What does prayer achieve? | Andrew Brown | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk
When I consider my Christian academic friends – people who are smarter, better read and harder working than I am – it's clear that Christianity is a very dangerous profession. Three have daughters who died in their 20s; another has a daughter who is a drug addict. Parents and spouses get Alzheimer's disease when they don't get cancer. I imagine they all prayed for these things not to happen. I know they all still pray.
So what is going on here? What is the point of all that prayer? This is hardly a new question. It has been around at least since Job. Nor is there any hope of finding an answer that will convince everyone. But it is possible to tease out a couple of questions. The first is whether intercessory prayer works better than chance. There aren't any reputable studies suggesting that it does, which is, I suppose another example of unanswered prayer, since at least some of these studies must have been commissioned in the hope that they would prove prayer is a worthwhile medical intervention.
I wouldn't be surprised, myself, if some forms of prayer worked a bit better than chance. Placebos do, after all. But it would be astonishing if it worked better than placebos. And they are not effective against most devastating diseases.
But since placebos don't work on third parties, that rather rules out the idea of praying for someone else's diseases, especially if they are an atheist, still more if they are a stranger. Almost the first study of the effects of intercessory prayer was conducted by Charles Darwin's cousin Francis Galton. This looked at the lifespans of the crowned heads of Victorian Europe, for whom prayers were said by almost all their subjects every week. Their lives were no longer than average.