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human nature, morality

The Power of Prayer

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.

Objections

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.

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Discussion

18 thoughts on “The Power of Prayer

  1. I have lots of comments on this article, some won’t surprise you some will.

    For example, I don’t think that praying causes the Christians to stay loyal to their mates, I think that the Christians who are more loyal to their mates are more likely to pray for them.

    To that end, I don’t think anything is unique to religion. I think that the good positive effects that people get from religion can be replaced by non-religious means just as easily and effectively, just like I think that the bad and negative effects people get from religion can be replaced just as easily effectively.

    As a side note, I would like to add that when I apply the cause-effect arguments, I don’t stop halfway.

    Posted by cptpineapple | October 7, 2010, 11:10 pm
  2. For example, I don’t think that praying causes the Christians to stay loyal to their mates, I think that the Christians who are more loyal to their mates are more likely to pray for them.

    The study randomly assigned believers either to the prayer group or the positive thinking group, so you’re most likely wrong. I’m sure the p value was sufficiently low such that there’s little chance of all the loyal ones getting assigned to the prayer group.

    To that end, I don’t think anything is unique to religion. I think that the good positive effects that people get from religion can be replaced by non-religious means just as easily and effectively, just like I think that the bad and negative effects people get from religion can be replaced just as easily effectively.

    Well, we’ve been over this before, so why rehash it.

    As a side note, I would like to add that when I apply the cause-effect arguments, I don’t stop halfway.

    Which is appropriate. It’ll be a lot better when you apply your logic to factual data instead of your ideas, such as the one I just refuted, which don’t stand up to the evidence.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 7, 2010, 11:32 pm
  3. The study randomly assigned believers either to the prayer group or the positive thinking group, so you’re most likely wrong. I’m sure the p value was sufficiently low such that there’s little chance of all the loyal ones getting assigned to the prayer group.

    Hamby, I’m sorry I was doing something else when I read your entry, so I didn’t read the economist article before posting.

    So I retract my previous comment with my tail firmly between my legs.

    Well, we’ve been over this before, so why rehash it.

    Whether or not we’d be better off without religion seems to be a recurring theme here.

    Also if you think that I posted above to chirp you, you should see what I left out of my post that I was thinking.

    Which is appropriate. It’ll be a lot better when you apply your logic to factual data instead of your ideas, such as the one I just refuted, which don’t stand up to the evidence.

    Posted by cptpineapple | October 8, 2010, 12:25 am
  4. It makes sense to me. One of the best ways to set and achieve goals is to think about them, write them done, and look at them at least once each day.

    Prayer, in effect, is meditating on the goals you’d like to achieve (among other things.) Adding in the belief that such-and-such powerful divine being is going to help you achieve those goals — and to hold you accountable for them — merely serves to strengthen the reinforcement.

    Posted by nicolec | October 8, 2010, 4:58 pm
  5. I can see some atheists being unsettled by that, but I don’t think a little woo hurts. In fact, if there were such a thing as an atheist church, I would go. Sing Tim Minchin songs, maybe some hymns to the Human Spirit. Then the pastor could read from Sartre, and deliver a sermon on the search for meaning.

    Okay, maybe that’s a little silly, but I wonder sometimes if that’s where atheism is headed. If in a few decades we’ll have atheist street evangelists crying, “False memes have clouded your minds, be cleansed by the light of reason!”

    Hey, if there’s gonna be religion, might as well be based on reason.

    Posted by Ian | October 8, 2010, 6:58 pm
  6. Look no further, Ian!

    Posted by Shamelessly Atheist | October 8, 2010, 10:25 pm
  7. On a serious note, I don’t know where the atheist movement is heading, but I hope it’s not into another church or anything remotely resembling religion.

    Posted by cptpineapple | October 8, 2010, 11:08 pm
  8. LOL. Preach it brother!

    I’m pretty sure we’re not headed toward an atheist church. Not entirely sure though. In creating, memetic atheism, Dawkins may have created a monster.

    But if the doctrine was based on rationality and scientific thinking, rather than authority, would that be so bad?

    Posted by Ian | October 9, 2010, 5:16 am
  9. But if the doctrine was based on rationality and scientific thinking, rather than authority, would that be so bad?

    If it was based on rationality, than it wouldn’t be a doctrine would it?

    Posted by cptpineapple | October 9, 2010, 12:15 pm
  10. A doctrine is collection of teachings, so, yes, it could be a doctrine, so long as the teachings were rational.

    Posted by Ian | October 9, 2010, 1:55 pm
  11. A doctrine is collection of teachings, so, yes, it could be a doctrine, so long as the teachings were rational.

    But a lot of things in the “doctirine” aren’t based on reason.

    I mean Hamby felt the need to apologize for not bashing religion, I don’t think that’s a good sign.

    Posted by cptpineapple | October 9, 2010, 3:40 pm
  12. I’m not really following this conversation. There’s already church for non-believers. It’s called Unitarian Universalism, and it’s staggeringly unpopular. I don’t mean people hate it, I mean they are singularly uninterested in it.

    I think part of the problem with a discussion of “atheist church” is that we often miss something fairly obvious about church. When we look at what “church” means to most believers, it means attending services, going to potlucks, joining the church basketball league, taking trips together, etc, etc.

    Atheists do all of that except for the services. And the reason they don’t do services is they don’t need constant indoctrination and reinforcement of something that doesn’t make any sense. They’re perfectly happy with their beliefs and don’t really need to think about them. The only reason we ever think about atheism is that we’re constantly assaulted by theism.

    So… the bigger question we should be asking is a two-parter:

    1. In examining societies that are overwhelmingly secular, do we find that they are suffering some real negative effect from not getting together, singing, and listening to someone talk about things for an hour three times a week?
    2. If they are, why aren’t they doing it? It seems to me that if that part of religion is so damn important, non-religious societies would find non-religious reasons to get together and sing hymns.

    I’m not saying there aren’t some issues with isolation and lack of social networking in America, or that we shouldn’t do more community building. I’m just not convinced that sitting in church twice a week is the best way to do it.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 9, 2010, 3:52 pm
  13. Seeing as church attendence has been constantly declining in America, I would say that they are finding alternatives to church.

    Posted by cptpineapple | October 9, 2010, 5:44 pm
  14. I think you’re right. As an example, I’ve noticed that NFL football on sunday and monday is HUGE since fantasy football became the big thing. People have their groups that always watch sports together all afternoon and then monday evening.

    Trivia seems like it’s really big, too. Much bigger than a decade ago.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 9, 2010, 5:52 pm
  15. I had thought that since America was such a strangely religious anomaly among developed nations, that something odd must be going on here. Perhaps the draw of religious freedom had had a selection effect wherein the more ideological types from Europe got concentrated here, and their descendants weren’t going to up and secularize like France or Great Britain.

    But I just found out about the whole thing where people lie to pollsters and say they went to church when they didn’t. Only about twenty percent of Americans actually go to church, so whoop de freakin do.

    You’re right, there isn’t a need for an atheist church. We may be a little behind schedule, but we’re getting there.

    Posted by Ian | October 10, 2010, 2:51 pm
  16. Ian, there was a fellow a while back who proposed a unique “maverick gene” for Americans. The idea is that since America was originally populated by all the folks from Europe who weren’t going to take it any more and were willing to take huge risks to get what they wanted, that tendency passed itself on to descendants. The result, several hundred years later, is the American preoccupation with cowboys, mavericks, and risk-takers, and our peculiar sense of over-consumerism.

    I’m very skeptical of this claim, not least because for every risk taking maverick who came over here, there were probably four or five prisoners who were doing it for pardon, vagabonds with no other options, and other outcasts who didn’t feel particularly adventurous.

    But your idea of a selection effect has at least been considered before.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 10, 2010, 3:03 pm
  17. I think it may have to do with the founding of America as a country itself.

    I mean they emphasized the American way, apple pie against the evil red coats etc… and I think this sense of nationalism stuck around for 200 years and turned people into assholes.

    Posted by cptpineapple | October 10, 2010, 6:19 pm
  18. LOL… Well, nationalism certainly isn’t just about Americans. (Quebec much?) But your point is well taken. Whoever came up with the idea of manifest destiny the first time… what a shit-head. I wish I could go back in time and squelch that idea before it got any steam.

    Posted by hambydammit | October 10, 2010, 6:23 pm

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