Hello fellow atheists.  I am writing to ask for some help.  My parents aren't real religious but anytime we have talks about supernatural events my mom claims there 'has' to be more out there.   She then inevitably references how there was a study where people prayed for bacteria growth and that it grew faster than the bacteria with no prayer.   I ask for her source of the information and she said she thought Oprah had mentioned it.

Of course I have found Christian sites like (http://1stholistic.com/prayer/hol_prayer_proof.htmr) that reinforce my Mom's stance.

"Even more outrageous experiments in distance healing involve nonhuman subjects. In a survey of 131 controlled experiments on spiritual healing, it was found that prayed-for rye grass grew taller; prayed-for yeast resisted the toxic effects of cyanide; prayed-for test-tube bacteria grew faster. "I adore these experiments," says Larry Dossey, M.D., perhaps the world's most vocal expert on prayer and medicine. "Because they don't involve humans, you can run them with fanatical precision and you can run them hundreds of times. It's the best evidence of all that prayer can change the world. And it operates as strongly on the other side of the Earth as it does at the bedside."

How would you go about refuting these 'experiments'?


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(shakes fist) I was just searching pubmed for those exact topics! :P

Then counter it with examples of larger, more comprehensive studies that find no effect (or maybe even a slight negative effect) of intercessory prayer.



Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from [coronary artery bypass graft], but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.

Hey Brian,


As a practical matter, I think the most effective argument for an adherent will be to attack the specific claim made; that is, the studies quoted. If you get into debates about other studies, or generic objections such as you can't do a controlled study on prayer at all, their eyes will glaze over and you'll lose them.


What's going to get their attention is when you directly trash what they are saying in a simple, concrete manner (as simple as you can make it), imo.


- kk

Even if these results are true, they show god to be a horrible person. People starve & die horribly every day while praying to god, and he does nothing to help, but he answers prayers for bacteria? Way to love the people "created in his image."

Exactly what I was thinking! I couldn't help but to laugh at these "experiments"

We can point to study after study showing that the benefits of prayer are the same as the benefits of a placebo, but at the end of the day, the big problem is the lack of falsafiablity for any claims of healing through prayer.

If I pray for someone, and they are healed, there is no way to verify if the factor involved was God, the Devil, Cthulhu, Chuck Norris, or if the person healed would have healed on thier own anyway.

Easy.  Do your own experiment.  Bring over 2 test-tubes of bacteria to your mom's house.  Tell her to pray for one to grow and see what happens.

Why are people so ready to believe some story they heard if it doesn't happen in their own lives?

PZ Myers is always good for these :-


Templeton failed to find anything useful in a trial of 1800 ill people    http://www.templeton.org/pdfs/articles/060331Reuters.pdf

I'm pretty sure in The God Delusion there is a section related to this topic done with healing people in hospitals. It is very well explained in the book as well.

Yes! Thats where I remember reading it! I couldn't put my finger on where I herd that. In The God Delusion there was a nice study done that had 3 hospitals (same amount of patients with the same illness and same stage) and 3 churches (all 6 facilities were spread thought the US and the churches only knew the first name of the patient) . 1 hospital's patients knew they were being prayed for by a church the second hospital was getting prayed for, and the third received no prayers. The hospitals that didn't know/weren't being prayed for all recovered the same but the one hospital that knew it was receiving prayers actually recovered slower. I'de say read the book. Richard Dawkins does a much better job explaining it then I did there.

I recall watching a few youtube videos regarding the scientific method and in particular, that in order for an experiment to be considered, it must be based on a theoretically plausible mechanism. The problem with these prayer studies is that instead of telling us "prayer works <blank> percent of the time by the process of <blank>" they tell us that "prayer works <blank> percent of the time by the process of magic".

Until there is a theoretically plausible mechanism of how prayer works, it's just not science... regardless of the results.

Not necessarily.  For example, the study I linked to earlier wasn't studying the effects of prayer directly so much as the effects of the patient knowing they were being prayed for.  Most people seem to think the patients who knew they were being prayed for tended to have higher anxiety than the others, which led to them having slightly more complications.

That is a plausible mechanism, just like the claim that prayer can have a calming effect like meditation.


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