who believe in God to critically examine their views. Sympathy for the devil appreciated.

    • Firstly, I think scientists would happily admit that they’re limited in their knowledge. However, the beautiful thing is that science is always asking questions and then seeking the answers to those questions. It is willing to change with the evidence whenever it comes along.

      I think you may have over simplified this post a little too much. First, The Beagle points out that it is written in the Bible that the prayers of “the faithful” will be granted. Then it is demonstrated with multiple groups of presumably faithful people did not have their prayers answered, not just for miraculous healing but for marriage repairs as well. This then forces one to question the validity of prayer as a means to achieving any sort of end.

      The best way that humans have found for gathering information about the world around them is through the scientific process. That involves examining claims and evidence that can either support or rebut the given claim. People said prayer worked as a way to heal, but when the evidence for that claim is examined it is found wanting. Does that mean God exists or does not exist, no. It means that prayer is not an effective means for healing marriages, heart disease, or amputees.

      Finally, and this may be an oversimplification of your point, but it seems that your position is that it’s impossible to know why a loving god would allow suffering. It seems that simple studies on the effectiveness of prayer aren’t enough because god is too vast to ever be measurable or understandable. If that is the case, then what is the purpose of trying to understand something that is by definition not understandable? Put another way, what use is there trying to learn about something that will have no predictive value for any future actions? The purpose of scientific endeavors and the pursuit of human knowledge is to be able to better predict how the universe will react around us. A god with no predictive validity is just not very useful.

      • >> Does that mean God exists or does not exist, no. It means that prayer is not an effective means for healing marriages, heart disease, or amputees.

        You’re right. Prayer not working says nothing about whether a God or gods exist. However, it is evidence against the particular God-claims entailed in evangelical Christianity, and that was my point.

        >> A god with no predictive validity is just not very useful.

        If evangelicals object to your wanting God to be “useful,” I would counter that a “useful” God is exactly what they preach: He is useful because he forgives sins and gives one the power to live a better life. They also claim he is useful because he grants prayers. If his utility in the last case is disproven, what reason do we have to believe he will be useful in the others? I think you’re right on the money.

      • First off thank you for a thoughtful and civil response. Also, thanks to The Beagle for hosting this (hopefully) stimulating and profitable discussion. Your counterpoints are well received, I believe we may be looking at the same coin, just different sides of it. However, tenacious soul that I am, I have a few more things to add, hopefully without belaboring the point:

        1. While I realize that using text from the Bible is not the most convincing approach when talking to someone who does not believe in it, I would point out that in regards to the current discussion, there is a precedent already established within scripture that speaks to this very quandary. It’s found in the book of Luke, chapter 4, a famous passage where Jesus is tempted by the devil in the wilderness (aside: the best treatment of this passage I have ever seen was done by Fyodor Dostoyevsky in The Brother’s Karamazov, which is a long, but good read). At any rate:

        9 The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. “If you are the Son of God,” he said, “throw yourself down from here. 10 For it is written:
        “‘He will command his angels concerning you
        to guard you carefully;
        11 they will lift you up in their hands,
        so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”
        12 Jesus answered, “It is said: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

        There are two interesting facets here. One is that in this passage the devil is using scripture (Old Testament passage in Psalms) to justify his argument. This illustrates an important reality that people on both sides of this discussion would do well to understand, which is that the sole act of referencing a verse or passage of scripture (often times wildly out of context) to prove or disprove anything is not a new or especially effective method. Secondly is the simplicity of Jesus’ response, which (I believe ironically) also references Hebraic law. I’m not arguing that simply because Jesus says it is so, it is, but I believe the concept behind it sheds some light about the efficacy of a scientific study surrounding prayer. We can accept that prayer is a way to interact with God (of the Bible) and believe that there is power to heal and restore found in it, but at the same time we have been told that it will not be subject to tests and trials. So, again, this does not prove or disprove God, but simply that prayer not standing up to human testing does not invalidate it, as we have already been told that it won’t.

        2. >>this may be an oversimplification of your point, but it seems that your position is that it’s impossible to know why a loving god would allow suffering.

        I would agree with you. This is a complex question and I would not presume to have the answer. There are plausible arguments which you may be familiar with (without pain there can be no pleasure, life is so intensely beautiful it’s worth the pain, it is man’s fault that sin entered the world). But at the end of the day I am very willing to admit this is an area where I must make a conscious decision to put my reason aside, and allow faith and other clues I have found for the existence of God, to bridge the gap. However, just because I am actively placing my faith in something that my reason cannot fully comprehend does not make it blind faith, and I believe it stands to reason.

        “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him, a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? – Isaiah 45:9 (Also see Romans 9 for new covenant).

        Again, not to be taken at face value, but the inherent logic seems to be valid, it all goes back to your pre-suppositions. If I posit that I am a creation and by proxy accept that I have a creator, suddenly whatever notions I have of right and wrong are actually quite insignificant. In other words, it shifts the paradigm on its head from “God is good” to “good is God” or maybe even (considering some of the human constructs of deities) “it could be a lot worse.”

        Lastly I’ll say thank you again for your thought-provoking and insightful opinions. I hope I do not come across as a dogmatic religion-pusher or a know-it-all blowhard. I too am a seeker of truth and wisdom, and I have a desire to love and help those around me. I do not count myself as especially wise or insightful, but I can tell you that in my life I have made a point to confront many of these issues head on, and count it as a gift and a blessing to have these discussions, not a job or my right, and I’m always interested to hear others scrutiny or flat out rejection of it (as long as it’s reasoned). Cheers.

        • >> We can accept that … there is power to heal and restore found in [prayer], but at the same time we have been told that it will not be subject to tests and trials.

          To me, this is the same as saying, “Prayer heals, as long as you’re not paying attention.” Scientific trials are nothing more than a reliable way of paying attention.

          If the problem with trials is that God does not like the skeptical motive, I would only point out that Dr. Byrd was a devout Christian who set out to show God’s power. He was not a skeptic. One recalls Elijah and his test of his own prayer versus the incantations of the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:16-40). God was willing to show himself in that instance; why not in a the 20th century?

          The case you cited of Jesus not being willing to put God to the test was one of a believer intentionally putting himself in harm’s way and telling God to bail him out. That’s different than a believer already being sick and asking God to fulfill a promise God had already made.

          >> If I posit that I am a creation and by proxy accept that I have a creator, suddenly whatever notions I have of right and wrong are actually quite insignificant.

          They would be except that God has allegedly told us what is right and wrong (in the Bible) and “implanted his word in our hearts” (given us a conscience).

          Evangelicals can’t have it both ways. They can’t claim on the one hand to have the Holy Spirit and know enough to tell the rest of us to repent of our sins, and yet claim that their notions of right and wrong are “insignificant”.

          >> at the end of the day I am very willing to admit [suffering] is an area where I must make a conscious decision to put my reason aside, and allow faith and other clues I have found for the existence of God, to bridge the gap.

          I was willing to let faith bridge the gap for 40 years, but ultimately, for the reasons I’m still developing in this series, the gap became too wide. The logical contortions became so extreme, especially compared to the non-theist alternative, that I concluded I must have been mistaken all that time.

        • I also thank you for your polite response. I believe that discussions like this are quite important in furthering our collective understanding of the world around us. Too often people take a difference of opinion as some sort of personal attack. We must be willing to engage with these ideas and face them head on as you said. That’s how truth is discovered.

          I will agree with your first point that the Bible is not going to be a very convincing piece of evidence in a general discussion on the existence of a god. However, I think that it’s fine in this context given that The Beagle’s blog is about coming out of evangelical Christianity which puts a heavy emphasis on knowledge of the Bible.

          I’m familiar with the story of Jesus’ temptation in the desert, and I’ve seen the passage you speak of as an explanation for unanswered prayers. However, my question would be how does one square “not putting god to the test” with the passages that The Beagle mentioned in his post about the God of the Bible granting the prayers of “the faithful?” It would seem that these two ideas are at a direct contradiction.

          For the second part of your first point:
          >> We can accept that prayer is a way to interact with God (of the Bible) and believe that there is power to heal and restore found in it, but at the same time we have been told that it will not be subject to tests and trials. So, again, this does not prove or disprove God, but simply that prayer not standing up to human testing does not invalidate it, as we have already been told that it won’t.

          Why should we believe that “there is power to heal and restore found in [prayer]?” If prayers are only sometimes answered, and people who don’t pray or are not prayed for are healed at the same rates as the faithful then why should one believe that prayer has anything to do with healing?

          As for your second point, are you agreeing that I oversimplified or that it’s impossible to know why a loving god would allow suffering? I have seen arguments before presented for why there is suffering. Everything from it being necessary for free will, part of the sinful nature of humans, and the best possible world have all been put forward before. I also don’t find any of them especially convincing, but I’ve stopped trying to bridge the gap.

          I find the rest of your post most intriguing. The paradigm that “good is God” seems a semantic shift. I would have no trouble believing in a god that is simply defined as “Goodness” or “Love.” Those are things that, while abstract, are at least sustained with some evidence and good definitions. The problem that I come across is when “good is God” is combined with specific religious claims like those found in the Bible. Because then you enter the world of moral relativism where whatever God says should be is automatically good. What is to stop God from changing the definition down the road?

          • In light of the spiraling nature of this conversation let me draw back for a moment. When I originally read/posted to this blog, the singular point I was trying to make was that believing in Science (secular humanism, agnostic atheism, etc.) requires a measure of faith in the same way that believing in God does. That eventually we, as humans, reach a limit to what can be understood about the nature of this world and that there are mysteries that will never be solved. I’ve found the reticence among secular humanists/atheists/agnostics to concede that point interesting, because it almost seems to transfer the rejection of god to a rejection of faith, or not being willing to put aside reason and choose to believe in something with your ‘heart’ instead of your head. I can understand why a humanist would not want to indulge in that sort of behavior as it is contrary to the entire ethos. But in terms of logical contortions, forming a belief system without it would be a real back-breaker for me. Perhaps it’s a muddling of the semantics, but I see “faith in god vs. faith in man” as the primeval supposition from which all other arguments must be built upon, yet none seem obliged to share this common ground with me. Thoughts?

          • I apologize for taking the conversation so far afield of your original point. As I said at the beginning of my first post, science is willing to admit when it doesn’t know something. In the words of comedian Dara O’Briain, “Science knows it doesn’t know everything. If it knew everything, it’d stop.”

            I’ll agree that there are many things we don’t know, and there are some things that I’d say we may never know. We may never know where the universe “came from” or if it came from anywhere at all. We may never know what exactly happens to consciousness at the time of death or if there’s any afterlife. However, I believe the honest thing to do is admit ignorance on those points when asked. I can certainly talk about what I’d like the answers to be, but that can’t replace evidence.

            Now, for the “faith in science = faith in god” position I will simply have to disagree. I, in fact, do try to reject faith when possible. My statement is made under the position that faith is belief in something without sufficient evidence. I use the word sufficient because not every claim is equal. If you told me you had a brother named Bob, I’d probably believe you provisionally. There is nothing extraordinary about the name Bob or having brothers so your word would be sufficient evidence to support that claim. If you told me you had superpowers and could fly to the moon unassisted I would need a lot more than just your word of it. I look at claims of miracles and gods to be of the same ilk as the superpower claim.

            I prefer to live my life believing in things that I have sufficient evidence to believe in. I prefer to withhold belief until sufficient convincing evidence is presented for a given position. To date, the scientific method has proved the most efficient method of testing claims and gathering evidence to either support or disprove given positions. Now, I will concede that science does make some assumptions about the universe, and there is no way to get around that.

            They assume that the universe exists and that we are capable of learning about it. They assume that there are descriptive and predictive rules of the universe that can be discovered. By that I mean things like “objects with mass have a specific gravitational pull on other objects with mass.” Further these rules about the universe can be discovered by using our senses. I believe that most people would agree that the above assumptions are necessary if we hope to learn anything about the world. Otherwise, we devolve into things like solipsism which is simply not a useful viewpoint.

            Theists generally have one more assumption that somewhere behind the scenes there is also a supernatural entity that intervenes in the workings of the universe. This is an assumption that I reject for lacking evidence.

            Now, all of this could change if your definition of faith is different from mine. But in summary, I agree that there are mysteries (and they may persist til the end of time), but instead of having faith in a given position I just stick with a simple, “I don’t know.”

          • Chris you seem like a devout atheist, and though I feel we may be pushing the limits of what blog comments are meant for I like hearing what you have to say. You too, Beagle. If either of you feel like taking this conversation elsewhere I’m always up for rounds 4-12. After 12 we call it, either I’m atheist or your christian. Follow my blog handle to my ‘day job blog’ and there you’ll find my e-mail. Otherwise I’m afraid I might start spewing too much of my foolishness all over this well-cultivated godlessness :)

            If I have no takers there, one final thought(s). I don’t know how your truth has suited you. In my 29 years, mine has suited me well. I don’t consider myself especially religious or moral or prosperous, but I do consider myself redeemed. Like a coupon or a voucher, redeemable. I’ve come to understand, be it a sunset over an ocean, a moving passage of fine literature, a particularly epic set in an amphitheater under a full moon, that truth is a fleeting thing. I do not seek to convince anyone of any truth I can barely grasp on my own, only that there is Truth, Logos, and that is sufficient. And as the good book (and Bob Marley) says, “the stone the builders rejected will become the cornerstone”.

  11. I didn’t know that was a website! A question I picked up from somewhere, it may have been a Dawkins book, posed the question about amputees. During debate, I often ask Christians if they would pray for an amputee to regrow an arm or leg. The look on their face is much like what I imagine to be a computer rebooting if it was a human (if that makes any sense.)

    Thank you for continuing this series.

  12. Pingback: Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 4: Romans 8:9 | Path of the Beagle

  13. Pingback: Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 5: Highlighting Your Comments So Far | Path of the Beagle

  14. Pingback: Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 6: The God of the Bible | Path of the Beagle

  15. Pingback: Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, Part 2: Worthy Prayers | Path of the Beagle

  16. Pingback: Geocentrism and Free Will | Path of the Beagle

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