Research shows that, beyond chance, praying for people out loud causes them harm and grief - maybe that's why America is going down the tubes!


The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, December 11, 2010. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Public Prayers Do More Harm than Good

I am a very spiritual person. I believe in an all-knowing universal force. For convenience, let's refer to that force as a masculine God. I believe that force watches over us all, and responds to our behavior in largely unknowable ways. I know He has watched over me, given that it looks like I'll make it to Medicare age, and that I can still experience life's pleasures.

But I have scientific proof that if you pray for someone's health, you're hurting their chances. I'll present that data, but here's the logic I see behind it. God doesn't like people seeking selfish benefits for themselves and those they love (just the way He wouldn't endorse creating tax shelters so your kid will have more gumba to play with). Why should He? By which religious theory -- Christian or otherwise -- should God respond to those who want their loved ones to live while others die?

What kind of arrogant selfishness would make us think otherwise? So, if you pray for someone to live, or to prosper, or to succeed, you piss God off, and -- to the extent He can spare the attention and effort -- He harms them.

Here's how I know. Darwin had a cousin, Francis Galton, whose genius nearly matched his own. Galton developed and applied statistical analysis to human traits and outcomes. Galton thought that if praying for people enhanced their health, then the royals, who were much prayed for publicly, would live longer than comparably well-off people, like lawyers. They didn't. In fact, the royals didn't last as long (average royal age of death - 64; lawyers - 67).

Galton also investigated whether people who prayed for their return to health from an illness had superior recovery rates to others. They didn't. But a more recent and well-controlled experiment made this point even more emphatically. Dr. Herbert Benson and colleagues at Harvard (Benson wrote the 1970s bestseller The Relaxation Response) received a $2.4 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to study the efficacy of prayer on behalf of sick people. Benson published his "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer" (STEP) in the American Heart Journal in 2006.

Here's how Benson approached his task: he instructed prayerfully oriented people to pray for post-operative (valve bypass) patients by name. Benson then compared outcomes for those specifically prayed-for and those not. There was one further distinction in the experiment: In the prayer-recipient group, people either knew they were being prayed for or they did not. What Benson was getting at with this wrinkle was that if people knew they were being prayed for, this might uplift their spirits, so that if they fared better than those who didn't know they were being prayed for, this would be due to personal inspiration rather than God's mercy.

Bad news for prayers, those who knew they were being prayed for did significantly more poorly ! (The people who didn't know they were being prayed for did no better than the unprayed for, although no worse.) The researchers struggled to explain this seemingly irreligious finding. They thought that perhaps those who knew they were being prayed for made less of an effort at recuperation on their own, and thus suffered worse results. But, ultimaterly, the researchers were at a loss, as described by co-author Jeffrey Dusek , an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School.

We thought that the certainty of knowing about the prayers of outsiders would reduce complications that accompany bypass surgery. But the results were paradoxical.

Dusek and his colleagues were quick to say that the study results did not challenge the existence of God. Of course the results don't challenge the existence of a supreme universal force - they prove it! The investigators simply failed to get their heads around this God force. God was punishing people whose interceders had the temerity to presume that they could determine who should live and die according to their personal, selfish preferences. "Shame on you!" God stormed (see picture).

So, if you tell someone (or those who love them) that you are praying for him or her, chances are that he or she will do worse. The best medical research shows this. Conclusion: Since you now know that when you pray for people, they will suffer, only announce your prayers for people you hate. And when you hear people publicly offer to pray on behalf of a sick or suffering person, they probably secretly wish that person ill, based on Benson's highly-publicized research.

If, like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, you think the problem with America is insufficient prayer, perhaps you should recalculate. America is the most religious modern country in the world, and this religiosity gap has been widening in recent years. What if we are going down the tubes because the President and others insist on saying "God Bless America?" And what about Haiti? Most Haitians are still living on the street, and now they are dying of cholera and rioting despite our ardent public prayers on their behalf.

Now, don't get me wrong and label me an atheist. If you want to pray rather than simply trying to curry favor with your audience by posing as a God-fearing American, just keep it between you and the One for Whom it is intended. That way, at least, you'll do no harm.

P.S.: Uh-Oh!

President Praying for Holbrooke's Recovery