85% of physicians polled
believed religion and spirituality,
including prayer, have a positive influence
on health and recovery.
By: Robert Shmerling,
M.D., Harvard Health Publications
It's an appealing and comforting thought.
Friends, family and even total strangers pray for you
when you're seriously ill. When you recover, you
may be grateful for those prayers. But did they
contribute to your recovery? How would you know?
Is it a question even worth asking?
Does prayer work?
Praying on another person's behalf to
improve their health is called "Intercessory Prayer."
And, believe it or not, researchers have attempted to
scientifically study its effects on health and recovery
from disease. The results are intriguing:
A 1988 study
found that when patients in the hospital with
heart disease had prayers said for them, they had
less breathing trouble and required less antibiotic
therapy than otherwise similar patients for whom
prayers were not said.
A study published in 1998
suggested that prayer improved the health of AIDS
patients. Although those receiving prayers had no
change in an important measure of immune function
over the six months of the study, they did have
fewer serious illnesses, fewer doctor visits and
better mood than those who were not prayed for.
In 1999, patients in a
Missouri intensive care unit recovered faster after
prayers were said for them compared with those who
did not have prayers said. This study was unique due
to its size—nearly 1,000 patients—and neither the
patients nor their doctors knew which patients had
prayers said for them.
A 2001 study published in the
Journal of Reproductive Medicine supported
intercessory prayer for women who were infertile. In
that study, women for whom others prayed became
pregnant twice as often as those who were not the
recipients of prayer.
Skeptics criticize these studies,
suggesting that the study designs were flawed or that
something other than prayer could explain the findings.
Several of the best studies of
intercessory prayer in recent years have come to the
conclusion that it doesn't work. For example:
A 2005 study from researchers
at Duke University showed no benefit from distant
prayers for patients undergoing high-risk heart
In 2006, perhaps the largest
study of intercessory prayer to date showed no
benefit of prayer for 1,802 heart bypass surgery
patients. The complication rate was actually a bit
higher for those who knew others were praying for
Does the answer matter?
The value of prayer is not something that
scientific study can easily settle. Besides, the results
are unlikely to change what people do.
For advocates of prayer, the belief
that it will work is enough for both the person
praying and the person who is ill. And
would or should a negative study stop believers from
praying for others' health? This is
about faith, not scientific proof.
Skeptics looking for scientific proof
would probably not be convinced that prayer works
even if studies found that prayer increased
survival, speeded recovery or fended off disease.
After all, such results would require a distinctly
unscientific explanation—unmeasureable energy,
supernatural phenomena or a religious explanation.
It's very difficult to maintain a
good Control Group in studies of prayer. If
assigned to the "no-prayer" group, a sick
person, his family and religious strangers all over
the world might still pray for him. If prayer
truly is beneficial, such "uncontrolled" prayer
might invalidate the study's findings.
It's possible that a Study of
Prayer will find that it's harmful as the 2006
study of bypass surgery patients did. If
future research confirms this finding, would doctors
urge their patients, families, friends and religious
groups to stop praying for the sick?
What if a patient died despite the
prayers of family, friends and strangers?
Would those who prayed blame themselves for not
praying hard enough, long enough or well enough?
Prayer could be useless, but do
It's natural for friends and family to
hope for the best when a person is sick. To the extent
that praying is an active expression of that hope, is it
worth proving if it's worthwhile or not?
Doctors tend to do all they can to help
patients and families maintain hope while also being
realistic about the situation. Why should scientists go
out of their way to scientifically analyze an activity
that is nearly universal, defies logic or known
scientific principle, and may discredit a source of
Large, expensive studies to prove or
disprove prayer seem to me a bit like trying to make a
case that the chicken came before the egg. It's hard to
see how the outcome of such a study could be useful, and
it's unlikely to settle anything.
My guess is that when a person is ill, it
may be comforting to know that others are praying for
him or her. Similarly, people praying may feel that they
are at least doing what they can to help.
A recent survey of more than 1,100
U.S. physicians found that 85% believed
religion and spirituality, including prayer, had a
positive influence on health and recovery. But,
only 6% of these doctors believed it had any
effect on the "hard" medical endpoints, such as speed of
recovery or death. About three-fourths of
these doctors thought religion and spirituality helped
people cope and maintain a positive outlook. As
you might expect, more Religious Doctors endorsed
the value of religious resources, such as
prayer, more readily than non-religious doctors.
Is the value of Intercessory Prayer
a myth? Maybe it is. I doubt there will ever
be consensus on how to answer this question. But I
don't think that's such a problem.
Compared with many other unproven
remedies, there is little cost or risk associated
with prayer. And at the least, it provides
some measure of comfort to both the people praying and
the people they are praying for.
I believe that the decision to pray or
not pray should be decided by individuals and
those praying for them, not researchers.
If I controlled the world's research funding, I'd spend
it on something other than assessing the value of
Intercessory Prayer. This will never be easily
settled. And I'm not sure it should be.
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