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Painting depicting Jesus entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. (Zatletic, Adobe Stock)

If the Christian deity is an omnipotent God, as advertised over long millennia, how is it possible that he is much lousier at public relations even than people, his most glorious mortal creation.

Which begs the question: How divine can a deity be who can’t even convince his own worshippers of his all-powerful effectiveness on their behalf.

The answer, of course, is he can’t because he isn’t.

I’m referring off-handedly to scientific studies on the effectiveness of prayer, which I was reminded of this week in a compelling article by Brian Bolton — “Have Christians Accepted the Scientific Conclusion That God Does Not Answer Intercessory Prayer? —  in the December 2018/January 2019 edition of Free Inquiry magazine.

The answer is, “Uh, no.”

The background to this piece was a fatally flawed 1988 study on the supposed efficacy of prayer led by a young, born-again Christian cardiologist Randolph Byrd at San Francisco General Medical Center. Wrote Bolton:

“Byrd erroneously concluded that the results supported the hypothesis that intercessory prayers [a.k.a., “distant healing”] to the Judeo-Christian god have a beneficial therapeutic effect on cardiac patients. He thanked God for responding to the prayers for healing. Byrd’s landmark study was published in the Southern Medical Journal in 1988.

“While the initial results did suggest the possibility that prayer conferred only a small benefit, the subsequent revelation that a major violation of experimental protocol had occurred cast even this modest ray of hope into doubt. Later studies confirmed the correct inference, namely, that God does not answer intercessory prayer.”

The major flaw in Byrd’s study, Bolton pointed out, was that the study coordinator knew which patients were receiving prayers at the time she interacted with them, which added the potential for personal influence corrupting the objectivity of the results.

Four major duplicative studies after Byrd’s, from 1999 to 2006, revisited his subject focusing, as did Byrd’s, on intercessory prayer instead of personal or interpersonal prayer, which involve praying to oneself or “with or for others who are present or know that they are targets,” respectively. Bolton explained that the effects of non-intercessory prayers are “difficult to isolate because of the confounding and corrupting effects of belief (or placebo effect) and interpersonal support” on study results.

With intercessory prayer, on the other hand, neither subjects nor patients know who is being prayed for, and they are remote from the interpersonal influence of any praying activity. Then, investigators can identify with greater clarity which group — those prayed for, or not — achieves better medical outcomes and lower death rates.

A meta analysis of Byrds’s and the latter studies revealed what common sense would suggest. Wrote Bolton:

“Refuting the sincere beliefs and hopes of the dedicated researchers and funding agencies, the results of the five investigations of intercessory prayer were uniformly negative. This series of carefully conducted clinical trials did not produce any evidence in support of the proposition that hospitalized cardiac patients derive benefit from the altruistic prayers of committed intercessors.

“Specifically, the mortality rates listed in the sidebar were very similar for the prayed-for and not-prayed-for patients. It can be seen that the outcomes of three of the individual studies slightly favored the not-prayed-for patients, although none of the five differences was statistically significant. … It is apparent that the Judeo-Christian god disregards fervent prayers for recovery just as often as favorable outcomes occur. In other words, restoration to good health is a matter of competent medical care and good luck.”

Still, devout Christian medical personnel and other believers remained unconvinced. Bolton reports that intractable naysayers cling to six disingenuous arguments: the research is based on a “misconception of how God responds to prayer,” God is beyond science and thus not “amenable to experimental evaluation,” the validity of divine intervention can neither be proved or disproved by research, and since any omnipotent god already knows who he will heal, prayer is “superfluous.”

Despite the cold water these studies have thrown on believer’s incessant faith in the power of prayer, the belief remains strong, partly because news articles tend to report the results of studies on the efficacy of prayer as “mixed,” when it it’s “uniformly negative.”

The truth is more pedestrian than deus ex machina, or God arriving, via prayer in this scenario, to miraculously save the day in medical crises.

“In other words” as Bolton wrote, “restoration to good health is a matter of competent medical care and good luck.”

Studies proving the inefficacy of intercessory prayer also have a profound theological implication, casting doubt on supernatural religion’s divine claim that “God” has “independent existence in objective reality.”

“[T]heology asserts that God actually exists outside of the human mind, rather than just being a figment of the imagination,” Bolton writes. “A reasonable inference from the failed prayer investigations is that the allegedly omnipotent Judeo-Christian god does not exist. We are reminded of Mark Twain’s astute aphorism, ‘Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.’”

If Christianity’s deity were truly an authentically omnipotent god with cosmic talents, surely he would be easily able to convince everyone to believe in what they must know ain’t so.

Yet, he certainly hasn’t convinced me or countless others, prayer or no prayer.

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Rick Snedeker

Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...