<preform>Faith & Reason: An experiment in morphic fields, affirmations and the power of prayer</preform>

We have never known quite how prayer works. But when Christians ask God to effect change, they must take his right of veto into account
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The Independent Online

Readers of this article will be so impressed by it that they will lobby the editor to get me to write a regular column. How do I know this? Because I intend to write it down 15 times, and then it will come true. Readers of this article will be so impressed by it that they will lobby the editor to get me to write a regular column . . . This, by the way, is a proper scientific experiment, of a type particularly favoured by those who have realised that proof is no longer required by a scientific establishment familiar with chaos theory. The knack is to find an experiment that is undisprovable - one of those words that, despite the double negative, don't return to the original root. Note that I don't specify how many readers, nor any sort of time limit. The editor might choose to ignore them; and how often is regular? But time enough to explore all this in what should be a long series of columns.

Readers of this article will be so impressed by it that they will lobby the editor to get me to write a regular column. How do I know this? Because I intend to write it down 15 times, and then it will come true. Readers of this article will be so impressed by it that they will lobby the editor to get me to write a regular column . . . This, by the way, is a proper scientific experiment, of a type particularly favoured by those who have realised that proof is no longer required by a scientific establishment familiar with chaos theory. The knack is to find an experiment that is undisprovable - one of those words that, despite the double negative, don't return to the original root. Note that I don't specify how many readers, nor any sort of time limit. The editor might choose to ignore them; and how often is regular? But time enough to explore all this in what should be a long series of columns.

I was prompted to devise this experiment by two books I have just come across, not, I suspect, simply by chance. One was The Sense of Being Stared At by Rupert Sheldrake, a writer whose stock in trade is to take seriously those phenomena that usually only appear in Reader's Digest collections: unexplained dreams, premonitions of disaster, that sort of thing. Sheldrake is a biologist and concentrates on the evidence for extra-sensory abilities in animals and humans. A key part of his proof is the database of anecdotes he has built up, not the least part of which is Americans talking about their clever pets. The size of his database is often used in the book to lend credence to one or other of his theories, but this is not to be confused with firm evidence. Other enthusiasts hold large databases of UFO activity, for example. And adherents of the mainstream faiths are not above arguing the rightness of their case on the size of their following, as is currently happening in the Anglican Church over gays.

Sheldrake details experiments that show how many people can tell when they're being stared at. The results are sort of impressive (people were right 60 per cent of the time, when you'd expect 50 per cent), but I wanted to know what was happening when the subjects in the trials thought they were being stared at and weren't, and vice versa. It's like those tales of psychic premonitions that allow people to escape danger: nobody devises theories about the vastly greater number who drift into tragedy completely unaware.

The Sheldrake book gave me the idea of conducting experiments, but not the inclination to do so. That came from the other book, The Dilbert Future. Why am I suspicious of people who make it their life's work to prove a thesis, and yet believe without question any half-baked thoughts that a cartoonist happens to throw out? Those who have read The Dilbert Future will know that Scott Adams clears the jokes out of the last chapter and, instead, sits us down with a metaphorical coffee and tells us slowly and carefully about "affirmations": you decide on a goal, you visualise it, you write it down 15 times a day, and it happens. That's it. You don't have to believe it will work, just write it down. One of Adams's affirmations was to be the most successful cartoonist on the planet. In 1996 he had two books at the top of the New York Times best-seller lists.

Both Sheldrake and Adams grope towards a definition of the world in which we can have more influence than we generally think. The first talks about "morphic fields", the second about a "tiny change in electricity". Sheldrake has done more work, but I suppose I warm to Adams because his approach is nearer to the ignorant bafflement that matches such a wild hypothesis.

The problem with this column is that it is always easy to slip into a smug religious orthodoxy towards the end. I'm tempted to mention that Christians are old hands at this business, asking God to effect the changes in the world that they'd like. But we have never known quite how prayer worked. Now there's a better chance, with evidence to show that intercessory prayer has an effect. This is what I think of as old-fashioned evidence, using remote subjects praying for patients who do not know they are being prayed for, and researchers who are kept in the dark so much that they're developing bat-like characteristics. Prayer, though, is not a technique, but a relationship with the Creator. Those who pray are not using willpower to beam electrons at something, but asking something from someone who has a personality, and a right of veto. Believers have to take God's opinion into account, which is a good thing, just in case someone chooses to use his morphic field to steal my money or kill my grandmother.

With this in mind, I might have to stop writing my 15 sentences and, instead, ask if it's God's will that I do a regular column. But that doesn't stop you looking up the editor's e-mail address and carrying on the experiment without me.

Paul Handley is editor of the 'Church Times'

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