On the (near) Impossibility of Studying Intercessory Prayers for Healing

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The most recent and, arguably, the most scientifically rigorous study of the healing power of intercessory prayer, the so-called “STEP” (“Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Prayer”) study involved over 1,800 subjects and roughly a decade of study. Though the results did little, if anything, to lend support to the idea that prayers really can heal the sick, religious believers might remain optimistic. Two main reasons for this optimism stem from, first, a crucial missing (though practically unavoidable) study control and, second, the warning that studying the effectiveness of prayer amounts to an (improper) attempt at quantifying God’s effects in the world. And few serious religious believers will want to say that we could ever pin God down in that way and, hence, that God, in order to maintain the importance of faith in religion, would have good reason to manipulate the results of an experiment on the effectiveness of prayer (even if prayer was very effective when not formally studied). But, then, the only evidence to which prayer proponents can appeal is anecdotal. The problems associated with anecdotal evidence as support for hypotheses is discussed here (generally, as well as with respect to intercessory prayer) and, I submit, the empirical case for the healing powers of prayer is weak.
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