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:
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.