The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks
“If they win, they win. If they lose, they win!”
This statement was spoken with frustration and a degree of sarcasm in Christopher Brookmyre’s recent comic novel “Attack of the Unsinkable Rubber Ducks”. In this book Brookmyre wittily explores and exposes the fraudulent activities of people involved in the world of the paranormal. One of the major themes of the novel is that whatever evidence you present people with, some of those who believe in the paranormal will just go on believing because the belief meets a need. They are like unsinkable rubber ducks. Whenever you think you have sunk them, they just bob back up again.
After I had recovered from the tears of laughter that the book did reduced me to on one occasion, and as I started to reflect on the book’s central thesis, I was reminded of a research study to investigate the effectiveness of prayer. I am not implying here that the dishonest charlatans portrayed in Christopher Brookmyre’s novel are the same as millions of sincere Christians engaged in prayer. However, although motives may be different, I was struck by the fact that the unsinkable rubber duck principle still seems to apply.
The study was funded by the Templeton Foundation, which supports research into science and religion and was carried out by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists. The study, which was published in the April 2006 issue of the American Heart Journal, involved about 1,800 patients at six medical centres.
Three Christian groups were asked to pray for particular patients, starting the night before their surgeries and continuing for two weeks. The congregations came from, St. Paul’s Monastery, St. Paul, The Community of Teresian Carmelites, Worcester, Massachussetts, and Silent Unity, which is a Missouri prayer ministry near Kansas City.
The volunteers were given a patient’s given name and last initial, and prayed for “a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications.” Patients were divided into three groups:
- One set of patients was being prayed for and knew it.
- The second group was also the subject of prayers, but only knew it was a possibility.
- Patients in the third group weren’t prayed for, although they were told they might be.
The patients were then monitored for 30 days for any complications.
Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.
You would think that this large scale study with an good academic pedigree might just shoot this particular duck out of the water, or at least significantly wound it. However, it soon started to bob back up again. Two of the most common arguments giving it apparent buoyancy were:
- You can’t expect God to be constrained by a scientific study and to operate on demand;
- The element of faith is important in effective prayer and that wasn’t taken into account in the study.
It seems a bit churlish to suggest that all of the participants from the three religious communities involved were faithless. There must have been at least one moral person of faith amongst them, and according to the good book, the prayer of a righteous man availeth much. And perhaps God didn’t want to be constrained by the study, but it did give a good opportunity for getting more converts and more people praying.
I know that prayer is seemingly about more than asking for things, and that it is supposed to be about moving the person who prays more closer to the divine. However, although it is seemingly about more than asking for things, it is also about asking for things, and in this study the good things were asked for by faithful people and the results never came. I have written elsewhere about the part that unanswered prayers played in my own loss of faith. And as I thought about the unsinkable rubber duck syndrome, I remembered the ways I used to reason.
If I prayed for someone to get well and they did, it was a miracle. If they didn’t, it was God’s will that they didn’t – or perhaps I didn’t have enough faith, or perhaps my own sins were getting in the way, or perhaps I wasn’t being persistent enough. There was always a good reason. “If they win, they win. If they lose, they win!”
While looking at the blog responses to the original prayer study I stumbled on an article by Rastaban, which, to my mind, makes some very telling rational points about an apparent absurdity in the very notion of prayer. If God is omniscient, she/he already knows all the details of the thing or people being prayed about, and he/she already knows whether she/he is going to bend the laws of nature or not. And if this is so, then the act of prayer seems incoherent. Why do something so pointless?
I suppose part of the answer to the above question is that it does obviously meet needs. It helps remove a sense of isolation in the universe that is terrifying for some, and helps the person praying think that they have some supernatural control over sometimes seemingly uncontrollable and random events. And prayer can also be movingly intimate as we emotionally engage with someone else, whether it is just the supposed divine, or the people we are praying with.
I can understand why people do it and why I used to do it. Whether or not it is good thing to do is arguable. Certainly, my critics would say: “If it is harmless, why shouldn’t people continue?” I am beginning to doubt that it is harmless to encourage people to go on believing a fantasy, as believing fantasies is often a way of avoiding facing reality and responding appropriately to it. Perhaps one of the best arguments against clinging to fantasies comes towards the end of Christopher Brookmyre’s novel where one of the book’s characters points out that people can believe what they like, but believing in fantasies just “clogs up cognitive evolution”.
- A Thinking Man