God, Maybe – 4

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What does a god do, exactly?

If we were to put an advert in the local paper, what skills and experience would we ask for?

Wanted: experienced deity. Must be omnipotent, omniscient and have a clean cosmos driving licence. Previous experience not required (or possible).

Most deities do three things – they create the world, they answer prayers and they provide an afterlife for those of us who haven’t been naughty.

We’ve already talked about creation. I have no desire to have a personal experience of the afterlife (or lack thereof). So let’s talk about the one in the middle.

Let’s talk about prayer.

This is the deal. We want something out of life – maybe to recover from an illness, to win the lottery, to get a good job, world peace, that sort of thing.

So we send a mental email to whichever god we believe in. Dear god, could you please …

And just to make sure that he hears us, we close our eyes and put our hands together. Maybe that’s how you send an interstellar email? Or we go to a tall building and we get someone to play an organ, ring church bells and we all say our prayers in unison. Maybe if we all say it at the same time we’ve got a better chance of him listening?

Some religions even insist on saying their prayers in Latin. He likes Latin.

But does prayer actually work?

The problem is that it’s very hard to tell at an individual level. If you pray for something and that thing happens, you have no way of knowing if your prayer caused the thing to happen. Or if it would have happened anyway.

Around 80% of medical illnesses clear themselves up naturally without the need for any intervention from medicine or the almighty. That’s how quack medicines work. You only think that your illness was cured by Cher’s bottle of Doctor Good.

So let’s try an experiment. Let’s see if we can use prayer to influence this week’s lottery results. I would like everyone to pray for a certain set of numbers. And not just prayer. Let’s throw luck in too. I’d like you all to cross your fingers, stroke your magic rabbit’s foot, touch wood. Whatever you do to bring yourself good fortune.

Heck, I’ll even let you choose your lucky numbers. Numbers that mean something to you.

Everyone ready for the big experiment?

What’s that? Don’t tell me you have doubts? You don’t think that we can get enough people working together to affect the result?

That’s a fair point.

You don’t think that God will play ball if he knows it’s an experiment? Yup, that’s a good point too.

And we can’t let people choose their own lucky numbers. Because if everyone did that we wouldn’t be able to see the result.

All, good and valid points. So let’s change the experiment. Let’s run it retrospectively on every lottery that has ever been run, every roulette wheel that has ever spun a ball, every game of chance, in the history of mankind. Ever.

You see, we humans are a predictable lot. When we are asked to think up a lucky number, we nearly always plump for small numbers.

Our own and our family’s birthdays? Apart from the year, that will be one number less than or equal to 31 and one number less than or equal to 12. House numbers? Statistically there are more lower numbers than high ones. Most streets have a number 1, but only the longer streets have a 51.

Researchers at Southampton University found that 7 was by far the most popular lucky number, being chosen 25% more often than 46 (the least popular).

So when we spin a roulette wheel or watch the lottery balls come tumbling down, there is an immense amount of prayer and luck being directed at the smaller numbers.

Admittedly, you praying for 7 is going to counteract everyone praying for 6. But that doesn’t matter. We are looking for any low number.

Here’s the experiment – if prayer can affect our chances of winning the lottery, we ought to see more low numbers coming up than high ones. And 7 ought to be the most successful of all.

And what do we find?

Nothing at all.

Over countless lotteries, spins of roulette wheels and games of chance there is absolutely no discernible bias towards lower numbers. Or the number 7. The number 13 isn’t unlucky. It’s just another number.

Some people will say that is a trivial example. God isn’t going to get involved in something as mercenary as a lottery win. So let’s look at a more serious issue. Praying for someone who is sick.

This is less clear cut. If you are interested, you can read more here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Studies_on_intercessory_prayer

What seems to be happening is that people do get better if they know that someone is praying for them.

But if they don’t know that, then prayer seems to have somewhere between very little effect and no effect. And it does seem that the more rigorous the test, the more likely it is that there will be no discernible impact on the person’s health.

How do we interpret all of this?

That may depend on your point of view. If you are a disciple of Dawkins you may alight on the studies that showed that there was no effect.

If you incline more towards belief, your eye will fall on those studies that did spot an effect, no matter how small or how faint. After all, you only need one tiny scrap of proof that God exists.

If you are somewhere in the middle and open minded, there are some intriguing conclusions to be drawn.

First, prayer seems to have no effect on inanimate objects or events such as the lottery. An atheist is as likely to win the jackpot as a nun. And, I expect, would be far more imaginative in how he or she would spend the money.

Secondly, there does seem to be something happening when people pray or know that they are in someone else’s prayers. There may be no physical healing going on, but prayer does seem to have the power to make people happier.

People who pray say that it is a comfort for them in difficult times. It may not be doing anything, but it feels good.

A scientist would call that the placebo effect. A pill or a treatment with no medical value can help you get better becomes it makes you think that you will get better.

But here’s the rub. A placebo only works if you believe that it will work. As soon as you know it’s a placebo, the benefit disappears.

To paraphrase Henry Ford, whether you believe prayer does any good, or you don’t, you are probably right.

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5 thoughts on “God, Maybe – 4

  1. The difficulty with the lottery prayer is that within Christianity one prays in Christ’s name and basically you’re asking that the world be more like he would want it. A successful lottery prayer might therefore result in the lottery folding and more people getting more personally involved in charity work
    Tricky thing, prayer, it’s kept an awful lot of serious thinkers pondering it (and putting their thoughts into writing) for at least two thousand years 😉

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  2. Maybe. The key point for me is that people do pray for a lottery win. And stroke rabbit’s feet. Cross their fingers. And when/if they succeed they rationalise that the prayer/ rabbit’s foot/ whatever actually succeeded. And naturally they conveniently forget about all the times when it didn’t work.

    There is a huge amount of self-justification going on. If something good happens after prayer, it’s a sign that prayer works. If something good doesn’t happen, that’s either God moving in mysterious ways or the thing that you prayed for conveniently isn’t the sort of thing that God would ever give you.

    I’m trying to be as open and even-handed as I can be here. There are areas where prayer does seem to work, although it’s not clear how much of this is the placebo effect. But for the first time in 2,000 years we now have clear proof that some of the things that people pray for most certainly are not affected by prayer.

    That still doesn’t prove that God does or does not exist. It just shows that he is not answering prayers connected to the Lotto. And you might argue – why should he?

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  3. I think there’s a bit somewhere in the New Testament where he basically says. I’m not answering prayers about the lotto, only in bible speak.
    I think prayer works, but whether that’s because placebos are 25% effective (at least I read that somewhere) or because it’s prayer working I don’t know. I suspect there’s something in quantumm physics somewhere that might explain a possibility of positivity and belief making it work. It depends on a person’s approach to prayer as to whether it works, I guess. If your prayers are a kind of meditation they will centre you, help you and.., yes… Work. If someone wants to win the lotto that badly, they may have missed the whole point of prayer.

    Interesting.

    Cheers

    MTM

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  4. Rod

    There has been some evidence that prayer works to improve anothers health, but it seems to work for all religions. So assuming that prayer is valid, is the effect coming from a deity or from ourselves? The brain is a remarkable instrument. We have yet to figure out the totality of what it can do. I can also assume that we as humans have yet to discover all of the possible power sources in the universe. This puts us back to square one, making this a useless debate until a god shows up and proves it, Armageddon, or death. We are not going to resolve this soon. Religion is not going away either, as it fulfills a basic human need. I suspect that in ten thousand years we will still be having this debate, except it will be with the (insert new religious group here).

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    • Rod

      The evidence for prayer affecting health is fascinating. There have been some studies which suggest that there is some effect, but equally there have been several which show no link between prayer and someone’s health improving.

      There is a strong evidence base for the placebo effect. If prayer does work, its effect seems to be very small compared with the power of our own minds.

      I do think you are right about religion serving a basic human need. But I am not so sure that we will still be having this debate in a thousand years time. The debate has moved on enormously in the last one thousand years, particularly the last century.

      I think that there is a critical point coming very soon when we will have to reappraise our opinions about religion and how we behave as a society. That will be prompted in part by climate change but also by improvements in technology.

      Hmmm. I feel a blog coming on.

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