Statistical proof of the ineffectiveness of prayer

The Weather Experiment: The Pioneers Who Sought to See the Future is a somewhat tedious book that covers the infancy of weather forecasting. There is an interesting anecdote about a 19th century effort to determine whether or not prayer was effective:

Never one to quake in the shadows of old institutions, [Francis] Galton had turned his mind to the practice of prayer. The question was troubling him. Did prayers work? In his usual methodical way he began to tackle the issue statistically. He started his experiment with a hypothesis: ‘We are encouraged to ask special blessings, both spiritual and temporal, in hopes that thus, and thus only, we may obtain them,taken from Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible. He then devised a way of testing the claim. He found a copy of the Journal of the Statistical Society, which listed the mean life expectancy of kings and queens with those of other classes of people. Galton pointed out that at every church service, Protestant or Catholic, it was customary to pray for the sovereign: ‘Grant him/her in health long to live’. If prayer worked, Galton argued, specifically such targeted and constant prayer as this should result in longer lives for kings or queens. But according to the Journal of the Statistical Society, this was not the case. A member of the royal house lived an average of 64.04 years, while clergy, lawyers, medical doctors and the aristocracy lived much closer to 70 years. ‘The sovereigns are literally the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence,’ Galton summed up. ‘The prayer has therefore no efficacy.’27 Galton’s paper would not see the light of day until it appeared with predictable controversy in the Fortnightly Review in 1872. But its very existence was significant. If he had written such a paper three hundred years before he would have been burnt; two hundred years before he would have been thrown into prison, or a hundred years before into a lunatic asylum. Yet by the 1860s such questions about the power and integrity of religion had found their place in contemporary debate. Galton was only writing what many were already thinking. [emphasis added]

Separately, how is it that medical doctors, constantly exposed to contagious diseases for which there were no effective vaccinations or cures, managed to live so long? Is it that germs were so prevalent that everyone else was equally exposed?

9 thoughts on “Statistical proof of the ineffectiveness of prayer

  1. If God, like Santa, has the ability to detect both what is thought and what is spoken then the conclusion is not supported by the evidence.

  2. Surviving exposure to disease is a great preventive measure – it is a natural vaccination.

  3. Kings and queens are targets for assassination, often killed in battle, etc. while priests, lawyers, etc. are not. Also, people of very high rank, especially in those days when most medical care was worse than useless (e.g. blood letting), can suffer because of medical overtreatment. Perhaps without the prayers of their subjects they would not have lived as long as they did.

  4. But this can be proven only if one half of the kings were given placebo instead of a prayer 🙂

  5. “Kings and queens are targets for assassination, often killed in battle, etc. while priests, lawyers, etc. are not.”

    I thought of this, and by my count eight Kings of England died violently after the Norman Conquest, which is high compared to other European kingdoms. But a prayer for long life presumably precludes violent death as well. What matters is the relatively low life expectancy, not what produced it.

    Some commentators made another argument that God listens to the real thoughts of the person making the prayer, and not the words of the prayer. But if this is true, this is also an argument that prayer has no efficacy. If God knows what is in your thoughts anyway, to the point where He will disregard any words you utter, why verbalize them? Either the words matter or they don’t. The argument here is that the words don’t matter.

  6. Perhaps the doctors had excellent immune systems as a result of repeated exposure to their community’s germs. An in-law who works as a nurse claims her own incidence of colds and flu dropped noticeably after a few years on the job.

  7. There seems to be an assumption that God is a vending machine – that if enough people ask for something or one person asks enough times, it will automatically be given. He may have other criteria that outweigh the requests of a King’s subjects (maybe the requests of some other King’s subjects).

    Also, “No” is a valid answer.

  8. Disease was not so wide spread since practically nobody traveled. Most people would have never left their village in their lifetime. I remember reading that when Bach decided to listen to a great organist he walked there and back several hundred miles and the journey took months.

  9. I assume that the sample size of monarchs was small and perhaps not significant. Some kings had their heads cut with cold steel. It could be that some of the people praying were directing their orisons to the wrong god.

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