The Unsinkable Rubber Ducks

October 25, 2007 at 12:01 am 21 comments

“If they win, they win. If they lose, they win!”

Rubber Duck 2This 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:

  1. You can’t expect God to be constrained by a scientific study and to operate on demand;
  2. 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

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Entry filed under: AThinkingMan. Tags: , , , , , , , .

Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman Reflections: Where was God on 9/11?

21 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Jon F  |  October 25, 2007 at 2:00 am

    “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. ”

    I wonder to what point the church goers have not simply created an “imaginary friend” loosly based on the bits of the bible they like to create a God that suits them.

  • 2. Shannon Lewis  |  October 25, 2007 at 8:39 am

    You may pick up some of John Polkinghorne’s books to take a glance at his understanding of prayer – his involves no bending of ‘natural law’ – a ‘ground up’ approach. Fairly fascinating, indeed.

  • 3. LeoPardus  |  October 25, 2007 at 11:15 am

    whatever evidence you present people with, some of those who believe in the paranormal will just go on believing

    In a most telling study done years ago, an illusionist went into several college classrooms. In half of them he was introduced as a mentalist, and in half he was introduced as an illusionist. After each performance a questionnaire was given to students and they were asked if they thought they had just seen a display of true mental powers or a stage illusion.
    In the classes where he was intro’d as a mentalist about half the students believed they had seen true mental powers displayed. Astoundingly, in the classes where he was intro’d as an illusionist, there were still over a quarter of the students who believed they had seen a display of true mental powers!!

    “If they win, they win. If they lose, they win!”

    My favorite summation of this is in the “Mr. Deity” episode on prayer. When asked why he didn’t respond to any prayers, Mr. Deity replied, “If people pray and good things happen, who gets the credit? Me. If people pray and bad things happen, who gets the blame? Not me. So it’s all good. I’m not going to mess that up by sticking my nose in where it doesn’t belong.” :D

  • 4. LeoPardus  |  October 25, 2007 at 11:20 am

    BTW, there have been numerous studies on prayer. Just about every imaginable combination of possibilities has been tried sometime. I could post more than two dozen references easily. The overall results are….. some studies show a slight, positive influence; some studies showed no effect; some studies showed a slightly negative influence. Take home message….. prayer amounts to nothing.

  • 5. kramii  |  October 25, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    ATM:

    I see that there is some merit in your argument (and I am a Xian).

    An extreme case of this “heads-you-win” is where someone in a life-or-death situation prays for rescue. If the prayer is answered, the rescued individual makes a great case for prayer’s defence. If not, nobody is speaking up for the prosecution.

    However, I must pick you up on something:

    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.

    As I am sure you know, ATM, this misses the point entirely.

    Firslty, it assumes that answers to prayer bend the laws of nature. I would contend that, from a Xian POV, the laws of nature are actually quite un-bent by prayer. Rather, the laws and / or prayer are mis-understood by those who think rule-bending is required.

    Secondly, prayer is clearly *not* intended to inform God of somethig He doesn’t know. Rather, it changes the relationship between the one who prayers, the one prayed to and the one prayed for.

    From a Xian POV, the quality relationships between God and people, between people and within a person are FAR more important than physical healing or whatever. The answered prayer is a by-product of relationship, not the other way around.

  • 6. karen  |  October 25, 2007 at 12:30 pm

    Aw, you beat me to it, Leo! I was going to mention that Mr. Deity episode, too, it’s just perfect. :-)

    Here’s the link:

    http://crackle.com/c/Moving_Targets/Mr_Deity_and_the_Messages_Episode_4/1806036

    They are going to release a second season of Mr. Deity episodes sometime the fall, BTW.

  • 7. athinkingman  |  October 25, 2007 at 12:39 pm

    Thanks for the story LeoPardus. I’d be interested in seeing the references to the other prayer studies.

    kramii – Thanks for your comments. I know that part of prayer can be about changing the relationship. But another part of prayer is about getting something that you wouldn’t otherwise have. Didn’t someone say: Ask and you will receive”? And if God knows what we are going to ask for and knows whether we are going to get it, what is the point of asking?

  • 8. LeoPardus  |  October 25, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    If you go to PubMed ( http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/sites/entrez ) and search ‘prayer’ you will come up with lots of studies. They are apt to be fairly technical, scientific reports, but I think you’ll be able to follow the conclusions from the abstracts easily enough.

  • 9. HeIsSailing  |  October 25, 2007 at 9:44 pm

    Like LeoPardus, I am also a scientist (physicist), so lots of data and results from reputable journals makes great bathtub reading for me. But double blind research on prayer has never impressed nor interested me. I just look at it this way – is anything too hard for God? Is healing a common cold too hard for Him? How about a headache? The mumps? Leprosy? Malaria? AIDS?

    If God has infinite power, God should be able to handle the most impossible seeming miraculous cure as easily as he could soothe a headache. If the faithful pray to God to cure that stuffy nose, and thank him when they can again breathe, why are they so hesitant to pray for something a little more miraculous? Like an instant cure from diabetes. Or ALS. Or Down Syndrome. Or my autistic friend who lives down the road.

    People at our church are always praying that cancer victims recover after radiation treatment. Why not cut out all the radiation treatment and ask God for a miraculous cure from cancer? Forget this slow recovery = God is working junk. Is a cancer victim leaping from a hospital bed, cured of all illness in an instant, and thanking God any harder for God than a slow recovery? Can you imagine the hospital ward coming unglued with a real sign of the miraculous if that were to happen? So what is God waiting for? Is the miraculous any more difficult for God than now showing any side effects after a good dose of radiation poisoning?

    As far as I am concerned, if God cannot or will not cure the amputee, the AIDS patient, or the mentally retarded, then God cannot or will not cure anything. Any request is trivial to infinite power. One Million is just as far away from infinity as One is. If there is no evidence of One Million occuring, than there is no reason to think One occurs either

  • 10. The de-Convert  |  October 27, 2007 at 1:06 am

    Here’s a cartoon from Russell’s Teapot:

    http://russellsteapot.com/comics/2007/omni-impotence.html

  • 11. athinkingman  |  October 27, 2007 at 5:35 am

    Thanks de-Convert- the cartoon kind of sums up everything brilliantly!

  • 12. Huckabee Part II « blueollie  |  October 28, 2007 at 8:52 pm

    [...] is sort of what is known as the “unsinkable rubber duck” defense, this time applied to foreign policy. hese days, of course… conservatives are [...]

  • 13. kramii  |  October 29, 2007 at 9:24 am

    HeIsSailing:

    In #9 you wrote:

    “if God cannot or will not cure the amputee, the AIDS patient, or the mentally retarded, then God cannot or will not cure anything. Any request is trivial to infinite power. ”

    Absolutely right. The Jesus of the Bible had no problem with curing minor ailments like death, for example.

    However, God gave this world to people to look after. He doesn’t interfere unless invited.

    Most Xians (myself included) have a lot to answer for in the way we express our faith.

  • 14. kramii  |  October 29, 2007 at 9:39 am

    ATM:

    In #7 you said:

    “… another part of prayer is about getting something that you wouldn’t otherwise have.”

    True

    “if God knows what we are going to ask for and knows whether we are going to get it, what is the point of asking?”

    Part of this question is meaningless: “If god knows what we are going to ask for, what is the point of asking?” is simply illogical. God, being omniscient, knows if we will ask or not. If not, why should he answer? If so, he knows because we actually do ask.

    The reason that God does not answer un-asked prayer is because he does not go where He is not invited.

    Imagine I am a cleaner, and I know your house is untidy. Would you expect me to break in without your permission and to clean up? No: in fact, you would have every reason to have me charged with a criminal offence.

    Why should the situation with God + our needs be any different?

  • 15. LeoPardus  |  October 29, 2007 at 11:09 am

    The de-Convert:
    Re- Russel’s teapot – Dang you! I could have lost hours of work time on that. That is a dangerous site. How dare you link it. :)

  • 16. LeoPardus  |  October 29, 2007 at 11:12 am

    kramii:

    Do you even pay attention to your own writing?

    In both your posts you give the same “answer”. To wit:

    From post 13: “However, God gave this world to people to look after. He doesn’t interfere unless invited.”
    From post 14: “The reason that God does not answer un-asked prayer is because he does not go where He is not invited.”

    Hello! Earth to kramii ! God is being invited!!! Millions are inviting Him. There’s no answer.

    Engage brain before responding now.

  • 17. kramii  |  October 29, 2007 at 6:25 pm

    LeoPardus :

    In #16 you wrote:

    Do you even pay attention to your own writing?

    Not always! Your criticism is harsh, but fair. I did not need to repeat myself (although, in my defence, I was responding to two different comment – but still, there was no need for the repetition).

    Millions are inviting Him. There’s no answer.

    Indeed, that is the experience of many.

    However, please understand that I was not actually commenting on the efficacy of prayer. In #14, for example, I was actually responding to ATM’s reply to a comment I made about his original post. He stated, “the act of prayer seems incoherent,” because “God is omniscient, she/he already knows all the details of the thing or people being prayed about”. My reply was intended to demonstrate that prayer is coherent, even if God is omniscient.

    Hello! Earth to kramii…engage brain before responding now.

    If you don;t mind, I prefer reasoned argument to childish put-downs.

  • 18. HeIsSailing  |  October 29, 2007 at 11:25 pm

    kramii:

    However, God gave this world to people to look after. He doesn’t interfere unless invited.

    But kramii, what do you think prayer is, if not an invitation for God to answer those same prayers? Believe me, Christians are passing out plenty of invitations to the almighty.

  • 19. kramii  |  October 30, 2007 at 1:04 am

    HeIsSailing :

    Christians are passing out plenty of invitations to the almighty.

    I quite agree. And how many amputees are healed? Very few. How many dead come back to life? Not many. And yet, we Xians continue to claim that God answers our prayers.

  • 20. Andy  |  December 19, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    Oh, and did not know about it. Thanks for the information …

  • 21. SpelocapEmeme  |  March 27, 2009 at 2:52 pm

    Hello, I’m new here :D
    Thanks for providing useful information here on this forum

    SpelocapEmeme from Elvas, Portugal

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.

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