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Another Nail in the Coffin of Remote Intercessory Prayer

Does prayer really work wonders? Not according to epidemiologst Maria Inês da Rosa.

Da Rosa and her research team published results of a double-blind randomized trial in the Brazilian Journal of Science and Public Health last year. Half of the more than five hundred pregnant women in the trial had their health prayed for from a distance by a prayer team. The other half received no such prayers. When Da Rosa’s team measured the apgar scores, type of delivery and birth weight of the two groups, there was no difference in pregnancy outcomes.

A few years ago, intercessory prayer researchers were promising a golden age in which they would supposedly prove the effectiveness of their religion. That’s not happening. Careful science is establishing the opposite.

32 thoughts on “Another Nail in the Coffin of Remote Intercessory Prayer”

  1. Tom says:

    Careful science is what brought us Fukushima. Face it, we’re idiots that think so highly of ourselves and our limited abilities that we think we’re gods. We named our species as wise when we haven’t demonstrated anything more clearly than that we’re going in the other direction (downright idiotic) than we have with climate change (when all the science tells us we’re doing it all wrong but no one wants to change from the energy binge we’ve been on and would rather drive ourselves to extinction instead) and the misuse of our vaunted intellect to make more and more powerful weapons and to treat each other and our environment in an awful way using science and math to extract as much as possible, pollute the entire system, and give nothing back but poison and trash.

    Religion too is just a made up story like all the others we tell ourselves about reality. Even the scientific story is incomplete and full of holes.

    It doesn’t surprise me that the results showed no statistical difference. All those kids that were born are going to suffer a terrible future caused by the by-products of industrial civilization: steadily worsening climate chaos, rising sea levels, depleted resources (like water and many others) and the inability to grow enough food due to aberrant and unpredictable weather patterns. That’s the really sad part.

  2. Tom says:

    NASA: Industrial civilization headed for ‘irreversible collapse’

    Natural and social scientists develop new model of how ‘perfect storm’ of crises could unravel global system


    A new study sponsored by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has highlighted the prospect that global industrial civilisation could collapse in coming decades due to unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution.

    Noting that warnings of ‘collapse’ are often seen to be fringe or controversial, the study attempts to make sense of compelling historical data showing that “the process of rise-and-collapse is actually a recurrent cycle found throughout history.” Cases of severe civilisational disruption due to “precipitous collapse — often lasting centuries — have been quite common.”

    The research project is based on a new cross-disciplinary ‘Human And Nature DYnamical’ (HANDY) model, led by applied mathematician Safa Motesharri of the US National Science Foundation-supported National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, in association with a team of natural and social scientists. The study based on the HANDY model has been accepted for publication in the peer-reviewed Elsevier journal, Ecological Economics.

    It finds that according to the historical record even advanced, complex civilisations are susceptible to collapse, raising questions about the sustainability of modern civilisation:

    “The fall of the Roman Empire, and the equally (if not more) advanced Han, Mauryan, and Gupta Empires, as well as so many advanced Mesopotamian Empires, are all testimony to the fact that advanced, sophisticated, complex, and creative civilizations can be both fragile and impermanent.”

    By investigating the human-nature dynamics of these past cases of collapse, the project identifies the most salient interrelated factors which explain civilisational decline, and which may help determine the risk of collapse today: namely, Population, Climate, Water, Agriculture, and Energy.

    These factors can lead to collapse when they converge to generate two crucial social features: “the stretching of resources due to the strain placed on the ecological carrying capacity”; and “the economic stratification of society into Elites [rich] and Masses (or “Commoners”) [poor]” These social phenomena have played “a central role in the character or in the process of the collapse,” in all such cases over “the last five thousand years.”


    The NASA-funded HANDY model offers a highly credible wake-up call to governments, corporations and business – and consumers – to recognise that ‘business as usual’ cannot be sustained, and that policy and structural changes are required immediately.

    Although the study is largely theoretical, a number of other more empirically-focused studies – by KPMG and the UK Government Office of Science for instance – have warned that the convergence of food, water and energy crises could create a ‘perfect storm’ within about fifteen years. But these ‘business as usual’ forecasts could be very conservative.

    Now watch as once again the warnings are completely ignored and we continue down the primrose path to collapse.

  3. Dave says:

    If I were God I would jump at the chance to foil an experiment like this. The presumptuous bastards.

    Hey, Tom. Quoting NASA, a space agency that concerns itself with unequal wealth distribution only reminds me of my conclusion that every agency in the U.S. Government has been thoroughly politicized and nothing they say can be trusted. Otherwise, you’ve got a good point about Rome and other great civilisations and empires landing where ours is ultimately headed. This is the first time, however, that I have heard that civilsations collapse because of stratification of society, as many historians point to stratification and specialisation as important for the building of a civilisation in the first place.

    1. F.G. Fitzer says:

      Yeah, who are people to presume that they can think straight and figure out the world? Bastards!

      If I were God, I’d pour molten tin down their throats!

      If I were God, I’d open an amusement park with free rides, and not let any scientists in! That’ll show ’em, the presumptuous bastards!

      Did I mention that religion is a force for peace and understanding?

    2. Jim Cook says:


      That there is what’s called a rationalization.

      If the experiment shows that distant intercessory prayer works, then hooray, God exists and is mighty.
      If the experiment shows that distant intercessory prayer works, then hooray, God is sticking it to the “presumptious bastards” by monkeying with reality (and, oh, by the way, letting some innocent babies get hurt).

      In both cases, your conclusion (God exists) is not verifiable. Either way, it seems there is nothing that could lead you to doubt. Is that a good thing?

  4. Dave says:

    I thought my comment humorous. Molten tin? Eeeesh.

    1. Jim Cook says:

      Didn’t pick up on the irony if it was there. People have actually, sincerely, seriously laid down the line that the reason remote intercessory prayer didn’t work is that God messed with the experiments to hide His Holy Power from the blaspheming scientists.

  5. Dave says:

    “Either way, it seems there is nothing that could lead you to doubt.” Speaking of presumptuous …

    1. J Clifford says:

      Well, what could lead you to doubt, then, Dave? Let’s not presume that your faith is without doubt. Why don’t you tell us what causes you doubt in your religion?

    2. Jim Cook says:

      OK, what then?

  6. Dave says:

    I didn’t know that. Again, I offered the above in a sense of good humour. Didn’t think everyone would be so dour on this. More after today’s picnic at the beach.

    1. hddhdhdhdue says:

      I think “dour” is a word that means “attentive to detail” in somebody’s dictionary.

  7. Dave says:

    What would it take for me to doubt what I believe? More faith in the futility of existence, I suppose.

    1. Jim Cook says:

      So only a change in faith, and not any piece of empirical evidence, could change your beliefs? I ask that in all sincerity.

  8. Bill says:

    Throughout my career I’ve learned that there’s one really critical component to experimental design that is too often overlooked, even by the pros: an experiment must be designed to be certain to yield an unambiguous answer to a question. Otherwise you’re just pissing into the wind. This question was not so designed, and for a good reason: it’s impossible. Religion is no more testable via scientific methods than science is testable via religious faith. You might as well try to park your car in a poem.

    1. Jim Cook says:

      But Bill, that’s straw-manning the study, which is not fair. The study’s question is not “is religion true, and does God exist?” The study’s question is “does random assignment to being prayed for by a remote intercessory prayer group lead to improved medical outcomes for pregnant women?” The answer is an unambiguous no.

      The pesky thing about religions is when they stick their fingers into the messy goo of observable reality and start to make claims about how observable reality works. Then yes, you absolutely can test those claims.

      1. Bill says:

        Nope, no straw-man here. Think about it like this. Let’s say somebody wanted to answer the question, “does begging lead to Bill giving away more money to scruffy strangers on the street?” So the experimenter lines up 500 scruffy strangers with tin cups on my route to work. Half stand there quietly, while the other half ask me for a dollar. Now, I’m not in the habit of thrusting money upon people who don’t ask for it, so I’m quite sure I’ll ignore the ‘control’ group. On the other hand, it’s pretty likely that the first guy who asks me will get his buck, while the odds are significantly lower for the second guy, and by the third asker I will be in the throes of ‘donor fatigue’ and won’t even respond. At the end of the day the investigator does the math, finds 0 for 250 controls and 1 for 250 experimentals. Tap tap tap on the calculator, and we find that the difference is not statistically significant. So he concludes that begging doesn’t lead Bill to give away more money. Which, in fact, is wrong, but it was a dumb experiment that was poorly designed, so its results are both wrong and meaningless. It failed to take into account and control for important characteristics of the experimental system. Proper experimental design requires a lot of expert knowledge regarding the experimental system.

        So too with designing an experiment to test a God-thing. Utterly ignorant of the relevant characteristics of this God-thing (we are regularly assured that “God-thing works in mysterious ways,” and probably no two God-thing believers can completely agree on its characteristics), you just can’t design an experiment that will yield a robust result. Science testing religion or religion testing science, it’s all just gum-flapping and pissing into the wind.

        For the record, I personally don’t believe in the effectiveness of intercessory prayer, yet I have found myself engaging in it, hundreds if not thousands of times. Maybe…just maybe…’effectiveness’ isn’t the point? Like I say, ya can’t park a car in a poem.

        1. Jim Cook says:

          Now you’ve done a reverse-straw by analogy. The god you imagine is like a sad-sack on the way to work who only has one buck to give before it’s plum outta change and has to stiff all the other bums. That’s not the god envisioned by proponents of remote intercessory prayer. Theirs is an “awesome god” of omnipotence who can answer all prayers, an infinite being and not a finite resource.

          Now you can come back and say, hey, but maybe the god’s like this, and maybe the god’s like that, and so on and so forth. But no experiment can or should be expected to test every possible hypothesized mechanism. This experiment assesses one mechanism — a mechanism suggested by proponents of remote intercessory prayer themselves (look up Byrd and intercessory prayer on this). You can say, “well, prayer isn’t like that,” to which the authors of the study would probably reply, “our results indicate you’re right, prayer ISN’T like that.”

          So what is prayer like? That’s another question, and other studies have found a positive effect of intercessory prayer on health outcomes when the person being prayed for knows they’re being prayed for — when the experiment is not blinded. Prayer appears to be one example of the “Hawthorne Effect,” in which people do better when they receive some kind, almost any kind, of attention.

        2. Jim Cook says:

          BTW, on your likening of prayer to a poem: fine, if like poems prayers aren’t literal. But the experiment tests claims by religious literalists, and your poem references don’t interface with that.

  9. Dave says:

    And I appreciate your sincerity, Jim. I think you may be right after all about nothing leading me to doubt. As I thought about it, it’s probably impossible for one to un-believe what one believes without being dynamited out of it somehow. What I consider to be empirical evidence that there is a God, well, start with the Big Bang, the Big Event or whatever. Science tells us that what we see and know of our universe is only the aftermath, the reaction to a great action, rocks and minerals, water and hot gases, etc. knocking around, moving outward from their point of origin, unfolding from a concentrated mass in a particular (and in a sense pre-determined) way, laws of physics acting on matter, laws of physics acting on laws of physics, if you will, and everything that we see and experience is a result. [the “Post Comment” button is disappearing – hold on]

    1. Jim Cook says:

      Dave, I think we think about the world, and about knowing and believing, in very different ways, then. So when we talk about “knowing” something or “believing” something, we mean different things. For me, I change my beliefs about what is true and what is not true all the time.

  10. Dave says:

    My good and happy life is a result. And it was enfolded in that original stuff, and unfolded through space/motion and the subsequent illusion of time to become what it is. Even Carl Sagan didn’t want to talk about what happened one second before the Big Bang because Science couldn’t observe it. But for me it is a safe assumption that something did cause it, and I don’t possess the faith, as you Jim and J do, to believe that it happened without intelligence or design. I am a result, my friends and family are a result, we are all persons and so for me, the “creation”, to personalize the “creator” is where belief takes me.

    1. Jim Cook says:

      But Dave, I don’t have a faith “that it happened without intelligence or design.” I don’t know how the universe — one second before the Big Bang, or whatever the ultimate origin point was — started. I am completely comfortable with saying I don’t know. I also am completely comfortable with saying that there’s not too much empirical evidence for any of the many religious origin stories that people have come up with through history, in which many societies have demanded belief.

      I’m completely comfortable with declaring that there are unsolved mysteries to the universe. The existence of unsolved mysteries does not to my mind justify an affirmative belief in some supernatural idea. To my mind it justifies the statement “Huh. I don’t know.”

  11. Dave says:

    One more thought. Christian belief includes resurrection, the coming together of inanimate particles of matter into a living being. Science too, believes this. Yes, Science ‘believes’ that at some point inanimate particles of matter came together to form living beings (I should say organisms) even if it was just a string of aminos that could use food and reproduce. Two belief systems. Many scientists believe it happened by itself in the same way that existence itself exists by itself. I don’t have the faith to believe that it does.

  12. Dave says:

    I hear you, Jim. In the circles where I run, a rather virulent form of atheism is frequently encountered and I did not recognise your agnosticism as contentment. As I say, I’m listening closer. I know lots of people have “religions” of various stripes, but I would hope to make it clear somehow that faith brought me a great deal of peace. I do believe in relationship with the Creator, but I also believe that, hey, since God is the progenitor of it all, the responsibility is His to make the first contact. (Yes, He. Progenitors have that designation.) I believe how it works is God initiates, we respond.

    1. Jim Cook says:

      Thanks for writing back, Dave. I absolutely believe in the right of people to believe whatever they want to believe, while also believing that a) it’s acceptable for others question the validity of that belief, and b) the right of people to believe what they want to believe does not imply that people have the right to force others to live according to those beliefs. That extends to accepting your right to question my beliefs. I certainly would not want to force you to give up your faith.

      I respect that your belief has brought you peace. Faith brings me uncomfortable restlessness rather than peace. Questions and evidence do not give me a feeling of peace either, but rather the comfort of being on a journey to betterment, a journey that doesn’t end but has some marvelous scenery.

  13. DKantz says:

    May I recommend?: avoid use of the term “belief”. Except, I admit, that may very well express a belief, which is the zen of it all. … Seriously, though, it appears (to me) far preferable to rely on actual experience (allowing what’s known about our limits to describe experience) accompanied by realization that whatever is not founded in experience is speculative. Scanning through this exchange reminds me of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s very pertinent comments regarding “Intelligent Design”. In the referenced (highly recommended) speech, NDGT observed that throughout the most recent 15 or 20 centuries, the human concept “god” has consistently been invoked at that boundary between knowledge and the unknown. NDGT explains the appropriate context for the fact (at 12:30) : ” You have school systems wanting to put Intelligent Design into the classroom, but you also have the most brilliant people who ever walked the face of this earth doing the same thing. … So it’s a deeper challenge than simply educating the public”. … … … … … In this thread, Dave cites the unknown “one second” (whatever that means) before the Big Bang for the purpose of allowing invoking god — apparently unaware of recent hints (or dismissing them altogether) that ours may be but one in an array of muti-verses. Dave: why say “Science ‘believes’ that at some point inanimate particles of matter came together to form living beings” … and “scientists believe it happened by itself” as though there are not scientific observations that confirm these experiences? Bill notices that “effectiveness of intercessory prayer” (in which he says he doesn’t believe) may be not the point. Instead he suggests: “So too with designing an experiment to test a God-thing. Utterly ignorant of the relevant characteristics of this God-thing”. Well, sure, that’s presently true as confirmed by our experiences; but projecting that experience into the future (without specifically having taken notice of that leap of faith) crosses over into the realm of belief; so what’s the point? Independently verifiable evidence is required in order to describe and confirm experience even as the tools to refine interpretations of those experiences evolve. Belief demands no such rigorous demonstration of validity — and, as NDGT illustrates, we have consistently experienced encroachment of knowledge into the territory of what previously had been unknown. The subject here is: “Another Nail in the Coffin of Remote Intercessory Prayer”. How it got to be an exchange about the existence of God probably illustrates somethings about the inherent defensiveness that accompanies believing.

    1. Bill says:

      DKantz says “why say “Science ‘believes’….as though there are not scientific observations that confirm these experiences?” As a scientist who has spent a lifetime in science, and most of whose friends and acquaintances are scientists, I’m not at all uncomfortable saying “science believes” (or more correctly, “most scientists believe”), nor are other scientists of my acquaintance. We would be much more uncomfortable saying “scientists know,” because all we know for certain is that certainty is unachievable. Certainty is, in fact, the opposite of science; science always stands ready to modify its beliefs, or even abandon them, in the face of better theories and better data. So, in the absence of certainty, belief is all you’ve got. Some sorts of beliefs are firmly founded on theories that have proven to have exceptionally high predictive power and that are based on large bodies of thoroughly vetted high-quality data and experimental tests. These are ‘scientific beliefs’ (the theory of evolution via natural selection is one such). Other sorts of belief are founded on wide practical experience but are not formally vetted, lack theoretical underpinnings, and are seldom if ever formally tested. These are ‘common sense’ beliefs. Yet other sorts of beliefs are founded on emotion, intuition, personal experience, indoctrination, and/or irrational ideation (and no, that’s not a value judgement). One (of many) examples of these are ‘religious beliefs.’ All of these are all potentially valuable belief systems, albeit valuable for different things: I wouldn’t recommend trying to feed the world’s starving billions, or conquer diseases, by relying on religious beliefs, just as I wouldn’t recommend relying on scientific beliefs to give you a reason to get out of bed in the morning (if you’re the kind of person who, like me, needs one).

      I say: believe what you will. Even believe simultaneously in things that others assure you are mutually contradictory (such as science and religion). Let a thousand flowers bloom; let a thousand schools of thought contend. Whatever floats your boat. But, fer chrissake, believe in something. Otherwise you’re a worthless waste of carbon. The important point is not so much what we believe as it is what we do with what we believe. Are you doing good, are you doing bad, or are you doing nothing?

  14. Dave says:

    DKantz, I don’t think you intended to make a case for it, but you certainly make a good point about Science sort of nipping at the heels of God, so to speak, and that God is sort of an explanation of the unknown until it becomes known. An ever receding God wouldn’t be much of a God though. When I speak of God, I tend to think of the Maker-Of-All-Things kind andany scientific discovery just presents us with a greater understanding of the things made. Or perhaps a lesser understanding. Some science today will be forgotten and other science will take its place. Ota Benga.

    By the way, as far as I know the possible array of multi-verses is still theoretically on this side of the Bang.

    1. dkantz says:

      Dave: that’s exactly the point … you may speak of God as “Maker-of-All-Things” and that’s entirely your right. An ever-receding god is well, … a part of what’s been observed. My point about your focus on the “Big Bang” is to agree with the lack of evidence upon which such theories are founded (and cyclic styles of multi-verses may be thought of — if I understand correctly — as enfolding repeating “Big Bangs”. In that case, what’s known about that second prior to any particular “Big Bang” isn’t necessarily much more unknown than the details of the second after — but that’s all pretty speculative). From my perspective, god is an evolved concept — whatever gods were 5,000 years ago is remarkably different than what is the current norm. Also their purposes have evolved. From a scientific perspective, it appears to me that god(s) introduce more problems with understanding and are unhelpful in resolution of any problems with comprehension. Regardless, cultural bias associated with religion more-often-than-not motivates defense of belief in God even when it’s not particularly relevant. That’s part of what makes NDTG’s a powerful presentation because of its unusual, but very well evidenced, suggestion about one of the territories where god has always been, and continues to be found. .

  15. dkantz says:

    Bill: as I said, I’ve recommended avoiding use of the term belief. Often when I’ve made this recommendation, most of my (scientist and non-scientist) colleagues and acquaintances either just blow-me-off or have started out agreeing with your perspective. But given a chance to make my case, more often than not, they have replied something to the effect, ‘hmmmm, I’ve got to give that some more thought…’ And even if I haven’t brought it up again, several have “caught” themselves talking about “belief” in my presence … and have gradually given up “belief” (at least in my presence) because of the ambiguity of the term they now see. My point is (as an example) the context of what Dave wrote would be far more accurate had he substituted a term such as “has observed” or “based on the available data, Science is confident that …” or “has verified evidence that …” instead of in his subject phrase: . OK, I think, way more than enough of that ….. Because even more pertinent I think, the subject here is: “Another Nail in the Coffin of Remote Intercessory Prayer”. There are other forms of prayer just as there are a variety of beliefs concerning gods that have evolved over human time; but neither of those are the topic here. Cultural bias associated with religion more-often-than-not motivates defense of belief in God even when it’s not particularly relevant. That’s part of what makes NDTG’s a powerful presentation because of its unusual, but very well evidenced, suggestion about one of the territories where god has always been, and continues to be found.

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