My hope when I started my research on prayer was to learn about faith. However, anyone who does experimental research knows that it is a very long road from idea to data. After coming up with our ideas and designing our experiments, the next step in our process was to get approval from an independent review board to run experiments in which participants come into our lab and pray. The board is there to look out for our participants’ well-being, which is an important and necessary job. There are some standard issues which they look out for: are we informing participants of the requirements of the experiment; is it clear to them that they can quit at any time without penalty; are there any risks; are participants aware of those risks; etc. We are lucky enough in my department to have a reasonable and smart review board which functions very well. However, because the board is staffed by humans, and because humans are generally reasonable but also imperfect, inconsistent, and unpredictable, the decisions of the review boards are generally reasonable but can also be imperfect, inconsistent, and unpredictable. Some studies which seem like high risk to us fly through the board without issue, whereas other studies which seem innocuous to us get a great deal of consideration. Those inconsistencies are to be expected in any such process.
The first time we submitted a study in which participants would be asked to pray we got a lot of feedback and concern from the Board. Sure, asking people to pray seems innocuous to me in comparison with studies that expose people to disturbing images, ask them to recall stressful events, remind them of their insecurity about their romantic relationships, and threaten their self-esteem—but the process is variable, remember? Thus, one over-cautious review from the Board didn’t cause me pause. However, when a pattern emerged, the scientist in me took note. And a pattern has emerged. A significant portion of reviewers have had substantial concerns about asking participants to pray in the lab. One reviewer asked us to limit our sample to only religious people. He (or she-I don’t know) thought it might be offensive to non-religious people to be asked to pray. So we limited our sample to only religious people. Then another reviewer was concerned that even with our limits, some participants might be traumatized by the prayer manipulation. He or she felt that it would be unethical to ask people who don’t pray to pray in the lab and suggested that we warn people before the study even starts that we will be asking them to pray. That way if someone finds this so offensive, he or she can quit before the experiment starts and thus never have to be in the position of being asked to pray.
So we made the changes. All participants are not only screened, but warned. To be sure, I am grateful to have a review board looking over my studies to make sure that we don’t inadvertently include something that offends people. I don’t want my work to harm others; my goal is to have work that is helpful and informative. However it did seem odd, bizarre, and a bit off-base to us that prayer was being described as potentially dangerous and offensive. I know that many people don’t pray or believe in God, but we ask people to do all kinds of odd things in Psychology Labs as a means of understanding the human condition. Why is prayer seen as so dangerous? I get that it would be weird to pray when one doesn’t believe in God, but why harmful? If someone asked me to pretend to talk to a magic duck in an experiment, I would find it odd, but I could do it and it wouldn’t be offensive. Why would people without belief be offended by praying for an experiment? Wouldn’t it be just like my talking to a magic duck—odd but certainly not offensive?
Although I have never prayed to a magic duck (or been asked to), I have been in situations in which people around me were praying (and asking me to join in) in a manner in which I was not totally familiar and comfortable. For example, when put in a position in which others want me to join in a prayer to Jesus, who is not a part of my religion, I must admit I feel uncomfortable. My discomfort comes from the fact that in our predominantly Christian society, not having Jesus as a part of my faith sets me apart, marks me as different, constitutes an identity. Most Americans of faith are Christians and many of them believed that the path to God is only through Jesus. So I know that for many people, my faith not including Jesus makes my faith wrong. Honestly, in many ways it would be easier to conform to the common view and include Jesus in my faith. I actually am a big believer in many of Jesus’s teachings and have a great admiration for Christianity. If I included Jesus in my prayers, I would be a part of the majority and not feel different, raise my children in difference, and always feel under the shadow of possible discrimination and persecution. But altering my faith for safety and ease would feel wrong—it would be an abandonment of my ancestors who lost their lives for our faith. And because of that, praying to Jesus would feel wrong to me because it would involve a small abandonment of what I believe and of those who came before me. The history of my people is full of examples of Jews holding onto their faith in the face of enormous pressure. Praying to Jesus, even if it was “pretend” prayer in a laboratory—perhaps especially if it was a “pretend” prayer—would feel like a small but acute betrayal of all those people who gave their lives rather than betray our faith. Maybe that doesn’t make sense to people who aren’t Jewish, but it feels very real to me.
In that light, the plight of the atheist in my lab makes more sense to me. Perhaps for some atheists, maybe even most atheists, praying to God in my lab would be like my example of pretending to talk to a magic duck—easy, surreal, and meaningless. But for others, maybe being an atheist in a religious country is itself a strong belief, a belief that sets them apart, marks them as different, and is an identity. And not just any identity, but one that is marginalized by some such that maintaining it feels like an act of bravery. If so, then praying for those atheists would not just be a lark, but a betrayal of what they really believe. Perhaps there is a bit of struggle for them in maintaining their identity and it is wrong to ask them to let go of that for a few minutes in my lab, for the sake of science or anything else. Perhaps they should be grateful to the review board for holding me back a bit. Perhaps I should be grateful as well. And maybe I don’t have to wait until all my data is in to learn about faith. Maybe I am already learning.