Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Superstition and Prayer


As an educated Christian I was always somewhat proud that I wasn't superstitious. I thought it was silly to avoid the number 13, fear seeing black cats, or read the astrology section of the newspaper. Of course I didn't think any of my own beliefs were superstitious, like my belief in prayer. But was I right? Is belief in prayer superstitious?

The following, I think, is the essence of a superstition: one discovers or hears from others of a pattern (perhaps from a single event like something bad happened after someone saw a black cat), then one extrapolates it (bad things are likely to happen after seeing black cats); any occurrences that support this reinforce the belief, but any counter examples or contrary evidence is discounted. The last point is key to what makes it superstitious or irrational; the believer wants to believe, will find some positive examples and will ignore any negative examples. And humans are very good and finding patterns in a chaotic world, but are not good at determining which are statistically significant. And so many of us are superstitious.

In general it is not possible to logically disprove most superstitions; at most one could say there is no reason or evidence to believe them (not meaning that bad things never happen after seeing black cats, but that statistically bad things don't happen more or less often after seeing them). That is unconvincing to the superstitious who will doggedly point to some positive examples that prove the superstition to him. Since negative examples don't rule out his belief conclusively, he ignores them.

Superstition sounds very silly, but what about belief in prayer? Why do people believe in prayer? In part because they have been taught it by people they respect and heard of fabulous "answers to prayer". Also people are sure to point to examples when they prayed for something and miraculously the prayer was answered. But are these answers to prayer statistically significant; namely does prayer actually make a difference in the likelihood of positive or "miraculous" things happening? That is a hard question to answer, especially from anecdotal evidence which invariably reports the positive and leaves out the negative examples. The best study on this, a multi-year, double-blind, prayer-for-healing test funded by the Templeton Foundation obtained statistical evidence on this and concluded that prayer did not make a difference. But for the believer that is irrelevant. He will point to positive examples of answered prayers. When asked about prayers that weren't answered he will say either: I continue to ask for it, or else God answered "No". So in his mind there is no space for negative evidence. And this is exactly the same as a superstition.

So my conclusion is that belief in prayer that allows no mechanism for being shown false is just like the multitude of superstitions that beset mankind. Let me ask the reader: if you believe in prayer, what possible evidence would you accept that could disprove it?