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.