Column: Wasting Time

By Todd Swiss

A large and carefully planned out study examining the effect prayer has on strangers with illnesses just recently concluded. This study involved several different religious groups, including Buddhists, Muslims and many denominations of Christians attempting to appeal to their respective gods for the healing of strangers. The results showed that there was absolutely no difference between those receiving unknown spiritual support from afar and those receiving no spritual support at all.

Frankly, I am not surprised by these results one bit. Praying for random strangers without them having any knowledge of the support is obviously not going to work. If you pray for enough people, one of them is bound to be healed, but if no one prays for anyone, people will be healed too. There is no evidence that prayer is specifically more helpful than having your friends and family support you through difficult times. In notoriously “godless” northern Europe, science prevails over illness.

It seems that the people who pray for the sick and actually believe that they are helping in some way are falling for the most basic biases and fallacies examined in the field of psychology. Confirmation bias is just one of the many fundamental errors people make that has been proven time and again through scientific experiments. According to Wikipedia, “Confirmation bias is a phenomenon whereby in a variety of settings, decision makers have been shown to notice more, assign more weight to, and actively seek out evidence that confirms their claims, while tending to ignore and not seek out evidence that might discount their claims.”

Basically, people will automatically state evidence which supports their beliefs while ignoring the evidence that may be piling up against them. This is exactly what happens with religious people when they discuss prayer. They will come out and cite people who have been “miraculously healed” and how those people had hundreds of people praying for them. These people overcame terrible illnesses and slim odds given to them by doctors through the “power of prayer” and “God’s will.”

Where do I start to debunk all of this “evidence?” Let’s start out by looking at all the people who were prayed for that just did not seem to heal like the other people. It seems like these people who pray all the time have a terrible case of selective memory, or maybe they just don’t want to face the facts. God doesn’t just randomly choose who to miraculously heal by how many people are praying for a certain person. It doesn’t matter who is doing the praying. The content of the prayers doesn’t matter. Praying just doesn’t work.

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Additionally, how can we truly trust the odds given to us by doctors? Sure, they are paid to know about illnesses and how they will generally affect our bodies, but they are just human like the rest of us. Everyone’s body is different. Some people will be healed completely by a certain medicine that others would completely reject. The truth is that doctors can only make educated guesses on the ultimate severity of illnesses in relation to the general population. While medicine has come a long way from bleeding the illness out of a person, we still have a long way to go. Medical phenomena happen all the time, whether people are praying for the person or not.

Religious groups have already attempted to discount the results by stating that the power of prayer and their respective gods are far beyond the scientific realm. However, the facts do not lie. People can and will continue to pray for strangers around the world. They may feel that they are doing their best to help those in need, or they may be trying to overcome their sense of helplessness in a cruel world. However, they should realize that they are just wasting their time.

Todd Swiss is a senior in LAS. His column appears on Tuesdays. He can be reached at [email protected].