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Prayer Wars

A Skeptic's Notebook

Robert Baker

Skeptical Briefs Volume 7.3, September 1997

In September 1994, we reported on the good doctor Larry Dossey, who assured us in his book Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (Harper, 1993) that prayer can not only heal, but it also makes those who pray feel a whole lot better. This idea made so many people feel better that they rushed right out and bought his book. This made Dr. Dossey feel so much better that he sat right down and produced another book, with the title Prayer Is Good Medicine: How to Reap the Healing Benefits of Prayer (Harper and Row, 1996). This sequel to his first book stresses that love is more of a factor in effective prayer than religious belief. And, as far as our bodies are concerned, prayer and meditation are indistinguishable.

It was, therefore, somewhat surprising in the face of all this upbeat hype to open the March/April 1997 issue of Psychology Today and see a special report from Dossey informing us that both words and prayer not only have a negative side, but in many situations words and prayer can actually harm! According to Dossey, the old nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” is wrong. It should be changed to “Sticks and stones can break my bones and words can also hurt me!” Moreover, Dossey says he has the proof.

In a series of allegedly “scientific” studies, Dossey argues that negative prayers from human beings can harm microorganisms. He stresses that while most everyone is familiar with the placebo effect, few are aware of the nocebo effect — the ability of negative beliefs and expectations to actually cause harm. Though far more complex, we humans share many identical biochemical processes with microorganisms and we harbor billions of microbes within us. Therefore, if negative prayers can harm lower organisms, would it not be possible to exert a nocebo effect on humans as well? Dossey says, “Yes, indeedy!” and he even goes so far as to suggest that negative prayer not only works but that everyday ordinary “harm-meaning” folk regularly engage in it, especially in athletic contests, where the opposing teams gather in their respective locker rooms, praying that they will beat the BeeJesus out of their opponents. In such a situation, God must be very puzzled, but Dossey tells us such prayers work, citing a comment from Michael Murphy, founder of the New-Age Esalen Institute in California, as proof:

Witness the many hexes aimed at games via radio and television sets. If rooting channels or triggers powers of mind over matter, it is no wonder that during certain contests balls take funny bounces and athletes jump higher than ever or stumble inexplicably. . . .

Although scientific studies of the effects of purposeful negative prayer on human beings have not been attempted because of their obvious illegal and unethical implications, there is little doubt that the range of negative power is enormous, especially in the form of curses on those we hate and those who have done us wrong. Referring to primitive cultures where hexes, spells, and voodoo can have tremendous negative effects — even death — on those who are victims of such powerful suggestion, Dossey says that “after years of study, I'm convinced that the malevolent use of prayer is quite common, woven into our society and our lives. In a 1994 Gallup poll on the prayer habits of Americans published in Life magazine, five percent of people confessed they'd prayed for harm to come to others. And that was only the number that admitted it.” Dossey goes on to suggest that diseases such as the Guillain-Barrë syndrome and other illnesses of unknown origin are due in part to the negative wishes and prayers of others!

Dossey summarizes his position by suggesting that negative prayer is nothing, after all, but the devil in us and the evil side of the two-headed human coin we keep flipping, hoping that good will turn up. He discusses the case of Eddie Rickenbacker, who, according to Dossey, was adrift in a lifeboat during World War II when, as the result of a prayer, a bird dropped by that he captured and ate. Dossey also tells us about the prophet Elisha, who caused forty-three children who made fun of his baldness to be devoured by bears.

While Dossey seems to believe that the eaten children were the direct result of an answered negative prayer, I can think of a different explanation. Odds are that Elisha had some very specific extra help with the bears, and, should he have actually pulled off such an atrocity, even in his time Elisha would have been lynched, gassed, hung, injected, and electrocuted by a jury of peers for such a humongous crime against innocent children over a mere tease. I would also bet the outraged curses of eighty-six vengeful parents would more than outweigh anything Elisha could ever conjure up.

Dossey’s illustrative examples do raise some very intriguing questions. What happens when the same number of people pray for something as pray against it? How does God decide whose prayer to answer? Does the total number of people praying for or against something matter? How about the righteousness of the supplicants? Are positive prayers answered more frequently than negative ones? Does God take the positive ones and Satan the negative? Does the intensity of the praying have any effect on the outcome? Does the length of time one devotes to praying have any effect on the frequency with which one’s prayers are answered? Do the words and phrases used in the prayer — either positive or negative — have any bearing on the success rate? Does the nature of the thing or things prayed for have any bearing on the prayer’s success rate — either positive or negative prayers? Why or why not??

All of these questions, and more, have a very particular relevance and application when we come to the realm of athletics. Just for example, this spring when a small Kentucky town in Eastern Kentucky won the State High School Girl’s Basketball crown, the town’s newspaper, as well as the largest newspaper in Kentucky, gave credit for the victory to God’s answering their prayers. Why their prayers were answered and the prayers of the losers were not remains unknown. One possibility is that the Hazard team had a better “pray-er” — in the form of their principal, who was also a minister. If it turns out that the higher one stands in the religious hierarchy the better the chances that one’s prayers will be heeded, then it certainly behooves every athlete and every athletic team to employ the most religious “pray-ers” possible. Certainly no one should ever enter any contest unpre-prayered!

If Dossey is right then we have an exciting future ahead of us! Not only will we have the game itself, but the prayer game within the game — another exciting and dramatic contest between the opposing praying ministers and the opposing praying fans. Special prayer meetings will be held before every game, featuring the top clerics striving to outpray each other and guarantee victory for their team. In fact, I think this is what Dossey had in mind all along — a movie epic with Spielberg as producer and Chris Carter as director for a billion-dollar blockbuster called Prayer Wars.

In the 1998 Super Bowl, on one side of the field we will have Billy Graham, praying that the AFC champion will destroy the NFC champion. On the the NFC side, praying equally hard, if not harder, we will have Benny Hinn sending up a heavenly beseechment urging every man on the NFC team to break various parts of their foe’s anatomy. To add to the excitement we could have the nation’s huddled watchers vote electronically to determine the winner of the prayer game independently of the winner of the ball game. Then, if the prayer-game winner is also the football-game winner, we will know once and for all whose side God was on. If it turns out that the prayer-game winner is the football-game loser, then we will also know once and for all that God does not put a very high price on the game of football or the other mindless games that humans play. We will also remember what we seem to have forgotten somewhere down the line, that humans have engaged in wishful thinking and have asked for help from above since the beginning of time, with only chance results.

If you take the time to ponder this issue, you may come to the surprising conclusion that maybe we are all better off if many of our prayers are ignored and never answered, especially the negative ones.

As for Dossey’s thesis, I'm afraid he has not thought it through and has not even begun to answer any of the questions posed earlier regarding winners and losers. If Dossey is correct, then I would certainly hate to be in his shoes, because the number of negative prayers launched against him since he started this campaign to promote superstition and misinformation and to misinform and mislead the masses is bound to have such harmful effects upon his person that he is already in the emergency room. And if he only knew about the white-coated doll with “Dr. D” stenciled on the back and the twenty-five pins. . . .We can rest assured, however, we've no cause for concern since the last thing on earth Dossey is, is superstitious! He is, after all, a medical doctor and a medical scientist!

Robert Baker

Robert A. Baker is professor of psychology emeritus, University of Kentucky, Lexington.