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Pray at the Pump—A Commentary by Ian Ayres ’86

The following commentary was published in The New York Times on August 18, 2008.

Pray at the Pump
By Ian Ayres ’86

The L.A. Times reports on a group claiming that the recent reduction in gas prices was caused by prayer. “If the whole country keeps on praying, we can bring down prices even more — to even less than $2,” says Rocky Twyman, founder of Pray at the Pump.

If prayer did cause the price to drop, did it do so through a shift in the demand curve or was it through a shift in the supply curve?

My sense is that the article is newsworthy because some people do not believe it is appropriate to pray for reduced prices. But praying for relief from crisis is a classic use of prayer. Georgia’s governor, for example, recently prayed for rain; some people believe that it worked.

Others do not believe prayer to be effective. But several studies have run randomized trials to determine whether prayer (or what is sometimes called “distance healing”) can be effective. For example, a small randomized study in a coronary care unit found:

The therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (IP) to the Judeo-Christian God, one of the oldest forms of therapy, has had little attention in the medical literature. To evaluate the effects of IP in a coronary care unit (CCU) population, a prospective randomized double-blind protocol was followed. Over ten months, 393 patients admitted to the CCU were randomized, after signing informed consent, to an intercessory prayer group (192 patients) or to a control group (201 patients).

While hospitalized, the first group received IP by participating Christians praying outside the hospital; the control group did not. At entry, chi-square and stepwise logistic analysis revealed no statistical difference between the groups. After entry, all patients had follow-up for the remainder of the admission. The IP group subsequently had a significantly lower severity score based on the hospital course after entry (P< .01). Multivariant analysis separated the groups on the basis of the outcome variables (P<.0001). The control patients required ventilatory assistance, antibiotics, and diuretics more frequently than patients in the IP group. These data suggest that intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God has a beneficial therapeutic effect in patients admitted to a CCU.

There is even a Cochrane Review of single-blind studies (where patients do not know whether others are praying for them). The results are mixed. But across six studies and more than 6,000 patients, there was a statistically significant reduced risk of death. (Good Bayesians are more likely to accept this result if it accords with their prior beliefs — and more likely to reject this result if it conflicts with their prior beliefs. Bad Bayesians who disagree will not even allow it to move their prior an iota.)

The idea of testing for the impact of prayer goes all the way back to 1883, when Francis Galton, the father of regression, sought to test the efficacy of prayer.

Some people have claimed that it is wrong to even try to empirically test the power of prayer. The Bible includes several passages admonishing us: “You shall not test the Lord thy God.”

But I also worry that this is a question that may not be fully resolvable by resorting to randomized study. If there is an omniscient God, then it is impossible to run a truly double-blind study. This creates the possibility for a transcendent kind of Hawthorne effect.

If God behaves differently in response to testing prayers than to non-testing prayers, then we will not learn whether non-testing prayers help (or hurt). On the other hand, if the null hypothesis is that prayer should have no impact, and we find one in patient-blind randomized control trials, then the atheists have some explaining to do.