April 23, 2006

Prayer Studies Do Not Have a Prayer

The big problem with prayer studies is theological. God is more likely to heal people if enough strangers gather to ask? God can be fooled into participating in - or will be willing to participate in - a study in which some patients are deprived of that power deliberately?

The power to heal the sick and answer prayer is profound in most religious traditions. But sometimes the answer to a prayer could very well be - as it most profoundly in the Christian tradition is for Christ when he asks God to allow him to forego suffering at the cross - that suffering (even the suffering of Job) is the will of God. Life on earth remember is for the Judeo-Christian tradition and indeed in most major religious traditions a mortal coil, a matter of ashes to ashes.

So prayer studies are a preposterous, misguided and ultimately perhaps blasphemous activity, and from a scientific point of view they have more than been shown to be a waste of money and effort. And this is the subject of our Caplan & McGee column this week in the Times-Union for Hearst News Service and NYT News Service:

Despite the fervent hopes of a few faithful, the idea of prescribing prayer to cure diseases and disabilities just doesn't have a, um, prayer. Study after study shows that prayer flunks the test of hard scientific evidence when it comes to measurable effects. But should this really be the test to which prayer is put?

Harvard researchers and the John Templeton Foundation, a philanthropy devoted to bridging the gap between science and religion, recently poured nine years and $2.4 million into the most comprehensive study to date of the power of prayer for the sick. They wanted to see whether prayer by strangers, sometimes called "intercessory prayer," would increase the chances that people got better or had fewer problems as they healed.

A few weeks ago they announced their findings. Prayer by strangers had no effect on minimizing side effects for 1,802 heart bypass patients. This study confirms what five others have shown -- there is no empirical evidence that praying for the sick works.

Some are still unconverted. They contend that this study, just like the earlier ones, was not done correctly. Perhaps the people praying didn't get the prayer right. Or they did not pray with sufficient zeal, or pray long enough. Or maybe patients were scared at the thought of strangers praying for them, which may very well explain why many heart patients who were told they were the subjects of prayer did more poorly than those who were unaware.

The problem isn't prayer itself.

Prayer can be the most generous, open, solemn and thoughtful form of human expression. Faith that a prayer may enlist God's help to heal someone is about as universal a religious experience as there is. When medicine fails and science reaches its end, a physician would have to be pretty callous to scorn the faith of patients and their families.

But that is the point. Faith is a matter of -- faith. Religions recognize the frailty, mortality and finitude of human life and, when a person is dying, the need to accept our finitude.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of prayer treatment is the eerie clarity that its advocates have about the idea that death is a failure. What if the Harvard study had shown that more patients who had been the subject of intercessory prayer were slower to heal or had more health problems? Would that show that God does not exist? That all prayer is pointless? On the other hand, what would intercessory prayer do for medicine if it actually worked? Would we have to warn those with no family and few friends that they aren't going to do as well because sadly they are prayer deficient? Would HMOs and insurance companies have to cover the costs for professional prayers?


View blog reactions

| More