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Does Prayer Work? Tackling the Impossible Task of Examining the Spiritual Using Scientific Methods
Does Praying for Something Lead to It?
Science and religion do not always complement each other. While science and archeology may confirm religious history, other aspects of religion are often disputed, such as creationism and evolution. Prayer is a core aspect of religion that scientific study has evoked more questions than answers. Previously conducted studies looking at prayer’s efficacy are attacked for methodology and theology, as prayer is ascribed vastly different meanings according to one’s personal, cultural and religious socialization. This hub looks at prayer from a Christian angle, where we examine the hypothesis ‘praying for A results in A’. To study this hypothesis, I suggest we look at prayer journals.
Methods - Participants, Materials and Procedures.
Often, different groups of individuals oppose each other’s notions of prayer, claiming that their own method is superior and the only way that genuinely works. To remove this confound that different individuals might behave differently or elicit differing answers from different entities despite praying for the same thing, we study a like-minded group of participants (Christians), who have a homogeneous understanding of prayer - what prayer is, who hears and answers prayers, how to pray, when and where one can pray.
The team of researchers who code the prayer journals should consist evenly of Christians and non-Christians. For an innately controversial study on prayer’s effectiveness, we want to be able to observe high inter-rater reliability and ensure and achieve inter-rater agreement. While Christians might possess expert-knowledge of prayer, they might be biased to prove the hypothesis. Thus having a group of non-Christians comprising of atheists and individuals from other religions in collaboration can provide a better objectivity to our study.
This study uses prayer journals of Christians who have passed on. Many Christians keep prayer journals as a spiritual discipline, regularly recording their prayer requests, answered prayers and stories behind their prayers and spiritual journeys. Analyzing prayer journals of those who have passed on provide a more objective approach, avoiding confounds such as deception, or selective reporting that knowing participants might employ in their anxiousness to prove that prayer does or does not work, whether conscious or not.
Also, prayer journals chronicling an extended period of one’s life grant access to the answers of prayer requests that are more long-term in nature (eg. Praying for a future spouse, career, long-term illness etc.), which is advantageous over short-term or laboratory studies.
Furthermore, this gives us the freedom to include diverse prayer requests as part of our study, unlike studies in which participants pray for specific items such as healing (Byrd, 1988) or esoteric items like bacteria (Nash, 1982). Dealing with a wider range of authentic prayer requests allows us to apply our results to a broader range of daily scenarios.
Prayers can be recorded in prose, or point form, according to the style the individual fancies. To address the research question, we will focus on prayer requests and answers.
First, researchers will code the different prayer requests and see if they were answered. Prayer requests would be categorized under 3 main categories ‘tangible’, ‘intangible’, and ‘undefined’. Tangible prayer requests are clearly defined with measurable outcomes such as praying for a parking lot; ‘intangible’ prayer requests require operationalisation before they are measurable, such as praying for a change of heart, or for a character quality such as patience, which require specific behavior to manifest in order to judge the outcome. Undefined prayer requests encompass those prayer requests that are hard to classify under both of those categories, where examples include praying that God’s will be done, praying for blessing and praying for God’s forgiveness.
Second, researchers will examine the records of answered prayer requests to see how their requests were answered. Based on the answers recorded, all the pairs of prayer request/answer will be classified as ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘not sure/unclear’, and ‘no answer’. All the ‘yes’ pairs lend direct support to our hypothesis, while the ‘no’ pairs do not support it. Pairs that are ‘not sure/unclear’ are those where the answers recorded were inconclusive (eg. Praying for world peace, and recording that a particular country has ended a war), and ‘no answer’ means that no answer or follow up was recorded for that specific request.
Organizing these request/answer pairs give an overview of the kinds of prayers that support our hypothesis. Being the most specific, it is possible that tangible prayers best support our hypothesis. However, they may not be the most common prayers that are prayed. Likewise, it is possible that the last category of ‘undefined’ prayers might lend the least support to our hypothesis, as they are often too generic or refer to a future timeframe.
Using prayer journals allow us to code for more things beyond the tangibility of the prayer requests. Prayer journals often record stories, allowing alternative ways of classifying the prayer requests, such the intentions behind prayer requests, number of people praying for a particular concern, size of group impacted by each specific request etc. This paints a more comprehensive picture of prayer dynamics; which is useful if we want to examine prayer according to specific spiritual or scientific principles that groups of people might follow.
However, journals are self reported accounts, which may not be entirely objective. Nonetheless, praying places one is a position of expectancy, priming one to look out for answers to prayer. Unfortunately, prayer journals do not have lifelong records, and journaling in old age is often impractical or impossible, leaving researchers with missing information.
From the start, the hypothesis assumes that the purpose and act of prayer is to petition; however Muslims, Christians, Wiccans and Catholics see prayer as conversing with God, Hindus see prayer as part of worship and Buddhists regard prayer as a part of meditation to gain virtues such as compassion and wisdom; hence petitioning is just a slice of prayer life.
Christians model their prayers after the Bible. In the Bible, praise, thanksgiving and confessions are some core components of prayers; petitions are but small component of prayers. More often than not, Christians pray for spiritual matters such as asking for wisdom and spiritual understanding. Thus petitioning for A, whether A is tangible, intangible or not, is not necessarily committed with the sole objective of achieving, producing, or receiving A. For example, praying for A (eg. a single praying for a future spouse) could be a demonstration of submission or obedience toward more selfless behavior, or preparation for spiritual calling (eg. becoming a missionary in a foreign country), where asking for A is a small step to fruition of a larger spiritual quest. If the bulk of prayer is not found in the act of petitioning, and if the act of petitioning is not always done with the goal of receiving, then this hypothesis is inherently fallacious and any findings will not add value to the prayer lives.
The beauty of prayer is when praying for A produces ‘things way cooler than A’, or perhaps terrible outcomes, that on hindsight, people realize were good for them at that particular time – prayer works, but not in strict accordance to our hypothesis. No study can perfectly capture this aspect of prayer, as some prayers are answered after a one has departed, such as when Christians claim God’s promises, or align their prayers with Bible prophecies.
Besides, praying such prayers aligned with God’s promises, character and prophecies force individuals to exercise faith and trust in the power of their God, not in the power of prayer itself. This hypothesis stresses the power of prayer, instead of the powerful being(s) behind the prayer, creating an inconsistency with the doctrines of individuals who treat prayer as a means to know their God more intimately. Thus a hypothesis that measures the amount of prayer that produces a specific outcome alienates those who believe that prayer encompasses a much richer relationship, meaning and purpose beyond ritual.
On a broader scale, adopting scientific methods to tease prayer apart is incompatible and inadequate as a tool for the spiritual. Since prayer is of spiritual nature with spiritual goals, perhaps the real and vital question warranting investigation is does praying achieve joy peace, intimacy with God, spiritual insight…other spiritual aspirations? But once more, the answers to these questions lie deep in the hearts of men, hidden from the prying of science.
Byrd, R. C. (1988). Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. Southern Medical Journal, 81, 826–829.
Nash, C. (1982). Psychokinetic Control of Bacteria Growth. Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 51, 217-221.
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