Probability of the Existence of God

I clicked on the first link on that Google search, which brought up this paper:

It is a meta-review which has the following abstract:

Background: The use of alternative treatments for illness is common in the United States. Practitioners of these interventions find them compatible with personal philosophies. Consequently, distant intercessory prayer (IP) for healing is one of the most commonly practiced alternative interventions and has recently become the topic of scientific scrutiny.
Purpose: This study was designed to provide a current meta-analytic review of the effects of IP and to assess the impact of potential moderator variables.
Methods: A random effects model was adopted. Outcomes across dependent measures within each study were pooled to arrive at one omnibus effect size. These were combined to generate the overall effect size. A test of homogeneity and examination of several potential moderator variables was conducted.
Results: Fourteen studies were included in the meta-analysis yielding an overall effect size of g = .100 that did not differ from zero. When one controversial study was removed, the effect size reduced to g = .012. No moderator variables significantly influenced results.
Conclusions: There is no scientifically discernable effect for IP as assessed in controlled studies. Given that the IP literature lacks a theoretical or theological base and has failed to produce significant findings in controlled trials, we recommend that further resources not be allocated to this line of research.

The reference to “lack of a theological base” for IP research raised my eyebrows. What did the authors mean by that? I looked up the reference cited in the Conclusion, and it leads to an earlier paper by the first author (Kevin Masters, who is apparently an expert on research on psychology and religion):

Research on the Healing Power of Distant Intercessory Prayer: Disconnect between Science and Faith

The final section is worth quoting almost in full, as it expresses more completely what I’ve been getting at in this thread:

Wrong Method to Address the Question

Christians, and other people of faith, have since the beginning of time offered up prayers for the sick with the fervent belief that, at least on some occasions, these prayers are answered with healing. In the scientific tradition, as far back as 1883 Sir Francis Galton (as cited in Palmer et al., 2004) suggested that whether sick persons who are prayed for recovered more rapidly than those not prayed for was a proper topic for empirical study. Since the scientific method has proven its worth in terms of collecting data about the workings of the world, why not use it to test whether there is evidence to support these long held beliefs?

It is my contention, however, that a major source of confusion in IP studies is the result of applying the wrong method to the question of the efficacy of IP. The scientific method is not appropriate or equipped to resolve questions that concern the intervention of deity which is, I believe, the implicit, ill-defined, and sometimes denied “theory” behind IP research. The basic premise of science is the functioning of a mechanistic and predictable world but the basic premise of the Biblical deity is that God acts according to God’s own purposes and is not constrained by physical limits. God is metaphysical, science is physical. Natural processes are the proper domain of science but supernatural processes are the domain of theology. Further, God indicates that God’s ways are not known to humans nor should they be questioned or tested (Romans 8:26-9:33; 11:33-36). There is no theological principle to suggest that God’s ability to heal can ever be tested by controlled, scientific methods. In fact, quite the opposite seems to be the case. Scriptural passages warn to not tempt, test, or question God (Deuteronomy 6:16; Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13).

This confusion over the natural vs. supernatural is inadvertently evident in the limitations section of the Palmer et al. (2004) study. They indicated that their study was limited by the fact that the participants were largely well educated and white, and therefore generalizability was limited. Clearly this would be the case were they studying natural mechanisms that may be influenced by one’s level of education or ethnicity status. But how would prayer fit into this scheme? What mechanism associated with prayer to God suggests that differences in ethnicity or education are moderating variables of prayer’s effectiveness? Is God likely to be influenced in some manner more or less by individuals who vary in their level of education or are of a different ethnic identification? God does not respect one person more than another (Acts 10:34).

Some may argue, as do Harris and colleagues (1999) and more recently Palmer et al. (2004), that imputation of interpretations for this research that incorporate God are not necessary and go beyond what the studies assess. These authors claim that only the natural properties of prayer as it relates to healing are under consideration and therefore the studies are perfectly congruent with scientific principles and assumptions. They further point out that researchers need to be open to testing heretofore undiscovered or unexplained processes. If only natural processes were under study, I completely agree. In fact, reference to God is not necessary and is not made in studies of distant healing, energy fields or energy medicine, etc. But such is clearly not the case in the extant IP literature. The evidence points to an agenda that invokes God into the process.

In other words, scientific research of any kind (including IP research) needs to have some theoretical basis. Otherwise the hypothesis is useless. But the simplistic theoretical hypothesis that “If person A prays for outcome X, then outcome X should be more likely” is not supported even by Christian theology. Some people in this thread apparently think that’s a completely legitimate thing to expect of God - sure, everyone is free to think what they want - but most Christians (except maybe for some who believe in prosperity theology, which is definitely not everyone) who have a more nuanced view of prayer would not agree with that at all. This is why we’re back to what I said earlier: Christians and atheists are not going to agree even on the criteria for calculating the probability of God’s existence.

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(response to Daniel)

I’d argue the confusion is on the part of believers, then, not researchers. Believers claim that miracles occur with consequences in the physical world, in response to prayer. The Bible backs that up. Science can’t directly access the miracle, but it can measure the results: if someone who was sick gets better, that’s measurable. And if people who are prayed for get better at a higher rate than those who aren’t, that’s measurable too. As is the fact that they don’t.

The conclusion of the paper is immediately above the part you bolded: “There is no scientifically discernable effect for IP as assessed in controlled studies.”

I think I’ve made a very clear case in the thread as a whole that, this is evidence that decreases the probability that a specific kind/description of God exists. That God is the God who heals the sick in answer to prayer.

I think you have a very long bow to draw to refute that, based on the logic and the evidence.


Which believers claim that? You indicated that you come from an SDA background. Perhaps this is something common in SDA theology? (I’m not familiar with it.) It’s certainly not something that is regularly endorsed in my tradition.

The Bible doesn’t claim that prayer’s efficacy can be measured and tested in randomized experimental studies. In fact it says that people who doubt will not get their prayers answered (James 1:7, which @Mark10.45 brought up) - did any of these studies “control” for doubt in the biblical sense? (Do we even know what God counts as “doubt”? Can we measure that scientifically?) There are passages in the Bible which indicates that believers will suffer even for doing righteousness. Surely believers pray for safety and deliverance to God; how does that make sense? James 5:16 says, “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” Did any of these IP studies control for “righteousness”? (And no, identifying as a born-again Christian does not necessarily correlate with “righteousness”.) Even Jesus prayed to the Father to take away the cup of suffering that He was about to experience, but that did not happen, because the Father had other plans.

My point is, what the Bible teaches about prayer is not a simple formula: if you pray X, you will likely get X. I think it’s complex enough that I wouldn’t expect psychology studies (a field which already has a well-known replication crisis) to be able to isolate the effects of prayer by removing all of the confounding factors. Now, if you want to dispute this, please bring up specific passages and perform some exegesis. One should just take isolated verses and apply them incongruously to contemporary situations. To disprove a theology that few Christians believe in is meaningless. I’m more in agreement with Kevin Masters who says that IP research has a faulty theoretical and theological foundation.

Sure, I would agree that it decreases the probability of a specific understanding of God that most Christians don’t believe in. When applied to a more robust Christian understanding of God, I don’t think it decreases the probability of that model significantly.

Would you genuinely state and think that most Christians, worldwide, do not believe that God (sometimes, with caveats) answers prayers with miracles? Pretty sure that wasn’t something confined to my narrow corner of SDAism. Pretty sure that’s incredibly common for Christians across a wide range of ‘brands’ of that faith.


The “sometimes with caveats” is important there. I don’t think most Christians would affirm that “the more people pray for X’s physical healing the more likely it is that X will be healed”. Maybe some very charismatic or Pentecostal Christians might believe that, but they don’t represent everyone else.

You’ve repeated this formulation a couple of times, but that was not how the studies were designed. It was a comparison of ‘people prayed for’ vs ‘people not prayed for’. No increased quantum of prayer, unless, I guess, we take the move from 0 to 1 as a quantum. So it’s not about convincing God through numbers - I agree, that’s not a view held by many Christians.

I’d formulate it this way instead: “being prayed for (for healing, not just mental ease or spiritual peace) increases the probability of being healed, relative to not being prayed for”. I don’t think that’s at all a controversial statement for many (most?) Christians.


OK, but how do studies control for “background prayer” such that it is really a comparison between zero and 1 instead of say 2 and 4? This is a point made by skeptical author D A Merrell regarding the STEP project:

There is a serious methodological problem with this experiment. Notice that there is really no
practical way to control for “background prayer” – the prayers made on behalf of the subjects
by loved-ones (and other intercessors) not involved in the study. STEP researches pointed out
that it would’ve been neither ethical nor practical to ask a patient’s family to withhold praying
for their loved-ones for the duration of the study. And this is a problem for the study, as a quick
analogy can illustrate.

Also, you haven’t answered my questions about the need to control other variables the Bible says are involved in the efficacy of prayers: doubt, righteousness, specific circumstances, God’s hidden plans, prohibitions against testing God, and so on…I would venture that believers who would agree with your statement above would also tend to agree to that these factors are also important.

All fair enough. These are all variables that are likely to be relevant, and are difficult to control for.

I would argue, though, that with a large enough sample size, and the fact that arguably not all of these variables would act in the same direction - e.g. background prayer might tend to increase healing but doubt to decrease it - that over all we would expect to see some difference rather than none.

The study cannot control every possible variable, but no study in the social sciences ever can. The question is about whether it can control sufficient of the most important variables, and whether the uncontrolled variables induce change sufficient to account for the results of the research.

I think we could go around and around on this forever, and I really should be getting on with the work I’m getting paid for. Thanks for an interesting conversation, which has definitely challenged me to sharpen my own thinking, and which hopefully has also been relevant and helpful for some of the ‘lurkers’ reading it.

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Even if say, the effect of background prayer always tended towards the same direction, then that would still confound the results of the STEP study, since instead of comparing people with 0 (control) and 1 prayers, we would be comparing people with say, 7 and 8 prayers. That would be sufficient to significantly decrease the statistical power of the study. You actually want background prayers to work in randomized directions such that they can cancel out. But again, I don’t know who will seriously defend the idea that the effect of uncontrolled background prayers in general must be randomized. The general large-scale behavior of humans may contain sufficient randomness to “average out” and thus amenable to study using social science methods, but are we suggesting that God’s behavior is? (Even in the case of regular studies, today we are increasingly realizing that many social scientific studies turned out to be skewed by the demographics of their most common participants.)

You are absolutely right that no study can control for every possible variable. But a good study should be able to control for the variables that matter for its level of statistical significance. Otherwise it’s a worthless study. Simply throwing more statistics (more people, more prayers, etc.) at a study which has massive potential for systematic error is useless.

Second, the difficulty of designing powerful social science studies in general is also why as I wouldn’t hang my hat on such studies in general. When less than half of experimental papers in psychology can’t be replicated, do we really want to use a set of poorly controlled studies as a basis to tell people that their prayers are useless?

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Homeopath studies don’t control for water memory or most of the woo that homeopaths parrot, yet, you agree that homeopathy is bunk, why?

IP studies I have read have only investigated physiological conditions and not psychological ones, so I don’t see the relevance of this point to those studies. In addition, I don’t think any IP study has ever concluded “prayers are useless”, but they tell us they are not worth considering for whatever purpose those studies investigated them for.

Most (if not all) believers claim this. Or are you saying that miracles occur without consequences in the physical world due to prayers?

This is why I keep asking you why Elijah murdered the prophets of Baal when he refused to hear answer their prayers? Baal could have chosen not to reply his prophets, in the same way Yahweh can choose not to answer prayers of his worshippers, but Elijah ignored this consideration and had them killed.

You should ask Elijah the same. Elijah did not control for Baal’s intention, neither did he control for the righteousness of the Baal prophets.

Give me a good set of criteria for distinguishing between events due to answered prayers from events due to chance.

If someone claims IP can improve a medical outcome, that claim can be subject to scientific investigation regardless of it’s “faulty and theological foundation”. Homeopathy research has a faulty theoretical foundation, but we can definitely call it crap because clinical and basic science research don’t support it. Some homeopaths claim water has memory and if we follow your argument, we would never be able to falsify homeopathy, because if water has memory, it can choose to remember or not where it has been and not heal patients who get the homeopathic remedy.


Yet Elijah applied his conclusion to the entirety of Baal worship, why?

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Homeopathy proponents want to sell their solutions as an alternative to regular medicine. If a Christian says the same thing - you should just pray instead of taking medicine, then I would agree that that’s bunk.

The moment you involve prayer, then that adds a psychological component.

Exactly, because as demonstrated in this thread you misunderstand what the purpose of prayer is. As Masters explained, IP studies are answering the wrong question(s).

I disagree. You may have a peculiar view of Christianity due to your own local context. Reformed Christians (my tradition) are generally cessationist and are generally skeptical of miracle claims today. As I said, Pentecostals and charismatics may believe what you said, but they don’t represent everyone.

Because the prophets of Baal were turning the people of Israel away from their intended God for whom they were set apart. The OT doesn’t close off the possibility of existence of other gods, by the way. It’s just that if these others gods exist, Israel is supposed to worship Yahweh alone.

And when Jesus was on the cross, people taunted him, saying: "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (Mt. 27:40).

Yet God did not save Jesus from death on the cross. I wonder why? Does that mean the death of Christ shows God doesn’t exist, too? Perhaps as a Catholic you can answer the puzzle yourself.

By definition, one who worships other gods violates the first commandment. They are not righteous.

Because Baal worship is forbidden by God from the beginning. Elijah’s public demonstration was not the main basis for deciding between Baal and Yahweh. Elijah had no obligation to consider the merits of Baal worship impartially like a scientist would. He was a prophet commissioned by God.

I don’t believe in true chance. God is in control of all events in the universe, both the ones you prayed for and the ones you didn’t. And this question again evinces that you don’t understand the purpose of prayer. You seem to treat it as a mechanism and a transactional tool. I think of it as part of what it means to have a relationship with God.

Those who claim that IP improves outcome in a simplistic way are just wrong in the beginning.

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This misses the point of my reply. The medical community dismisses homeopathy claims because they are not supported by clinical and basic science research. It is extremely improbable that an extremely diluted solution would have any physiological effect on people. If homeopathic remedies were effective, selling them as alternatives to conventional medicine wouldn’t be wrong.

I agree too. However, if prayer is to be done alongside taking drugs, how do we know prayer has any effect, since the drug usage is a major confounder?

I think this response misses the point again. The psychological component doesn’t matter, because we are interested in what physiological effects we can observe if study subjects are prayed for. Every clinical trial or study has a psychological component since humans are involved, and they could bias study results. Hence, good studies try to mitigate this bias, allowing us to infer causality or associations between two or more variables. I could be reading you wrongly on what you mean by “psychological component” means, so please clarify.

Prayer has several purposes including thanksgiving, adoration, repentance and petitioning. I am more interested in the last purpose, as that’s what IP studies investigate. In addition when Elijah confronted Baal’s prophets, its what he was interested in too.

That means your community of Reformed Christians is an oddity. Roman Catholics and Evangelicals constitute the greatest proportion of Christians worldwide and they generally accept this (although RCs can be a bit skeptical too).

No no no. He murdered them because Baal refused to answer the prayers of his prophets. And this is why I think the results of IP studies are important. If Elijah took Baal’s silence as evidence of low probability for his existence or impotence, then we can equally regard the meta-negative results in IP studies as evidence for Yahweh’s powerlessness to help praying subjects.

I disagree. The OT clearly rules out the existence of other gods aside Yahweh. Yahweh calls these other gods mere wooden contraptions that can’t hear or see. Interestingly, when we read the holy books of other gods, they detail their own divine accomplishments and sometimes call other foreign gods fake or contrived.

I am surprised you used this as a response as it is clearly different from the Elijah-Baal scenario. Jesus intentionally came to die, so whether he prayed or not wouldn’t matter. This is also one verse where the Trinity confuses me. If Jesus was fully God and fully man, then why did he pray to the Father and not himself?

Then why did Elijah go through the stress of organizing the public showdown, since he could have just ordered the execution of Baal’s prophets without it? The answer is simple, Elijah predicted Baal would not respond, Baal did not respond, and he used it as a means to get rid of the opposition. If Baal responded, do you think Elijah would have had any strong basis to order the execution of his prophets?

Why shouldn’t he have considered the merits, since God had repeatedly punished people in the past for no good reason sometimes?

The Bible says otherwise, Ecc 9:11-12

This is flat out false. The Bible clearly states that God should not be blamed for evil events, or are you suggesting that the 9/11 attack or the Covid-19 pandemic were caused by God?

But it is a mechanism to reach God and make petitions. I don’t see it as a “transactional tool”, its just a mechanism for communicating with God.

That means Elijah made a similar mistake by simplistically taking Baal’s silence as a yardstick to have his prophets killed.

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It has been my experience that God rarely answers prayer in a way consistent with the ask…When I finally repented and prayed for help, I was asking God to save my life. He did by committing me to a life of service to Him. Not exactly what I was praying for, but the outcome was better than what I could have hoped for.

I think this is a very important point that you made and that Daniel redirected. IP is defended in ways very similar to homeopathy, and this thread provides clear examples. To wit: the claim that IP effects can’t be measured because of “background prayer” is conceptually similar to homeopathic claims.

A study that attempts to measure effects of IP is not conceptually different from one that attempts to measure effects of any supplement–dietary zinc supplements, exercise regimens, meditation, social interaction, etc. The existence of zinc elsewhere in the diet, or of basic movement or thought etc., doesn’t invalidate an experiment on the effects of a supplement. A negative result, then, suggests that the supplement doesn’t do anything. Sometimes that’s big news. Sometimes it’s really not.

If it is true that properly designed studies (double blind and correctly controlled) have failed to detect an effect of IP, then this tells us something. It doesn’t tell us that “prayer” can’t do anything. It doesn’t even tell us that IP can’t do anything, just as a failed trial of dietary zinc doesn’t tell us that zinc doesn’t do anything. What it tells us is something simple and straightforward: that we cannot (yet) detect an influence of IP no matter how hard we try.

Now, if someone were nevertheless unconvinced, and truly thought that “background prayer” could explain the failure to detect IP effects, they could pursue other kinds of evidence. Let’s take the zinc supplement experiment as an example. Suppose a large-scale double-blind placebo-controlled trial of zinc supplementation showed no effect (on whatever) but a scientist is suspicious that the trial missed effects due to background zinc. They might then look to epidemiological literature and similar sources to see if any interesting physiological parameters covary with zinc levels in diet or environment, etc. They could look for evidence in experimental systems, perhaps to show that zinc supplementation will only affect particular subpopulations or will only work in precise dose ranges, and so on. They may discover that they can’t do an experiment without any zinc at all, since zinc is a required cofactor for life itself. Or they may discover that they can’t reduce the zinc level to zero for technical reasons. All of these possibilities (that I’m making up on the spot) have direct analogues in an experiment on IP.

But back to our scientist. If they are conscientious, they will do their work in a well-informed scholarly community, and they will remain steadfast in their commitment to being wrong. They will always be able to say, “so far, it seems that zinc supplementation doesn’t do anything, and we know that this might mean that…it doesn’t do anything.”

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I don’t know if prayer does have any deterministic effect. When I pray for someone I don’t expect that my prayer will make it more likely to physically heal them compared to if I don’t pray for them. So you’re arguing with the wrong person.

But praying is mainly a psychological act. It’s not just saying some magic words, taking a pill, or transplanting an organ. The primary part of prayer is executing a certain psychological (and spiritual) posture towards God that is hard to explain even for people who regularly pray. How do we know that everyone in a study executed this psychological posture properly?

Note that coming from a Catholic background we may have a misunderstanding of what prayer is. I know that some Catholics like to pray a scripted prayer like a Hail Mary several times. Perhaps some think that merely uttering the words gives some magical effects. But that’s not how we Protestants primarily pray.

Prayer is a holistic act and an analysis which separates individual components will probably miss important points.

Reformed Christianity is a 500-year-old tradition which is espoused by about 75 million people worldwide. It is not some fringe offshoot movement. That being said, I think my stance on prayer would be supported by most major theological leaders of evangelicalism who are not of the Pentecostal stream. Even in the case of certain extreme Pentecostals, they would simply say that if your prayer doesn’t come true, that means you don’t have enough faith in your prayer. And most studies of IP don’t control for “faith”, since that’s had to define.

I noticed that you have not said anything about the effect of background prayers and other uncontrolled variables by the way.

Assertions without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.

Really? So why did he pray to the Father in Gethsemane to take away his cup of suffering? Why did Jesus do things that don’t matter?

A good question. It seems that we need to brush up on Christology and Trinitarian theology. That would go beyond the scope of this thread. But it does show that you need to have a more holistic view of Christian theology to understand how things like prayer fit in that picture.

Because he didn’t have the public support for it among the Israelites, who were under the rule of an idolatrous king, Ahab.

Because he’s a prophet of God, not of Baal. Elijah would not agree with you that the God of Israel had punished them for no good reason.

And I bring you Proverbs 16:33. The idea that God ordains all things is part of orthodox theology including Roman Catholic theology.

They were not caused directly by God. But God certainly allowed them to happen via secondary causation.

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Well, the onus is on you to produce an example of a truly double blind study on IP. We’ve been mentioning studies a lot in this thread, but few people have pointed to specific studies. Instead of dealing with generalities, we should get down to the technical details. In citing the Merrell essay above, he examines the STEP study, which was supposed to be one of the most comprehensive studies on IP, but even that couldn’t truly control even known background effects.

I agree with this.

A scientific study is only worth pursuing if there is hope to control all of these confounding effects. Based on my understanding of prayer, I’m skeptical that a study could be designed to do that. As I explained to Michael, I don’t think prayer is like taking zinc. It’s a pretty complex act that (if Christians’ claims are true) would have complex consequences. It’s not a simple linear correlation between more prayers = more likelihood to be healed. We just don’t have a good theoretical model for modelling its effects, and no experimental method to control them.

I’ve been pretty open on this thread that I don’t think praying for X necessarily makes X more likely to happen. That is consistent with the studies on IP, as poorly designed as many of them are.

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I worked on a privately funded trial on a zinc supplement, but can’t discuss it due to an NDA. I can tell you that I don’t buy zinc supplements.


If you are serious about this, then you are saying that studies of the effects of meditation and of dietary supplementation are not worth pursuing. That was the whole point of my post: that it is false to claim that a scientific study can only be valid or efficacious if it “controls” everything. Readers should give careful thought to why this is not how scientists think.

I don’t think prayer is like taking zinc. (I think it is essentially identical to meditation.) And yet I know that zinc effects are complex, that they vary based on environment and genetics, that they can’t be separated from background zinc, that there is not a simple linear correlation between more zinc and more health, and that we don’t have a good theoretical model for modelling its effects when taken as a supplement. Our only experimental models to control zinc are reduced models (animal experiments, cell culture, biochemistry, etc.).

Your comments would imply that you don’t think we can or should do studies of the effects of supplemental zinc. Or of supplemental exercise. Or of supplemental meditation. Or of reading or socializing or playing video games or debating about gods on the internet. Your criteria are not specific to IP.

The problem with scuttling the ship is that you can’t then sail anywhere on it. There are scientific ways to assess some religious claims.

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Unsurprising. I haven’t done extensive personal reading on the research in this area, but my general impression is that there are no studies that support the notion that consuming health supplements of all kinds (vitamins, zinc, etc.) will have a strong positive effect on one’s health. If someone asks me to them, I just take it for the placebo :grin:

There is strong evidence that someone who is malnourished is likely to be immune deficient, and will benefit from dietary supplements (zinc & various vitamins). Otherwise, most people get enough from a normal healthy diet.