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The Big Bad Wolf, Theism and the Foundations of Intelligent Design - Page 3

For example, Dawkins observes that:

the alleged power of intercessory prayer is at least in principle within the reach of science. A double-blind experiment can be done and was done. It could have yielded a positive result. And if it had, can you imagine a single religious apologist who would have dismissed it on the grounds that scientific research has no bearing on religious matters? Of course not. 34

Obviously, we can imagine a religious apologist who holds such a view, but the basic point is well taken. Equally obviously, the failure of a double blind study on prayer for healing to produce a positive result does not count against either the God hypothesis or the hypothesis that God sometimes answers prayer positively (it counts against the hypothesis that God always answers prayer positively, but few if any religious believers accepts such a hypothesis). Double blind or not, one can't constrain the variable of God's willingness to "play ball". Absence of evidence for intelligent design is not automatically evidence of absence of an intelligent designer (that depends upon whether or not one has a good reason to expect to find evidence if the ultimate object of one's investigation were real). Magicians can randomly shuffle their cards as well as stacking the deck. Failure to detect design in the order of a pack of cards used by a magician does not disprove the existence of either stacked decks or of magicians. Noticing that a pack is ordered to perform a certain trick does, however, tip us off to the existence of a magician. Likewise, a double blind study that did produce a positive result would at the very least present the naturalist with something to explain away. Dawkins references a Templeton Foundation funded study of prayer for healing that failed to yield a positive result, and comments:

Needless to say, the negative results of the experiment will not shake the faithful. [It would be more accurate to state that the study had a "null" result rather than a "negative" result.] Bob Barth, the spiritual director of the Missouri prayer ministry which supplied some of the experimental prayers, said: "A person of faith would say that this study is interesting, but we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started." Yeah, right: we know from our faith that prayer works, so if evidence fails to show it we'll just soldier on until finally we get the result we want. 35

It is unfortunate that Dawkins seeks to portray Barth as claiming to know from un-evidenced faith that prayer can lead to real world differences the very sentence after he quotes him claiming to know from personal experience that prayer "works". It is also unfortunate that Dawkins fails to note that several other scientific studies on prayer have reported positive results. 36 A systematic review of the efficacy of distant healing published in 2000 concluded that: "approximately 57% (13 of 23) of the randomised, placebo-controlled trials of distant healing... showed a positive treatment effect". 37 For example:

Dr [Randolf] Byrd divided 393 heart patients into two groups. One was prayed for by Christians; the other did not receive prayers from study participants. Patients didn't know which group they belonged to. The members of the group that was prayed for experienced fewer complications, fewer cases of pneumonia, fewer cardiac arrests, less congestive heart failure and needed fewer antibiotics. 38

Dr Dale Matthews documents how volunteers prayed for selected patients with rheumatoid arthritis: "To avoid a possible placebo effect from knowing they were being prayed for, the patients were not told which ones were subjects of the test. The recovery rate among those prayed for was measurably higher than among a control group, for which prayers were not offered." 39 Such results are of course far from being conclusive verification of the efficacy of prayer for healing, but they do show that Dawkins fails to grapple with the full range of available data on this subject. 40 Moreover, it is worth noting that such studies assume that a statistically significant (i.e. sufficiently unlikely) match with specified beneficial health outcomes would be evidence for the efficacy of prayer, and are therefore another example of the scientific utility of specified complexity.


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