Magic In The Public Schools by James Williamson (Jan/Feb 1997)

Is it time for our public school children to repay the debt of the Republican party to the Religious Right? Newt Gingrich has been pushing for an amendment to the Constitution to force “voluntary prayer” into our public schools.

The usual reasons this is a flawed idea have been well covered in the media. However, the aggressive attempt to force prayer into the public arena makes legitimate the examination of the basic relationship between science and religion and the appraisal of prayer itself.

Many people gloss over the profound and irreconcilable differences between science and religion. Science is based on logic, systematic data collection, experiments and statistical analysis. The results must be reproducible by other scientists. And any “laws” must always be subject to modification if new data are found. On the other hand, religious thinking is the antithesis of scientific thinking and embraces a supernatural way of looking at the universe. The basic tenets of religion are deeply held convictions based on faith as revealed in the revelations of some powerful, and often supernatural, entity. These beliefs become dogmatic, change very slowly, if at all, with time and are often not changeable by evidence or rational analysis. In fact, lack of rational evidence to support a belief may only strengthen it: A less devout person can easily believe something that is logical but only a truly devout individual can have a belief that appears impossible and irrational.

Therefore, the introduction of any aspect of religion into the public schools can only be detrimental to the teaching of critical and rational thinking. Religions have lost every battle with science. If you care to read the detailed documentation, please read the classic, A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom by Andrew D. White. Unfortunately, many persons were persecuted, tortured or executed over the centuries for disputing religious interpretations of the world. We sometimes forget that to question the flatness of the earth or the solar system as being earth centered could invite torture or death.

The progressive religions now accept all or most of the findings of science. But the problem arises with the fundamentalist religions which are still futilely fighting this ancient and long lost battle. And school prayer is one way for the fundamentalists to further control public schools.

A historical perspective is helpful in the fundamental appraisal of prayer itself. Religions have been with us at least 34,000 years. Initially, humans believed that the observable universe was controlled by numerous gods who created it and ran it but could not be contacted at all. However, the idea gradually evolved that these gods could be contacted in various ways to curry personal favor: banquets were offered (many of the deities had fine appetites); sacrifices–animal and human–sometimes would appear to bring results; and eventually people simply began to beseech these supernatural beings in a respectful manner (prayer). Historically it is clear that the idea of prayer is a very primitive concept which was intimately related to mythology.

The persistence of the widespread belief in praying to a deity seems surprising in our scientific age, at least rationally; the process, however, clearly provides emotional solace to some people in a hostile universe. The belief that praying works is perpetuated by prayers appearing to be answered by chance at times, while the times they are not tend to be forgotten.

Now, the first basic question we should ask is does prayer work? Are prayers answered more than a person would expect by chance? Actually this question was tested statistically in a penetrating study, “Statistical Inquiries into the Efficiency of Prayer,” by the English scientist, Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). His findings were that prayer produced no statistically measurable effect. And if this study doesn’t convince you, other studies can be done, because whether prayer works or not can be established scientifically and statistically once and for all. Prayer differs from most other religious beliefs since the results can be measured.

Medical history provides other evidence that prayer doesn’t work. In the Middle Ages, when the frequently fatal Black Plague was rampant and decimating the population of Europe, prayer was practically universal, but had no detectable effect on the carnage. And examining inevitably fatal diseases is another reasonable way to gauge prayer’s effect. I have never seen, in many years of practicing medicine, any significant change in the course of an inevitably fatal illness–other than psychological–caused by praying. The testing of the effect of prayer in diseases where recovery is frequently spontaneous is not as obvious and requires carefully designed statistical study to evaluate.

Rarely, studies that claim to show effectiveness for prayer slip through careful review and get into scientific journals. A case in point is a widely reported recent study which supposedly showed that a group of patients in an intensive care setting who were prayed for without their knowledge did somewhat better than a group of patients who were not prayed for. If such a thing could actually happen, science would be in shambles. Just imagine! Any clinical study could be invalidated by a scientist praying for the result that he or she desired. Such studies are invariably flawed in design rather than evidence of anything supernatural.

As we have seen, then, evidence is lacking for any scientifically measurable effect for prayer. But, is it rational? That is the second basic question. Prayer, if effective, would violate the natural order in the universe of cause and effect. It would magically change whatever was to happen to suit our needs. This idea seems to be cosmic arrogance in addition to being illogical. Furthermore, if the deity already knows what will happen and what we need, why pray at all?

Since prayer doesn’t work and isn’t rational, do we want to put it in the public schools? Do we want the public school system to sanction and provide credence to a procedure that is primitive-magical? What sort of message would such sanctioning send to the students about our dedication to science? Our schools now are already turning out many graduates who are ill-equipped to think critically, scientifically and rationally. Many people in our society still believe in ESP, astrology, fortune telling, telepathy and numerous other paranormal procedures that have been clearly disproven logically and scientifically. The proper teaching of science (based on logic, experiments and the meticulous collection of verifiable and reproducible data) is already being eroded by the Creationists who want to replace science with mythology. Let’s not further weaken our scientific teaching by sanctioning nonscientific thinking.

James W. Williamson, M.D., practices cardiology in Winter Park, Florida. He graduated from Temple University Medical School in Philadelphia and took his cardiology training at Emory University Medical School in Atlanta. He and his wife, Martha, have four children. He was raised in various Protestant churches and gradually, from his readings, became a freethinker. He serves on the editorial board and contributes articles to the Central Florida Physician, a journal for physicians covering three adjacent counties.

Freedom From Religion Foundation