My wife and (then) two-week-old son were settled in the taxi–meter already running–for the ride to the Budapest airport, the bags were stuffed in the trunk, and we were all set to fly to the States for grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins to see our first-born after a year of living in Hungary. All set, except my passport was nowhere to be found. My job required a lot of travel, so I used my passport all the time, but of course now as we were about to fly half-way around the world it wasn’t in any of the usual places. I frantically checked and re-checked my desk drawers, briefcase and travel bags, but as time ticked by and we were getting dangerously close to missing our flight, it didn’t turn up. So, I did what I had been taught to do in these sorts of situations since childhood: I prayed for help. After a fervent but fast prayer, I got up from my knees, walked directly to my closet, opened it up, reached inside the pocket of one of several pairs of slacks hanging there, and pulled out my passport, locked up our apartment, and went down to the taxi and we were on our way.
Did my prayer work? I’m convinced it did. But a skeptic might say there’s no way I can know that, because I don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t prayed, but just, say, paused to collect my thoughts. That’s a good point. And of course there are all the times I may have prayed for some outcome that didn’t come to pass, but of course in a blog like this I only report on the successes (a form of publication bias).
How could I convince the skeptic that prayer works? Like a good empirical economist, I could carry out a randomized controlled trial of prayer, taking Alma’s advice literally, applying the scientific method as Tim wrote about. It could go something like this: each time I have some dilemma on which I would ordinarily seek divine help, I instead flip a coin, and pray only if it lands heads. I carefully record how it all turned out, and after enough of these I look and see if outcomes were on average different when I prayed.
Would this work? (that’s not a rhetorical question–I’m really curious what people think about this) My hunch is that it wouldn’t. The reason is it’s not prayer that I believe is important, but rather sincere, faithful prayer (see Moroni 10:4). If I decide to pray on the basis of a coin flip, it seems by definition neither sincere nor faithful. Not only that, it smacks of tempting God, which Jesus taught us not to do.
So if we can’t run a randomized experiment to test if prayer works, how can we know if it does? Only one way: in the words of Spencer W. Kimball, do it. To have personal access to the Creator of the universe is a mind-boggling gift, but even more mind-boggling is the conviction sincere prayer can bring that this same Creator actually knows you and loves you and cares about you enough to whisper to you where you left your passport.