Monday, April 03, 2006

Prayer and Psychology

Much of the shouting has died down since the release of Benson's much heralded study of the effects of prayer on the recovery of people going through heart surgery. Over at Science Blogs, there was much conversation over whether or not it was worth the trouble to perform a study where the outcome was obvious. PZ Meyers was especially critical.

The New York Times published several letters about the study today. Some contained the predictable rationalizations; other pointed out that prayer is beneficial to the one who prays, not to the object of the prayer.

Although, as I said in a previous post, negative results are never the final word, it is still true that the evidence that God answers prayers of petition is pretty weak. I don't think most people are surprised by this result. I believe in God, I pray, and I wasn't in the least bit surprised.

I never thought that prayers to God directly brought changes to this world. I live near a bunch of Civil War battlefields. Both Federal and Confederate armies prayed fervently for God's support. If prayer "worked," the slaughter on those battlefields never would have happened. Besides, if both sides pray for their side to win, what does God do then?

More facetiously, if God answered prayers of petition, how many 15 year old male virgins would there be?

I'm Jewish, and I attend a Reconstructionist synagogue. Reconstructionism is an offshoot of the Conservative movement, and falls somewhere to the liberal side of the Conservative movement. (Or, the traditional side of the Reform movement.) Although I have differences with Reconstructionism, I'm more comfortable with this approach than any other. It balances rationalism with tradition.

In the traditional service, there is a prayer said for the sick during the morning service, known as mi sheberach. It is a petition for God's intersession. The Reconstructionists added in a line praying for the physician to have "wisdom and sound judgment," but the prayer for intersession is still there.

So, what should I do? Should I demand that the prayer be omitted? No, and here is why:

First of all, our prayer book is an historical record, which links me to a very long history. Part of that history is the belief that prayers to God are answered. I may no longer believe it, but it's still part of me. It links me to my community.

Second, when I pray, I am reminded of my values. For many Jews, a central part of our belief system is that we must be partners with God in creation. That means that we have an imperfect world, and have to work things out for ourselves. God is not going to stop war or heal the sick. We have to do it ourselves.

So, when I say--or listen to--mi sheberach I am reminded that healing will make the world a better place. As I pray--sometimes--I sense God's presence, and am reminded there is more to this world than getting through the day. I am inspired to commit myself to my community and to work to heal others.

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