This post is in direct response to Peter Hurford’s misleading essay, The Contradictory Failure of Prayer. My official position on prayer studies is that atheists who champion them as evidence for atheism are just as irrational as believers who champion them as evidence for theism.
As is typical of internet atheists, Mr. Hurford misleads his readers to believe that science is purely on his side, stating (bold mine) that “every time we look at the results, we notice that atheists recover from illness just as frequently as believers who pray.” I don’t know about you, but it really bothers me when people use “we” when they should use “I” instead [cf. Alonzo Fyfe and his litany of unsubstantiated “we” claims]. Peter’s use of “we” implies that his readers have reason to share his conclusions, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. When I look at the results, I notice a state of affairs quite different from the one Peter wants his readers to accept as reality.
For example, over a year ago I reported a study published in the journal Liver Transplantation suggesting that religiosity is associated with prolonged survival in liver transplant recipients. From the study:
This study shows that liver transplant candidates with high religious coping (defined as seeking God’s help, having faith in God, trusting in God, and trying to perceive God’s will in the disease) have more prolonged posttransplant survival than patients with low religiosity.
I’m left to assume that when Peter says “we,” he must be excluding people like me who are aware of studies that falsify his claims. Likewise, he must not be referring to the authors or readers of this list featuring 19 prayer studies suggesting a correlation between prayer and health benefits.
In a similar vein, Mr. Hurford misleads his readers to believe that, “We notice people who pray daily are no more happier, healthier, successful, or compassionate than those people who never pray.” Again, I suppose he must be excluding the authors and readers of these articles I came across on the Gallup website:
- Very Religious Have Higher Wellbeing Across All Faiths
- Very Religious Americans Lead Healthier Lives
- Very Religious Americans Report Less Depression, Worry
- Religious Attendance Relates to Generosity Worldwide
- Worldwide, Highly Religious More Likely to Help Others
- In More Religious Countries, Lower Suicide Rates
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying, “Peter, you’re wrong, here is the science which proves prayer.” For reasons I began explaining here, I don’t think ostensibly rational people should use prayer studies to bolster their metaphysical preferences. Rather, I’m saying that a rational person has legitimate grounds to be skeptical of Peter’s atheist apologetics. Take this rhetorical snippet as another example:
[prayer] has been disproven by science, makes no sense theologically, and reveals God as unfair and evil.
Nonsense. I respect Peter but I’ll mince no words here. Prayer has neither been proven nor disproven by science, Peter’s cherry-picking makes no sense rationally, and reveals Peter as ignorant, dishonest or negligent. Peter has departed from rationalism just as much as the fundies who say prayer has been scientifically proven. The truth is, we have a non-trivial number of studies suggesting positive effects, and we have a non-trivial number of studies that don’t. Any claim that goes beyond this departs from healthy scientific principle, and deserves to be scrutinized and challenged. Elsewhere, Mr. Hurford reminds us,
It’s very easy to talk about how amazingly accurate the Bible is if you point only to the hits and discard the misses.
Indeed. If I may hoist you by your own petard here, it’s also very easy to talk about how amazingly ineffective prayer is if you point only to the misses and discard the hits.