Recently, I was asked by a reader to opine on the causes of “faith healings.” In a nutshell, my answer went like this: Faith healings are nothing more than placebo effects combined with false attribution errors and confirmation bias.
As it was not especially pertinent to the question, I didn’t go into much depth on the topic of prayer’s actual effectiveness as a placebo. I also left out one very important way in which prayer can have a real effect. Today, I’d like to cover all of my bases in one fell swoop.
I probably owe my more aggressive atheist readers an apology up front. I’m going to be saying a lot of good things about prayer in this article. I realize that it’s uncomfortable for some of us to give religion any credit for accomplishing good, but I’m committed to a search for real truth, not comfortable ideology. And if non-belief becomes ideological, then… why don’t we just go back to church and save ourselves the trouble of being outcasts?
Prayer and Monogamy
I spend a lot of time on this blog emphasizing that humans are not designed to be sexually monogamous. Rather, we are — at least in the First World — mostly socially monogamous. (Look it up for yourself. Wealthier nations with high education tend towards monogamy while poor nations with low educations almost ubiquitously exhibit significant polygamy.) In doing so, I am usually trying to point out that monogamy is not the required or even necessarily the best arrangement for everybody. We have a spectrum of sexuality as humans, and often focus on monogamy to the exclusion of every other possibility. However, there are significant benefits in our society to at least practicing serial monogamy. And it appears that praying helps couples stay monogamous.
Does this shock you? It shocked me. I’ve been referencing the statistic for divorce rates among Protestants since the Barna Group published its findings. Atheists stay married better than Christians. Fact. And since money and infidelity are the two biggest factors in divorce, it stands to reason that Christians are also cheating on each other more than atheists.
But maybe not, at least in a population of devout believers who are loving enough to pray for their mates daily. Researchers at Florida State University published a study in which — controlling for self reporting bias — participants who believe in the power of prayer are more inclined to monogamy with their partner when they pray daily for him or her. The “prayer group” experienced higher faithfulness scores than a group instructed to simply think good thoughts about their partner daily.
I’m not comfortable just letting this research lie, however. There are several reasons. First, the numerous studies indicating that our primal instincts can fool us into being more moral. I would like to see a follow up study in which participants are primed towards fidelity by a more subtle mechanism. It might be that the act of praying is secondary (or even ineffectual) but is correlated more or less completely with a visceral reminder of authority or the morality of fidelity.
I would also like to see a baseline comparison of fidelity among non-believers who do not pray and believers who do. It is possible that through some other mechanism, non-believers reinforce their own fidelity. The significantly lower divorce rate for atheists at least suggests more fidelity.
All that being said, the results seem solid. At least among people who believe in the power of prayer, there is some power to increase fidelity. Is there a comparable non-theist way to accomplish the same end? I don’t know.
Here’s another question. Many non-believers (myself included) are quick to point out that the system of morality espoused by Christians actually creates unresolvable moral relativism. Is it possible that because of this, believers are actually less moral as a baseline, and that their prayers are bringing them back up to non-believer status?
There’s much more we need to know about this research before we can make any strong pronouncements about broad effects. But it’s definitely intriguing.
Prayer as a Placebo
The Placebo Effect is well documented and thoroughly tested. It’s real. Placebos work. And with very few exceptions (yes, there are exceptions… isn’t that odd?) the key to their effectiveness is the patient’s belief in their effectiveness. Handing someone a sugar pill and telling them it’s sugar doesn’t work.
That creates an interesting conundrum for the non-believer. Though I couldn’t find any direct studies of the matter in a brief journal search, I think it’s safe to say that religionists who sincerely believe in prayer will experience a placebo effect in just the same way as if they took a pill they sincerely believed in.
So… Is there a comparable placebo effect for non-believers? I think the answer is probably yes. Sam Harris has taken a lot of flack for his advocacy of “non-spiritual spirituality.” (I have no idea if he uses that term, but it fits.) He believes in the power of meditation, creative visualization, and a lot of other practices that sound to many atheist ears like so much New Age Woo.
But I think he’s onto something. Perhaps a certain amount of woo is acceptable in a non-believing culture. If there’s widespread belief that meditation or creative visualization can work “miracles,” then perhaps miracles will be worked at the same or a similar rate as in the theist community.
The Bottom Line
Here’s where things stand with me at the moment. I stringently disagree with the conclusion of the article in The Economist about prayer and monogamy. “Thus, whereas other animal species must resort to constant vigilance to reduce the risks of infidelity, humans (or at least those who have a faith) have an extra tool in the box: religion.” There hasn’t been enough comparative research to establish prayer or religious belief as the causal factor. Perhaps it’s simply the act of priming oneself with thoughts of a moral authority or moral imperative. If so, then the same effect would be available to anyone, with or without religion.
Having said that, whether it’s priming or the act of praying, it’s hard to deny that somewhere between praying and heading to the local watering hole, feelings of fidelity are increased. And that’s a good thing.
Similarly, we need more research to learn whether religionists experience a unique benefit from the placebo effects of prayer, or if the same effects can be realized through beliefs and practices with less baggage and negative effects on the psyche.
But in the meantime, I don’t think I’ll spend a lot of time discouraging believers from prayer if they’re praying to get better or stay more faithful to their mates.