An overwhelming 83 percent of Americans say that God answers prayers--which raises the question, does prayer work? Is it something that we can even begin to approach scientifically? Unsettling as these questions may be, I think it's important to attempt to get to the bottom of them.
For help, I reached out to two researchers, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford and author of the book "When God Talks Back" and Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society and author of "The Believing Brain." To learn more, watch the video above and/or click on the link below for a full transcript. And, don't forget to leave a comment. Talk nerdy to me!
CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria, here. How would you answer this question: does prayer work? I want to see if I can get to the bottom of this scientifically. For help, I've reached out to two researchers, Tanya Marie Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford and author of the book "When God Talks Back" and Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society and author of "The Believing Brain." I asked Dr. Shermer about intercessory prayer, or praying on behalf of others. He told me that scientific attempts to study this phenomenon in the past have been met with difficulty.
MICHAEL SHERMER: For example, you’re praying for your loved one. How can you have a control group? You can’t exactly go to a bunch of family members and patients and say, "Okay, no praying for your guy because you know, this is science and we have our control group and experimental group and all that."
CSM: Yeah that'd be pretty heartless. But in 2006, the answer to this question, at least scientifically, rang pretty clearly.
MS: When the Templeton Foundation funded this huge study out of Harvard Medical School that Herbert Benson directed, it was the definitive study. These were real heart patients in hospitals that were recovering so they could measure everything and control for all these other intervening variables and they randomly assigned people to be prayed for, not prayed for .. Templeton is always accused of funding projects that they think they can get that would support the sort of interrelationship between science and religion and this one didn’t, so to their credit they publicized the fact that there were no results at all, there was no benefit to people’s health from intercessory prayer.
CSM: Credit where credit's due, I guess. When we asked Dr. Luhrmann about intercessory prayer, she chose not to go there.
TANYA MARIE LUHRMANN: I would say that it’s a red herring to do research that tries to see whether prayer has consequences independent of the person who’s praying. And that’s a complicated question about divine intervention, and people have a lot of different theories about that. That’s the kind of research that people get all sort of hot over, hot and bothered about. I think the research we really need to do more of is how prayer changes the person who prays, and again I think there’s more and more evidence that this practice of talking to God or at least the person you represent in your mind as being a wise and good loving person, has health effects both emotionally and physically.
CSM: Okay, so it seems there may be health benefits to prayer after all, so long as we are looking at the prayer, not the prayee.
TML: I use the term sensory override to capture an experience when people have a sensory perception of something that's not, kind of visibly present or not tangibly present. And what they’re reporting is that they hear God speak to them or see the wing of an angel. And I began asking these questions because I noticed that people who prayed regularly and were prayer warriors were more likely to report these experiences.
CSM: Dr. Luhrmann studies these specific "sensory overrides" and claims that they change the quality of one's imagination and thinking. And this positive effect can be linked to prayer.
TML: When somebody’s praying, they’re using their own psychological capacities. They’re using the human mind. And the human mind is human. And so what I saw was that people were training their imagination. And what they’re really doing is learning to take seriously the thoughts and images that they might otherwise dismiss as just theirs. So they’re paying attention to their inner experience. That changes the way they trust their inner experience, how real that inner experience becomes for them, it allows them to take the prayer process more seriously, and it also changes the vividness of that experience. That’s psychological stuff. I’m a social scientist. I can’t say, you know, when that’s connecting to the divine or if it’s connecting to the divine. I can just talk about that human side of the story.
CSM: So, there's no way to study whether or not God is on the other end of the phone. The god that's commonly described in Western culture is a supernatural being. Science is the study of the natural world. Being supernatural, we conveniently can't observe this "God" using scientific methods. So if researchers can't "go there" and instead only look at the very human, very secular benefits of prayer, why call it prayer at all? Doesn't that imply a known relationship with a deity, something that scientists can't touch with a 10-foot pole?
MS: Let’s find a different word than prayer, like self-reflective thought or something like that, or meditative thought, or you know, just anything. The problem with prayer is that it’s just so wrapped up with all the religious, mystical notions that it’s not helpful from a scientific perspective.
CSM: Now I know this probably won't sit well with you, and it may be hard to hear, but just because you may have had a strong, personal, emotional experience in which you prayed and your prayers were answered, the scientific evidence simply doesn't support its efficacy. Prayer may help you feel calmer, more centered, or even lower your blood pressure, but unfortunately, praying for something to happen has absolutely no effect on its specific outcome, whether it be for health, prosperity, or Tim Tebow to get that touchdown. Remember:
MS: The whole point of science is that we can’t rely on anecdotes. You know, the plural of anecdotes is not data as they say, right?
CSM: I'm interested (and honestly a little nervous) to hear your thoughts. Reach out to me on Twitter, Facebook, or leave your comments right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!