Friday, March 31, 2006


Science Confirms Witchcraft Doesn't Work!

Amy and I discussed this study a while back when the study was publicized on CNN, while it was still being conducted. Which, I thought was kind of odd, since I was under the impression that you usually don't want to bring the media in during the middle of a study involving psychological or medical effects and then interview anyone involved in the experiment. But heck, what do I know?

So, I've been waiting for the study to come out in order to see if it was as simplistic as it sounded.

As a comparison, a classmate of mine did much the same study (on a smaller scale, and with a mix of very sick patients) as a catholic high school science project back in 1988. Interestingly, she predicted and received the same results as this study.

Here's the article from March 30th, 2006.

Study: Prayer doesn't affect heart patients

NEW YORK (AP) -- In the largest study of its kind, researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.

Researchers emphasized their work does not address whether God exists or answers prayers made on another's behalf. The study can only look for an effect from prayers offered as part of the research, they said.

They also said they had no explanation for the higher complication rate in patients who knew they were being prayed for, in comparison to patients who only knew it was possible prayers were being said for them.

The work, which followed about 1,800 patients at six medical centers, was financed by the Templeton Foundation, which supports research into science and religion. It will appear in the American Heart Journal.

Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" for specific patients, for whom they were given the first name and first initial of the last name.

The patients, meanwhile, were split into three groups of about 600 apiece: those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren't prayed for but were told it was a possibility.

The researchers did not ask patients or their families and friends to alter any plans they had for prayer, saying such a step would have been unethical and impractical.

The study looked for any complications within 30 days of the surgery. Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.

Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center, who did not take part in the study, said the results did not surprise him.

"There are no scientific grounds to expect a result and there are no real theological grounds to expect a result either," he said.

Science, he said, "is not designed to study the supernatural."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

First of all, expecting a result from prayer falls into the witchcraft category of spells, incantations, oracles, and fantasy. This is something that most major religious groups battled centuries ago. Second, even if prayer pulled mysterious levers in the universe for heart patients, this study is not described as either single or double blind. What's the point, if the entire group knows that they might be prayed for or are prayed for?

The quote at the end by Dr. Harold G. Koenig is a very restrained version of "No duh."

The role of prayer is very well documented in every major catechetical work of every religion I've ever bothered to be curious about. Prayer, meditation, consciousness-raising, determining your core values, trance, chi management, whirling like a dervish, auditing your thetan, prioritization, whatever you want to call it, is a necessary human activity that allows us to develop our own moral compass, develop a compassion for others, allows individual and communal sharing of hope, and hasn't been a "tit for tat" ritual since the days of the Old Testament and the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Yes, there are intercessionary prayers. Yes, there are prayers for petition. However, the definition of these prayers is universal in admonition that they are not shopping lists for your chosen deity or idol.

Sacrificing goats will not grant you special superhero powers. If that were true, we'd have a goat-based economy and would have expanded our human hegemony to every single planet in the universe by now. I'm not seeing a whole lot of that going on outside some weird sci-fi books based on the video game DOOM.

In a time where we have fantastic amounts of quality literature, philosophy, and science, it's weird to see a study that seeks to answer a question that has been consistently answered, with evidence, by both science and religion, for hundreds if not thousands of years.

Glad to see science catching up, but maybe the Templeton Foundation can skip forward a bit next time? How about quantifying the effects of social capital of religion, better defining the agency of religion with respect to cultural evolution, and continuing to qualify and quantify the social and psychological benefits of prayer?

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