One of the foundational practices of faith, prayer is an essential part of Christian life. But what is prayer? How does it work? Can we see its effects? Does science have anything to tell us about prayer? In this episode on prayer, Language of God producer Colin Hoogerwerf explores the relationship between science and prayer with Dr. David Myers, journalist Barbara Bradley Hagerty, author Philip Yancey, and Dr. Jimmy Lin. They discuss a 1997 Harvard experiment meant to measure the effects of prayer, the findings of neurotheology, and why we should pray at all. By melding their personal prayer lives with their research, our guests find a more robust understanding of the sacred practice.
Read David Myers’ response to the Harvard Prayer Experiment here.
Read Mary Oliver’s poem Praying.
The Lord’s Prayer read by the BioLogos staff.
This episode of Language of God was produced by Colin Hoogerwerf. Additional help from Nate Mulder.
Welcome to Language of God. I’m your host, Jim Stump.
This is another of our themed episodes, this time about one of the most distinctive elements of the religious life: prayer. But ours is a podcast about science and religion, so you can expect that we’ll bring science to bear on the topic. More specifically, we’ve wondered whether science has anything to tell us about prayer, and its effectiveness. Is prayer even the kind of thing that is susceptible to scientific examination?
Our producer Colin Hoogerwerf and I talked to several people about this. Here’s Colin to guide us through the conversation:
Not long ago I was at a small worship gathering with friends and neighbors. Some of us had many decades worth of experience with prayer and we had learned the cadence and the rhythm of prayer that had become shared language over our many years attending church services and hearing prayers of many kinds. There is a sound to prayer, common words and sentence structure that we all knew and we could easily distinguish from other forms of communication. At the end of the gathering our leader began to pray and then opened it to the group.
Several of us took turns speaking up, sharing our desires, fears, and needs. Then from one of the silences between prayers a new member spoke up, a neighbor who was new to our gatherings and probably new to church and to prayer. He prayed with his eyes open and he spoke conversationally, as if speaking to his mother on the phone or just to the rest of us in the group. There was something refreshing about his prayer and the complete lack of institutional routine. There was a genuineness and a vulnerability that I envied.
Unlike this neighbor of ours who jumped right into prayer in his own way, prayer can look pretty strange to non-christians or those new to Christianity. Here are people who close their eyes and bear their souls to someone invisible in the room, and who ask for their greatest desires, for changes to weather and world peace and the healing for themselves and others. And so it’s not surprising that for many centuries people have been asking questions about whether these prayers actually work.
It turns out that scientists have been exploring prayer for quite a while. In this episode we’ll take a look to see what science can tell us about prayer and in doing so we might also find out the limits of what science can teach us about prayer and about spiritual experiences.
Prayer comes in many forms. Quiet meditation, communal prayer, song, dance, poetry. It can be simple, like Mary Oliver describes in her poem called prayer.
“It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
mall stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
Prayer can transportive. It can be desperate. Or it can be short memorized sentence or two spoken before a meal. Prayers for other people are called intercessory prayers and these prayers have been a focus of several scientific studies.
This dates back to 1872 in Britain—
This is David Myers, a social psychologist and a Christian, who has written extensively about the intersection of faith and psychological sciences.
—when Francis Galton challenged Christians. Hey you think prayer really changes things? Why don’t Christians all agree to focus their prayers on a particular hospital or on the longevity of particular political figures?
And this threw the church into a kind of chaotic discussion of what really authentic prayer is, Whether this was merely putting God to the test and we shouldn’t do this, whether it’s magic rather than authentic prayer and so forth. And so the experiment was never done. But the challenge—the great prayer test challenge—lay out there for a while.
And then in 1988 a researcher named Randolph Byrd did an experiment in which he took 393 patients, coronary patients, about to undergo heart surgery, assigned half of them randomly to a prayer condition where born-again believers, as he called them, multiple ones, were praying for a particular patient and their recovery after the surgery, and half were randomly assigned to a no prayer condition. And he had 26 different outcome measures, and found that on six of them the people who were prayed for seemed to have done a little better. Although not on the other 20, not in terms of how long they were in the hospital, whether they died or other measures like that. And there was some critique of his methodology. So there it lay.
Until 1997 when a Harvard professor, Herbert Benson, proposed a new study, which David calls the Harvard Experiment.
And what he wanted to do is to take a very large sample of people about to undergo coronary bypass surgery and assign them to either be prayed for or not, randomly, with half of the prayed for people knowing they were being prayed for and half not knowing which of the two conditions they were in. So that created three different conditions.
Well it took a long time for this experiment to be done, and it was done, with something like, as I recall, twelve hundred patients who were assigned to these three conditions. It was a $1.4 million study, the biggest prayer experiment ever done. In the meantime, while the experiment was being done, and then it took some time for its results to get published, there were five other prayer experiments of this sort. And they all found no effects of intercessory prayer. And finally the Harvard prayer experiment came out and it too found absolutely no effect of intercessory prayer.
From the start, David was skeptical of these experiments attempting to prove whether intercessory prayer works by using double blind studies. In fact, when he learned about the Benson experiment, and before it took place, he wrote and published a letter predicting, as a person of faith, that the study would find no effects. You can find a link to that letter in our show notes. And he’s not the only one that shares these concerns.
Let me tell you my problem with these studies, and it’s true for especially the Benson study, but it’s true for a number of them, and that is that they generally have a stranger praying for a stranger from a script.
This is Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
I wrote a book about the science of spirituality called Fingerprints of God, I was NPR’s religion correspondent for a decade, and now I write for The Atlantic.
Barbara came across a number of interesting stories during her research for Fingerprints of God and shared some of those stories with us along with the wisdom that came out of her experiences.
Now, I don’t think that’s how prayer works. Like you got to have a dog in the fight. You know, when you pray for someone, you pray because you care. You care about that person, you care about their prognosis, you care about their getting better. Right? And so this kind of antiseptic praying for a stranger from a script doesn’t really cut it, I think. I don’t think it really accurately shows what prayer is all about.
Phillip Yancey, who we interviewed in Episode 5, shared a similar view.
This is a complete misunderstanding of prayer because it has to be a double blind test, so you have Prayer A praying for Patient B, but Prayer A can’t know who the patient is, Patient B can’t know whether or not they’re being prayed for. You know, well, prayer is about relationship and love. It’s not about that.
These studies seem more appropriate for testing the effectiveness of charm spells for first year students at Hogwarts. Our prayers are not incantations by which we attempt to manipulate or coerce a higher power to do our bidding. But of course we continue to pray fervently for the health and well being of our loved ones. Maybe we can step back a bit and see where the problems are with understanding prayer to be like a form of magic.
If you do have this kind of magical conception or prayer, that God is a celestial genie whom you can rub and something good will drop out of it, and it doesn’t work out that way, then what does that do to your faith? So I mean your faith is kind of a vulnerable one if that’s what it’s based on. Secondly if that were true, the world would be different. People of faith would have a noticeably longer life expectancy than people who were not of faith, they would win more lotteries, they would—I mean all kinds of things would need to happen that observably don’t happen.
God is not a genie. God is not a celestial Santa Claus that we can stroke and—or a celestial vending machine, to use another image. And that’s both, it seems to me, biblically, a more appropriate view of God, to kind of deny that magical view of God, and it certainly accords with the data as we have them because of the repeated failure of intercessory prayer experiments to find that distant intercessory prayer has significant discernible effects.
Barbara grew up in the Christian Science religious community and so this idea has been one she has dealt with personally.
Those are the folks that don’t go to doctors, right? And they really put their money where their mouth is. They believe in the power of prayer and they don’t go to doctors and so they really believe in the power of prayer to heal you, to, you know, fix your life.
The up-side of this kind of religious background is I believed that prayer worked. But the downside is—and I don’t think I’m unique in this—is I kind of thought of God as a vending machine, right? Like you pray the proper, the right prayer, and if you get it just right, and the wording just right, and your motives just right, and “not my will but thine” just right, then you put in that prayer and “Bingo!” your prayers will be answered, you’ll get over the flu or you’ll get the right job or meet the right partner or perform adequately in a podcast interview or whatever it might be. And so I had this kind of sense of God as a vending machine. As I grew in my Christian faith, but also, as I looked at the kind of research in some of the experiences of these deep prayer warriors, these people who were really, really good at prayer, what I realized is that prayer is not so much about getting God to do you a favor, as a connection to God. It’s not about the physical result, it’s about the relationship
Philip Yancey echoes this evolving understanding of prayer.
I used to see prayer as my way of getting God to do the things I couldn’t do on my own. So most of my life is kind of under control, I can manage it, but then there are these four or five things that I really need some supernatural help with. So that’s what prayer is all about. And now I understand prayer very differently, and that is, not those things that I need God’s help with, but those things that God has chosen for me to be a part of helping God, as it were. We know what God wants done on this planet: let righteousness flow down, let justice, like a never ending stream— We know that God is in favor of healing and justice and mercy and all of these things. It is like a stream. It’s like a river flowing and we’re to be in that stream. And for me, the question of prayer now is more at what point do I jump in that stream?
So where does that leave us? For David and the others, it of course doesn’t mean that we don’t pray.
Now mind you I’m speaking as a person who began today, as every day, in reading scripture and in prayer. So there is a place for prayer in my own life. So let none of what follows, indicate otherwise.
And let’s not forget, Jesus has some very clear advice when it comes to prayer and he even gives us a prayer in the form of the Lord’s Prayer.
Well let’s think about the Lord’s Prayer.
Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive them who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver from evil,
for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” I mean, it’s not a prayer that is seeking to manipulate God for our purposes. But “my daily bread,” when I say that, I pause, and I think about people that I care about, you know, who are ill or in difficult circumstances right now and I lift them up.
Do you see prayer changing for people or how has prayer changed for you with that understanding that it may not be about asking for something and then waiting for it to happen?
Sort of like this Colin, sort of like approaching God the way a little pre-school child might a parent. It’s not that the pre-school child needs to inform the parent of its needs that the parent doesn’t already know, because the parent is benevolent and deeply loves and cares about the child. But the parent still wants the child to communicate and to share whatever is on its heart. And that’s what I’m doing when I’m praying. But I view God as sort of like, to me, like a parent is to a toddler.
What matters is the connection, the connection to God. And secondarily, it would be great if I could get over this flu pretty quickly, but that’s actually not the important thing. The important thing is this connection to God.
To sum up—at least when it comes to intercessory prayer, the prayers for other people, science is probably not the right tool to help us understand this core tenant of our faith. Many of the studies seemed to have missed the point of prayer, looking instead to find some sort of proof that our prayers affect the physical world or maybe proof that they don’t. But the very questions may be misguided. When we look to theology and scripture, which are probably much better tools to use, we realize that our prayer is about finding a connection to God.
But if science isn’t the right tool to understand how our prayers affect each other, is it still useful in helping us to understand how it affects ourselves? In the next part of our show we’ll take a look at what science has found about what happens in our brains when we pray and what this means about our prayer lives.
There is a field of science called neurotheology which attempts to better understand what happens in the brain of a person who is having a spiritual experience, including what happens in a person’s brain while praying.
For example, when we pray or when we meditate, scientists have found that there is increased activity in the frontal lobe of the brain. This is the part of the brain that helps you make decisions and study for tests. Meanwhile, the parietal lobe, which helps us understand time and space goes dark. And so, while praying, we lose our sense of where we are, maybe even who we are.
What happens is you have this experience of timelessness, spacelessness, that where you end and the universe begins is blurred, that you have a unity with the universe, or if you’re a Christian, unity with God.
The field of neurotheology has lead to some interesting studies, including one by a researcher named Michael Persinger who created what has been called the God Helmet.
So Michael Persinger believes that if you activate the right temporal lobe, you will feel something, he calls it a sense presence, the sense that there is someone else in the room, that there is a god in the room. And so what I did is I went up there to put on this God helmet, which is, get this, a yellow motorcycle helmet with some electrodes. You know, they attach electrodes to your hair and then to your scalp and then they put this yellow motorcycle helmet on you. And then they, to kind of make sure that you can’t see anything, they put a pair of goggles on you with Kleenex in them so you can’t see out the goggles. And this is supposed to create this sense of absolute darkness and soundlessness and all that.
I’ve got to tell you, when he tried to activate my temporal lobes, the only thing I felt was sleepy. I was sitting in this comfortable chair and in an overheated room and I basically fell asleep. So I didn’t actually feel the sense presence, but he swears that his research shows that if you activate the right temporal lobe, you will experience God. And God is nothing more than brain activity.
And what he would say, and what many, kind of, materialist scientists would say, is that, “you know what? It’s just brain activity. You know, just face facts, folks. It’s just brain activity.
I’m guessing a lot of you might not like this idea that any spiritual experience you have had, any time you have felt transported or comforted by prayer, that it was merely neurons firing in your brain, nothing more.
The very idea that once science is able to explain a spiritual experience such as prayer that that experience somehow becomes no longer real or no longer important, is an idea that has been at the heart of the tensions between science and Christianity. But the knowledge that we get about what happens in the brain doesn’t have to explain away the reality of the experience.
Other scientists I talked to have a really different take on it. I remember speaking to Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins and he said, look, when you eat a piece of apple pie, there will be certain predictable brain activity, right? So as you lift the fork to your mouth, the parts of the brain that mediates smell will light up, the parts of the brain that mediate taste will light up, the parts of the brain that mediate memory, that remember the last time you had a piece of apple pie that was this good, that part of the brain lights up too. But the fact that there is predictable brain activity, does that mean that there is no apple pie? That the apple pie is a figment of your imagination? Of course not. And so what he and many others would say is—it is entirely possible that this is how the brain is wired to connect with the divine, that we have predictable brain activity, but it isn’t an enclosed case, you know? It connects with the divine.
Or how about one more example, in another story Barbara told us.
I asked this question to one man. He was a Hollywood comedian and he had this kind of spiritual—he began to notice that he was having all these kinds of spiritual experiences. And he was Jewish. And he said that one night he was lying in bed and he saw this swirl of colors kind of appear above him and he was trying to figure out what it was, and he’s peering up at the ceiling trying to figure out what this vision was. And then it kind of materialized into the Virgin Mary, right? And he goes, “why would the Virgin Mary appear to me, I’m Jewish? She could do so much better.” But what he realized is that he had had an operation, he had had something removed from his brain and that had left scarring. And he went back to his surgeon and said, “you know, I’ve been having these visions and kind of having this different—hearing things, smelling things, all of that. Can you just tell me if everything’s A-okay with my brain?”
And what happened is it turned out that he had developed temporal lobe epilepsy. And so he knew that the source of his, kind of, newfound generosity toward mankind, his sense of spirituality, that he kind of looked at life differently—that was all kind of residing in his brain. He knew it was about his temporal lobe, but he said, “I don’t care. You know, this is how, perhaps, I’m connected to the universe, is through the temporal lobe, you know, through the scarring on the temporal lobe. I don’t care how it—what the explanation is. All I know is that I’m a better, happier person.” And that, I think that is a really interesting and, I think, profound way to look at it.
Science is a great tool for helping us understand the world we live in. And so it makes sense that when we encounter questions about our world, we turn to science. And we can learn some really interesting things from it, things that help us to better understand ourselves, and sometimes things that give us a comfort or bolster our previously held beliefs. But we also run into the limitations of science in trying to understand a God who is the creator of all things, including the laws of the universe, and not able to be measured by the tools of science.
When we find that science can no longer help us in answering our questions, questions like why is there something and not nothing? Then we might instead turn to prayer, where we can bring our questions to God.
As Paul tells us in Phillipians:
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
And sometimes we find that science and prayer work best together. We recently talked to Jimmy Lin, a doctor and geneticist who is the CEO and Founder of the Rare Genomics Institute.
I think it’s important that God gave us, not only interventions by prayer, but also gave us an intellect, right? And asked us to be stewards of our world. So God gave us the ability to think his thoughts after him and to have scientific creation. I think, like I said, science is an act of worship and we can only do it because of God’s calling on our lives. So I think, in terms of thinking about illness and disease, we don’t approach it just thinking about, you know, miraculous ways or prayer, but using methods that God also providentially controls, and has given us these gifts to work as well. So if you look through scripture, there are many, many times where prayer is often sort of paired together sort of within an action. So I think there’s an important role for both prayer as well as intervention through human ingenuity that God has sort of given us. So it’s a combination of both.
And finally as Philip Yancey reminds us we pray because Jesus prayed
To me, that’s the most powerful reason for prayer. If you ask me, “why would you do it?” Well, Jesus understood the universe, he participated in its creation, and yet every time something important came up, he would spend sometimes all night at prayer. Jesus knew that the time he spent in prayer was as important as anything else he could be doing on the planet.
Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf with additional production assistance by Truth Works media. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the BioLogos offices in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science.
David Myers is Professor of Psychology at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. He is author of several widely used psychology textbooks and seventeen additional books. His advocacy for American adoption of better assistive listening systems for people with hearing loss has been recognized by several esteemed awards. Dr. Myers earned his M.A. and Ph.D. in Social Psychology from the University of Iowa.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty is a New York Times best-selling author and journalist. Her most recent book, Life Reimagined: The Science, Art, and Opportunity of Midlife was published by Riverhead/Penguin in March 2016.Fingerprints of God: The Search for the Science of Spirituality, was published by Riverhead/Penguin in May 2009. Barbara was a correspondent for NPR for 18 years, most recently covering religion. She received the American Women in Radio and Television Award (twice) for her religion reporting, as well as the National Headliners Award, and the Religion Newswriters Association Award. Before the religion beat, she was NPR’s Justice Department correspondent, where she, along with her colleagues, won the George Foster Peabody and Overseas Press Club awards for their coverage of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Barbara has a master’s degree in legal studies from Yale Law School, and a bachelors degree from Williams College.
Philip Yancey, author of books like Disappointment with God, The Jesus I Never Knew, and What’s So Amazing About Grace, is one of the best selling Christian authors alive today. His interactions with Christians from around the world and his early church experiences inform his writing on faith, the problem of pain, and unexpected grace. He holds graduate degrees in Communications and English from Wheaton College and the University of Chicago.
Jimmy Lin MD, PhD, MHS is Chief Scientific Officer, Oncology at Natera. He worked on the first genome-wide sequencing of human cancers, created and led the intramural clinical genomics program at the National Institutes of Health, and founded the Rare Genomics Institute. He has lectured around the world and his work has been covered by over 300 media outlets.