George Walford: Nothing Sacred

Francis Galton was one of those estimable, highly intelligent but slightly flat-footed investigators who flourished during the Victorian era; one of his enterprises was a statistical inquiry into the efficacy of prayer, the results appearing in the issue of the Fortnightly Review for 1 August 1872.

“God Save the Queen!” may be more a command than a supplication, but the churches pray weekly for the welfare of the royal family, and when Galton wrote a good deal of private enterprise was directed to the same end. If prayer does produce the results intended, then the royals should live longer than ordinary people but in fact, from 1748 to 1873, with deaths by violence or accident excluded, members of royal families died a little medicos, aristocrats, gentry, people in trade or commerce, navy or army¬†earlier than clergy, lawyers, officers, writers, scientists or artists.

Perhaps this is not a fair test, since prayers as public as many of those for the royal family may be lacking in sincerity. This will hardly apply to prayers for the welfare of the newborn, and Galton compared the number of stillbirths suffered by the devout with those among the upper classes generally. He found that those announced in the Record, a clerical newspaper, bore exactly the same proportion to the number of deaths recorded as those in the Times.

As a clincher he turned, in the best tradition of those Thatcherite Victorian values, to business, to the practice of the insurance companies when selling annuities. Knowing that if the insured were to exceed the average length of life they would stand to lose money, the companies made careful enquiries, but none of them asked whether the applicants or their families made a practice of prayer, and not one of them found it worthwhile to correct this omission. [1]

[1] Based on a report in Medawar P. 1984 Pluto’s Republic Oxford & NY: OUP.

from Ideological Commentary 42, November 1989.