Thursday, April 16, 2015

The Psychology of Prayer

The Bible proclaims “If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer” (Matthew 21:22) and “Ask and it will be given to you…. For everyone who asks receives” (Luke 11:9-10). Adherents of the Christian faith and other religious traditions are quite convinced of the power of prayer. Whether it is a family member getting well, a home run during the baseball game, or a new job offer, many people perceive that someone out there is listening to them. However, once you review the evidence, the effects of prayer appear to be entirely psychological.

Confirmation Bias

Confirmation bias is the tendency of individuals to selectively seek information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs while ignoring or undervaluing that which contradicts them.[1] According to psychologist Thomas D. Gilovich, "the most likely reason for the excessive influence of confirmatory information is that it is easier to deal with cognitively."[2] In other words, we generally wish to prove that which we believe to be true, because it would be harder to accept being wrong. This bias has several manifestations and implications with regard to prayer:

  • Evidence that prayers were “answered” tends to outweigh evidence suggesting they were “ignored.”
  • Prayers that were presumably answered tend to be recalled more easily and frequently than ones that were not.
  • Theists who primarily focus on the “answered” prayers discuss their experience with others who also believe their prayers are regularly answered. This reinforces and compounds the belief among those in the immediate and greater community.

Ignoring Probabilities

Ignorance of statistical probabilities tends to lead to a greater degree of confirmation bias in praying theists. Generally speaking, people will pray for things which are fairly probable. When these likely events do occur, they serve as a regular affirmation to theists that God is answering their prayers. On the flip side, when something improbable occurs after a prayer, some theists consider it irrefutable proof of divine intervention. What most people never realize is that improbable events happen all the time. Planes crash, lotteries are won, the worst sports teams beat the best sports teams, etc. Every day in our lives, things occur which have never occurred, and which we never thought could occur. However, when it’s something of emotional significance which also relates to the contents of a prayer, people tend to automatically presume a causal relationship. As my old statistics teacher once drilled into my head, “correlation does not infer causation.” In addition, given confirmation bias, these unlikely “hits” tend to overshadow the much more numerous “misses” with regard to prayers for improbable outcomes.

The Placebo Effect

According to, the placebo effect is “a remarkable phenomenon in which a… fake treatment… can sometimes improve a patient's condition simply because the person has the expectation that it will be helpful. Expectation plays a potent role in the placebo effect. The more a person believes they are going to benefit from a treatment, the more likely it is that they will experience a benefit.”[3] This phenomenon is testament to the power of human psychology. Here are just a few fun facts about the effect which show just how powerful expectations can be:[4]

  • Fake surgeries can sometimes be just as effective as the real thing
  • Yellow placebos help best with depression, green helps with anxiety, and white pills sooth stomach issues like ulcers
  • Placebos not only produce the preferred effects of a treatment, but they can also induce expected negative side-effects as well
  • People can become intoxicated off of a placebo

Faith Healing

In the New Testament, Jesus cured those who had faith in him, as did his disciples.[5] Today, the tradition of faith healing continues to be prevalent, as people pray for health more than any other purpose.[6] In some Christian sects, faith healers claim to have a special connection with God, allowing them to heal the sick better than traditional medical treatments.[7] Given the prevalence of this phenomenon, it’s hard to believe so many would buy into it if people didn’t believe they were getting better. However, couldn’t the benefits of prayer be the same as those produced by the placebo effect? Certainly both seem to require that individuals fervently believe in the treatment/prayer in order for it to work properly. As the American Cancer Society explains, “When a person believes strongly that a (faith) healer can create a cure, a “placebo effect” can occur. The placebo effect can make the person feel better, but it has not been found to induce remission or improve chance of survival from cancer.”[8]

Does Prayer Work?

There have been many prayer studies throughout the years which have sought to control for the placebo effect by focusing only on intercessory prayers (IP). That is, prayers done on the behalf of others sometimes without the knowledge of the subject of the prayer. While there has been much publicity around studies which showed that prayer had a substantial effect, these have all been soundly criticized for having severe methodological issues.[9][10] In 2006, the largest and most meticulously scrutinized prayer study was published, which sought to overcome flaws in earlier investigations.[11] The study split 1,800 cardiac patients into 3 groups: 1) those receiving IP without their knowledge, 2) those receiving IP and being notified they were being prayed for, and 3) those who received no prayer. Researchers then accounted for those participants who experienced health complications within 30 days of coronary artery bypass graft surgery. The results: 52% of those who were prayed for without their knowledge had health complications vs. 59% of those who were told they were being prayed for, and 51% of individuals that were not prayed for had complications. In short, the IP did not have any effect.[12]

Well, the people who were praying just didn’t have enough faith…

Alright, it is possible the prayers weren’t impassioned enough. Maybe there needed to be a stronger spiritual connection between the prayer and prayee. Consider the study which showed that in the past 30 years, over 200 children have died because their parents relied on faith healing instead of conventional medical treatments?[13] Surely, you’d need to have a great deal of faith in order to avoid proper medical treatment for your child, with whom you would presumably also share a deep spiritual connection.

Well, God doesn’t like being tested…

Okay, maybe God expects you to seek medical treatment when it’s available, but what about when it isn’t? Consider the case of Nigeria, which is known for its awful healthcare system.[14] It is the 2nd most religious country in the world; it has the 14th highest infant mortality rate, and the 11th highest malaria death rate.[15][16][17] I’m not suggesting the religiosity led to the malaria and infant mortality. The lack of proper access to healthcare is a sufficient explanation by itself. However, given their religiosity, you can imagine just how fervently they must pray for their sick and dying. You can imagine in particular, just how hard mothers will pray for the lives of their dying children. In the end, they die just as though no one was listening.


When reviewing the evidence, it seems apparent that prayer just doesn’t work. While many theists may be capable of coming up with personal anecdotes regarding the efficacy of prayer, confirmation bias, statistics, and the placebo effect sufficiently explain their beliefs and experiences.


Good video about science and prayer

Good placebo video

Placebo effect

Great book about prayer studies

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Reasonable Ethics

As one Christian website put it, “moral values do not derive from human experience. Moral values come from the one who knows us best and knows what is best for us-our creator, God. If moral values derived from human experience, we would be living in a chaotic world. We'd never know what was right and what was wrong, because moral values would change as human experience changed.”[1] However, we Secular Humanists understand that it is easy to be good without any gods, and often reason can lead us to be even more ethical than many theists. We are Good without God

Humans are Innately Good

As I explained in my posts regarding groupishness and the evolution of morality, humans evolved the capacity to be moral because it improved the chances of our ancestors’ survival. The earliest humans evolved within social environments, and we gained pro-social characteristics to promote the survival of our groups. When groups survive, so do the genes of the group members. Given these adaptations, psychologically healthy humans are innately moral. In fact, studies have shown that even babies have a rudimentary sense of justice and of right and wrong.[2]

The Need for Moral Codes

As I explained in my post regarding the cultural evolution of religion, formalized moral codes came about in human societies as they became more complex. Our innate morality works well in small groups, but once a population surpasses 150 members, humans have a difficult time maintaining social harmony. Like small group morality, moral codes applied to large societies help promote their survival. This is because respect, honesty, and compassion lead to cooperation, which is vital to the survival of any social unit. For example, if a society allowed its people to lie, cheat, steal, and murder with impunity, it would likely produce a culture of fear, distrust, violence, and corruption. As a result, trade, production, and innovation would be stifled. In addition, the lack of social cohesiveness would be ruinous if the society were under attack by a military rival. In other words, immoral societies always fail in the long run if they do not change.

The Exposure Effect

Sure moral codes and our innate morality may work to promote social harmony within our own culture, but what about tolerance toward other cultures?  The answer: our society evolved the virtue of tolerance toward those outside our immediate peer groups because we became exposed to them. Studies have shown that mere exposure to individuals from other cultures increases our tolerance of those cultures.[3] This is because we’re ultimately the same species, and despite our differences, we all have things we share in common. Thus, exposure allows people from differing cultures to identify and empathize with one another. As society progressed, it placed a greater value on multicultural tolerance as more differing cultures interacted. Today, as we learn about faraway places in books, on television, or on the internet, and as more people from across the world migrate to areas of economic opportunity, both the need for and the automatic fulfillment of cultural tolerance is achieved. Interest

Kindness, simply stated, is good for you. Given our innate capacity for empathy, we feel bad when other people feel bad, and feel good when others feel good. Thus, when we make others feel good, via empathy, we make ourselves feel good as well. In addition, most of us tend to think rather highly of our own moral virtue, and acting out on this virtue reinforces our own positive view of ourselves. Each of these forces combined are probably why acts of kindness have been shown to cause elevated levels of dopamine, creating an ecstatic sensation referred to as the “helper’s high.”[4] Studies have shown that helping others also releases the bonding hormone oxytocin, which not only creates emotional warmth, but also promotes cardiovascular health.[5] Beyond the buzz, people think and act favorably to those who are kind to them, which can lead to stronger interpersonal relationships. Since strong friendships have been shown to have both physiological and psychological benefits, kindness again is good for your health.[6] Ethics

Humanist morality derives from a combination of consequentialist ethics and compassion. We ultimately seek to promote the positive well being of all conscious creatures.  Given that actions which lead to both suffering and life fulfillment can be studied scientifically, Humanists consider science to be the best source of knowledge regarding how we should live our lives. Since science consists of theories that change over time as we gain new knowledge, we understand that ideas regarding ethics and morality will continue to evolve. My favorite summary of Humanist ethics comes from philosopher Andy Norman:[7]

  1. All human beings possess dignity, worth and basic rights.
  2. We should strive to remake this world into one that affords every human being the opportunity for a rich, rewarding life full of joy and creative fulfillment, and as free as possible from pain and suffering.
  3. We stand a better chance of progressing toward this goal if we understand what really works to promote human flourishing.
  4. To gain this understanding, reason, science and critical inquiry must be given free rein [within reason] to discover the truth about the world, human nature, and what makes people happy.
  5. Moral codes function to protect freedoms, promote mutual cooperation and advance collective well being; they should be designed (and occasionally redesigned) with that in mind.
  6. Fear, dogma, superstition, blind faith, wishful thinking, supernatural “explanations,” and tribal or ideological loyalties should all be avoided, for they tend to close minds, block understanding, and de-motivate the critical inquiry necessary for scientific and moral progress.


Morality does not come from any sort of supernatural force or being. Instead, it is the natural result of our need for social harmony as a mechanism to promote the health and survival of our society. For Secular Humanists, we understand that reason and science can help us to understand how best to formulate our morality to maximize our collective well being.


Humanist Manifesto III

Morality Comes from God – Debunked Video

Objective Morality and Atheism Video

Eliciting Latent Humanism

How Low Intelligence is Associated with Social Conservatism and Bigotry

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Psychology of Knowing God

I once read an article on by a Christian who seemed to be fairly informed about atheist arguments regarding God’s non-existence. However, despite this knowledge, he continued to believe in God because he claimed he could feel God’s presence as though he was sitting right next to him. How could anyone feel the presence of God unless he was actually there to be felt? As usual, science has some interesting answers. Friends

About 30% of American children between the ages of 3 and 6 years old develop a friendship with an imaginary companion.[1] According to psychologists, this behavior is perfectly healthy and may even help improve a child’s social abilities.[2] What is worthy of note, however, is that many children get so caught up in their fantasy that they believe they can see and hear their invisible comrades.[3] While a child’s psychology is different from that of adults, it is still possible the same mechanisms that make invisible friends so real to children are the same that make God seem so tangible to fervent theists. and Other Social Surrogates

Remember Wilson the volleyball from the Tom Hanks movie “Castaway”? For those of you who are unaware, the story was about a man named Chuck who was stranded on an island all alone for 4 years. Wilson was a volleyball on which Chuck drew a face and which became his closest companion during his years of social isolation. They laughed, they cried, and they argued just like real friends, except Wilson was just a volleyball. “Castaway depicts a deep truth about the irrepressibly social nature of Homo sapiens,” says John Cacioppo, a psychologist who studied people’s tendency to anthropomorphize inanimate objects.[4] In one of his studies, he discovered that lonely people are more likely to describe gadgets in terms of humanlike mental states compared to non-lonely people.[5]

Beyond inanimate objects, lonely people also turn to television and other media personalities as a form of social surrogacy. Just as normal friendships evolve by spending time together and sharing thoughts and stories, these relationships evolve by observing media personalities and becoming involved with their personal lives, idiosyncrasies, and experiences as if they were real friends.[6] Studies suggest these relationships can be taken so far that people can become just as traumatized by the loss of a TV character as they would by the loss of a close friend.[7]

While feeling God’s presence may not be the result of loneliness, the neuronal wiring which allows humans to become enveloped in one-way illusory relationships may still play a role in the phenomenon.

When God Talks Back

In the book “When God Talks Back” anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann set out to describe her 4 year study of a “charismatic” sect of Pentecostal Christians who are well known for their “concrete experiences of God’s realness.”[8] In her research, Tanya sought to understand the mechanisms that led to these experiences. What she discovered was that these particular Christians learned to experience God by training their minds to think in a particular way. Specifically:[9]

  • They learn a new theory of mind in which “the mind is not private, but thoughts and images are sensations one might have understood as self-generated are actually God speaking”
  • They literally pretend that God is present. For example, one pastor suggested pouring God his own cup of coffee each morning.
  • There is a common practice of congregants becoming emotional and crying while being reminded by their peers that God loves them unconditionally.
  • Prayer was an important practice, which Tanya described as a “daydream-like engagement in which you are having a dialog with God”

Those who were most adept at prayer reported experiencing more vivid mental imagery, and in some rare cases, brief auditory messages they believed were from God. Tanya observed that practice played a major role in congregants’ ability to have these experiences, and decided to perform an experiment to see if she could elicit them in others. This mini-study consisted of providing IPods to two groups of Christians with different messages to listen to over a period of several days. One group was to listen to a collection of lectures on the New Testament. The other was to listen to a recording of Tanya walking through her version of the spiritual exercises practiced by the charismatic sect she studied. This recording included passages from the Bible, soothing music, and cues to the listener to try to imagine God and visualize what the passages were discussing.

After the study, the group members that listened to Tanya’s recording were more likely to:

  • Experience auditory sensory experiences (i.e. the voice of “God”)
  • Experience vivid mental imagery
  • Feel their sense of God changed as though he were more like a person
  • Feel their spirituality had changed


The phenomena of childhood imaginary friends, anthropomorphization of inanimate objects, and social surrogacy all show that people are capable of having intricate human-like relationships without the presence of other humans. The Pentecostal charismatic study shows that by training their minds to better imagine God, he became so real to people that they could hear him speaking to them. Most Christians/theists likely do not go to these extents to experience God. However, over the course of their lives, the idea that God exists, God cares about them, and God is listening to them is reinforced time and time again by their co-religionists and during prayer. Thus, their minds are trained, often from childhood, to imagine a God that is present in their lives. This means there are likely large numbers of neurons in their brains dedicated to the idea of God, and the more fervently they seek to experience him, the more vivid his presence will appear to be. It is for this reason that many theists find atheism to be quite preposterous, as they feel evidence of God’s presence every day.


Good overview of “When God Talks Back”

Great lecture on “When God Talks Back”

Good article on imaginary friends

Good article about social surrogacy

Good article on the science of Wilson the volleyball