Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Limits of Human Progress and the Power of Prayer

Earlier this year I posted C.S. Lewis' fictional description of hell, a world without scarcity. Before that I had confessed that a world without death be very challenging to my understand of Christianity. Recently, my good friend Justin posted a great interview with Christian and renowned scientist, Francis Collins. Although the entire conservation is worth reading, I especially enjoyed his response to the question of scientific innovation removing suffering from our world:
In spite of the fact that we have achieved all these wonderful medical advances and made it possible to live longer and eradicate diseases, we will probably still figure out ways to argue with each other and sometimes to kill each other, out of our self-righteousness and our determination that we have to be on top. So the death rate will continue to be one per person, whatever the means. We may understand a lot about biology, we may understand a lot about how to prevent illness, and we may understand the life span. But I don't think we'll ever figure out how to stop humans from doing bad things to each other. That will always be our greatest and most distressing experience here on this planet, and that will make us long the most for something more.
Mankind has come far, but we still have a long way to go. One way to do that is through prayer. Again, Francis Collins:
Also, prayer for me is not a way to manipulate God into doing what we want him to do. Prayer for me is much more a sense of trying to get into fellowship with God. I'm trying to figure out what I should be doing rather than telling Almighty God what he should be doing. Look at the Lord's Prayer. It says, "Thy will be done." It wasn't, "Our Father who art in Heaven, please get me a parking space."
This idea of prayer influencing the prayer isn't just theological, it's measurable:
the participants were randomly assigned to one of four daily activities: praying for the well-being of their partner, engaging in undirected prayer, thinking about positive aspects of their partner or reflecting upon their day. Participants did as they were asked for four weeks, and kept written logs of what they were praying (or thinking). At the end of this period, the team again measured infidelity and how sacred the participants felt their romantic relationships were.

Dr Fincham and his colleagues report in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that although all participants had similar infidelity ratings, averaging 3.5, to start with, at the end those ratings varied considerably between the four groups. People who had prayed for their partners averaged 2.4, significantly lower than their initial scores, whereas those who thought positively about their partners or considered their day both showed ratings of 3.9—significantly higher.


Scores reflecting participants’ views of how sacred their romantic relationships were changed during the four-week period as well. Values at the start of the study were much the same among all participants, averaging 3.2. However, by the end of the study, those who had prayed for their partners showed stronger beliefs that their relationships were sacred than those who had just had positive thoughts about their partners, with average scores of 3.7 and 2.8 respectively. Dr Fincham suspects that the act of praying about romantic partners leads people to view their relationship as something sacred and not to be damaged. This, he argues, is the force that is reducing infidelity in the study.
Though that data is self-reported, it was confirmed by unbiased observers giving their own assumptions about changes in fidelity.

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