Dawkins & Sick Studies of Prayer

The God DelusionI am reading (actually listening to an audio recording of) a book by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion.  This recording has the annoying property that it is read by the author and his wife, alternately.  While I much prefer hearing a book read by the author, I find Dawkins to have the sound of a sniveling twit and his actress / wife Lalla Ward randomly breaking in leaves the listener with the experience of being nagged to death.


I must confess however that as Dawkins’ premise is unpacked I am persuaded to agree with the atheist author; I don’t believe in the god that he rails against either.  His discussion of recent prayer studies betrays the true problem at the heart of this book:


In 2006 the Templeton Foundation funded a double blind study of the recovery of 1 800 cardiac patients who were recovering from bypass procedures.  These patients were divided up into three groups: one group was prayed for and knew about it; one group was prayed for and didn’t know about it; and a third group was not prayed for.  Dawkins is delighted to report in his book that the group who weren’t prayed for fared better (52% of the non prayed for patients developed complications while 59% of the prayed for ones did) Any statistically minded person will agree that in a study such as this, the difference between 52% and 59% is negligible.  Dr Charles Bethea, one of the co-authors and a cardiologist at the Integris Baptist Medical Center in Oklahoma City. said,”Intercessory prayer under our restricted format had a neutral effect.”


The people doing the praying were selected at random from three Oklahoma City churches and were given words to pray and a first name and last initial.  Dawkins mockingly muses on how God would know which John S. was being prayed for and this reveals the weakness of his line of thinking.  A God that would confuse John Smith and John Swanson or need clarification on who needed help is not a god that likely could help anyway; it’s certainly not a god that I would care to pray to.  I have the utmost respect for the disciplines of science but I don’t have any trouble in accepting if there is a God, He is going to be capable of keeping track of 1 800 cardiac patients.  I confess that there is something here in Dawkins’ logic that escapes me.


The problem is that prayer cannot be entirely understood by the outcome of the event prayed about.  A double blind study eliminates the possibilitiy of the one praying ever knowing the person they are praying about, of ever truly wrestling in prayer and struggling with the outcome.  Prayer is more than just an outcome that you are wishing would come true.


I believe that prayer changes things but I am at a loss to imagine a way of proving this.  The more important outcome of prayer however is that praying changes you.  We pray in order to struggle with God’s will and with ours.  In the tension of these two interests a greater realization of God’s purpose can be found.  Studying prayer by studying whether or not you got what you asked for misses the point.


Dr Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia and the author of, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, told The New York Times: “The problem with studying religion scientifically is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion.”


Here prayer is reduced to wishing, and God is reduced to a ‘genie in a bottle’ who if rubbed the right way will respond by granting the supplicant whatever he or she desires.  This clinical ‘prayer’ is found not to work because Prayer doesn’t work like that; God doesn’t work like that.  God’s purposes are far grander than a complication free recovery from surgery.


In reading this story I found myself wishing, ‘Why didn’t God step in here and blow these researchers away?’  He could have given the the experimental group outstanding recoveries, to the shock and amazement of skeptics everywhere and the report would have gone out far and wide,




Imagine what would happen next.  Would God be praised?  Would His name receive honour as a result of this clinical outcome?  I believe quite the opposite.  In our minds, God would be, ‘obligated’ to respond then to clinical prayer.  Our expectation would cease to be that God is enough, that His will for us is enough.and instead would become, a smaller, shallower, ‘god in a box’ who gets us out of a jam; all we have to do is crank the handle.


God is not obligated to respond to our prayers.  Despite how I believe prayer changes outcomes, I think the greater miracle is how my needs and expecations are transformed when I have poured them out before His throne and have waited on Him.


I don’t pray because He makes my life better, I pray because He is better than life!  God doesn’t just make your circumstances better; He is better! 


Jesus is better than a complication free recovery.  He is better than two cars in the garage and a cottage in Muskoka.  I pray to God to pour out my heart to Him and then live in His grace and love every minute of it.  I struggle deeply with how God acts; many times I can’t explain to anyone why things happen the way they do.  Cynics like Dawkin mewl and bawl about how God can’t exist because everyone doesn’t get what they ask for.  On the contrary, it is what they are asking for that does not exist. 


There is no safe place in this world with predictable outcomes and slot machine gods who drop you a cookie when you pull the prayer lever. Prayer, meditation, and the study of God’s word aquaint us with the Creator.  He desperately desires a relationship with us and longs to hear our voice.

One thought on “Dawkins & Sick Studies of Prayer

  1. Noel, have you seen “Expelled” with Ben Stein? Very interesting movie/documentary…he interviews Richard Dawkins, and I totally agree with your assessment of him as a ‘sniveling twit’. I was sort of waiting for the bolt of lightening to strike him. If you haven’t seen it, I really recommend the movie.


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