Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Should We Have Scientific Proof that Prayer Works?

Here is an answer in the negative by the Oxford philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne. It's a response to a scientific study of prayer on behalf of hospital patients, which showed no correlation between prayer and recovery. This passage is especially well-put:

"Suppose that I am a rich man who sometimes gives sums of money to worthy causes, and that I am very well informed and I know just how useful (or not) different gifts would be. I receive many letters asking me to give such gifts. Some foundation wants to know if there is any point in people writing such letters to me - do they make any difference to whether I give money to this cause or that? So the foundation commissions a study. Many people are enrolled to write letters to me on behalf of several causes rather than others in order to see whether subsequently I give more to those causes rather than to the other causes. In fact, let us suppose, I am normally moved by such letters; I think that the fact that many people take the trouble to write to me on behalf of some cause about which they care a lot is a reason for giving to that cause. But I now discover why I am suddenly bombarded with a stream of letters on behalf of certain causes; and I realise that on this occasion, unlike on other occasions, the letter writers have no deep concern for the causes for which they write. So of course on this occasion I pay no attention to the letters."


  1. I like your website, keep up the good work!

    Let me push you on this a little. Two years ago my wife and I lost our six year old boy, Patrick. He fought hard for a week in intensive care, during that time I, my wife, our community and beyond prayed intensely. The hospital room was adorned with Holy Relics and Mass cards. So my question is: do you think these prayers had "no deep concern for the causes for which they" were offered?

    Not trying to fight and I ask not for your comfort. Like I said, I'm just trying to push you a little, help you refine your argument if you will.

    In Christ, ADB.

  2. I'm very sorry to hear of your loss. Eternal rest grant unto Patrick, oh Lord. May perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.

    I should have been clearer in my post; the prayers in the experiment were those of strangers, praying for the purpose of the experiment, rather than concerned relatives or other well-wishers. That's why Swinburne compared them to letters sent speculatively, rather than genuinely seeking help. Of course we know that not all petitions in prayer are granted; that's another story. But really Swinburne was dealing with the problem as to why there seems to be no correlation between petition and outcome in experiment. I think his answer is a good one.

    Thanks for your kind words!