Operationalizing God


god with protractor

Say I wanted to conduct a study. I wanted to determine if a group of people in one situation or condition had more, less or equal chance of having anxiety as another group of individuals in a different situation or condition. Most of you can probably imagine how this would be set up; two groups, one exposed to one condition, the other exposed to a different scenario. In each group, I would count how many people in that group suffered from anxiety during the condition. In the end, I would evaluate (perhaps using sophisticated means) if there was a significant difference in the proportion of anxious people between the groups. Perhaps I might even conclude something, should I find such a difference.

All sounds rather scientific, yes? Well, it is. It’s an experiment. Folks publish academic articles of this nature all the time. But, and here’s the kicker, how did we know when one of the participants in either group was anxious? What does anxiety look like? Is it graded on a continuum, and if so, how is it graded? Is it just a dichotomy dividing anxious/not anxious people, and if so, how do qualify a person for either group?

What I am referring to is called an operational definition; a definition of the construct being studied that states how it will be measured, usually indicating the means of data collection and what, if any, criteria are being used. So, one study might measure anxiety through a self-reported questionnaire, another might measure blood pressure, and another still might look for observable and comprehensively defined behaviors. So, in any kind of experimental analysis, the means by which something is measured is related to the way in which it was defined.

So, now tell me, how do you operationally define god? In an effort to be representative, if unfortunately not comprehensive, god is described as a being who created the universe and governs the actions of its inhabitants. Many believe god has a direct and personal influence in their lives, and that they can access god through faith and prayer. God is omnipotent, incorporeal, and omnipresent.

Of these pro-offered descriptions, the only way I can see the standard depiction of god as being measurable (operationalized) would be by examining the effects of god in the physical world.

For a study involving anxiety, the scientific community would first need to agree what anxiety is, what it should look like if one were to observe it. I use anxiety as an example, because to many it seems like an abstraction because it is categorized (and experienced) as an emotion. However, it is observable, and there exists diagnostic criteria for determining when anxiety is present.

So, if one were to study god’s effect on a given dependent condition, we would first have to agree what god is and what it should look like if one were to observe it. To be truly scientific, , we would also need a control group – a group receiving no treatment, so in this case, a group receiving no god. Many have attempted this, by way of measuring the effects of prayer on health related matters (O’Laire, 1997; Harris, et al, 1999; Benson, et al, 2006)

In one such study, O’Laire (1997) measured if individuals (randomly assigned to differing experimental conditions) would show improvement in measures of self-esteem, anxiety and depression (both objective and subjective measures) after 12 weeks of prayer treatment. Ultimately, subjects being prayed for showed significant improvement compared to those not having the prayer treatment. These measures were also strongly related, however, to the subjects belief in the power of prayer, and whether or not they believed they were in the prayer group and not the control group receiving no prayer.

In another study (Harris, et al, 1999) coronary care patients, without their awareness, were being prayed for remotely by individuals who knew only their first names. A control group received the same medical care, but no prayer. This study found that the patients being prayed for fared better health wise, and even suggested that prayer is an effective supplement to medical care. However, a similar study in 2006 (Benson, et al, 2006) found that patients in recovery from bypass surgery had a greater chance of complications, including death, in the group receiving remote prayer.

Could we conclude, from the Harris study, that prayer is effective and should be part of a person’s medical care? Or, if we follow the findings from Benson, that prayer actually increases the likelihood of post operative complications and death? Could we conclude from the O’Laire (1997) study that prayer can boost self-esteem and minimize depression symptoms?

Honestly, we cannot conclude any of these things. All of these studies, suffer from the third variable problem; when there is a third (or perhaps several others) variables influencing the results you are observing that are not part of the treatment under study.

In the O’Laire study, while the effects of prayer appeared significant, there is no way to parse apart the potential placebo effects; belief in the efficacy of a treatment directly affecting the treated condition. The placebo effect has been a very observable (and stably so) phenomenon. The 2009 recipient for the Ignoble award in medicine even demonstrated that a placebo that was believed to be more expensive than another (and the very same) placebo, was thus perceived as more effective by participants in the study.

In the studies involving hospitalized patients, you simply cannot control for all of the factors contributing to an illness, or potential complications in recovery. That one study found patients being prayed for fairing better, and another finding that they were in greater danger of dying, shows only that there are many variables affecting one’s health, possibly too many to isolate the effects of prayer.

As a final point to this, being a non-believer myself with many friends who believe in all sorts of different gods (hellfire and damnation ones all the way to your quantum, Chopra-esque ones), I am regularly told by my friends that they are praying for me [as they know I certainly am not]. Considering that people believe that they can influence a higher power through prayer, and thus pray for anyone they believe is in need of such divine intervention, be they heathens or fatally ill, how can you account for randomly generated prayers by loved ones in such studies? Say someone you loved was in the hospital for bypass surgery, and you believe in god and the healing effects of prayer, would you care [or even know] that your loved one is in the control group that is not to receive such prayer? More so, if you were a deity, whose prayer would you answer, the randomly directed prayers by participants in a study or the prayers of a child for his/her sick grandparent?

To measure the direct effects of a construct, we have to control (hold constant) any other possible influencing or explanatory factors, in order to isolate the effects of the variable under analysis. If we are measuring god through prayer, we are unable to obtain such clear cut data.

Mind you, we are also assuming that prayer is an effective means of harnessing the direct effects of god on the physical world, which makes for a not so parsimonious hypothesis to begin with. If we are attempting to demonstrate the existence or non-existence of god by studying the efficacy of prayer, we have already presupposed that prayer is a way to solicit god’s effects.

To bring us back to the anxiety analogy, say I wanted to induce anxiety in order to measure it’s effect on a specific dependent condition, so I expose a randomly assigned treatment group to loud heavy metal music and a control group to a quiet room without any visual or auditory stimuli. Do you see what I have done? I have assumed that heavy metal music would induce anxiety, and an empty, quiet room would not. Any results I get on my dependent measure are contaminated by potential flaws in my assumptions.

So, to conclude, I argue that it might not be possible, given the current popular definitions of god, to operationalize god as a measurable construct. This holds for measurable both the existence or non existence of such a force in nature.


Armstrong, K. (1993) A History of God : The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. First Ballantine Books: New York

Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, Lam P, Bethea CF, Carpenter W, Levitsky S, Hill PC, Clem DW Jr, Jain MK, Drumel D, Kopecky SL, Mueller PS, Marek D, Rollins S, Hibberd PL. (2006) Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal 151(4)

Harris, WS., Gowda, M., Kolb, J., Strychacz, C., Vacek, J., Jones, P., Forker, A., O’Keefe, J., McCallister, B.(1999) A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit. Archives of Internal Medicine 159, pp 2273-2278

Niemi, M. (2009) Placebo Effect: A Cure in the Mind. Scientific American Mind (February)

O’Laire, S. (1997) An experimental study of the effects of distant, intercessory prayer on self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Alternative therapies in health and medicine. 3(6) pp. 38-53


One Response to “Operationalizing God”

  1. Rochelle Says:

    1) Good point: “More so, if you were a deity, whose prayer would you answer, the randomly directed prayers by participants in a study or the prayers of a child for his/her sick grandparent?”

    2) Another good point: “given the current popular definitions of god.” Different cultures/ religions have created myriad, conflicting definitions of god. Did the authors of the study do what you did–offer some kind of definition of god–before developing their hypotheses? Did the studies’ participants define god in the same way that the studies’ authors did? One could define god in so many ways (e.g., that/those which created the universe but is/are indifferent to people’s affairs, that/those which created the universe and has/have limited involvement in people’s affairs, that/those which created the universe and has/have absolute power over people’s affairs, etc.), so I’m curious about the language/cultural aspect of these studies.

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