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The Power of Prayer

By: Paul Geraghty - Updated: 21 Jan 2013 | comments*Discuss
Many Of Us Pray For Sick Relatives But

For millennia, people have prayed to the heavens for help in fending off some calamity, often health problems afflicting a loved one. But, this being the scientific age, is there any proof that prayer can be helpful? In fact, this issue forms one of the most interesting interface points between the real world and the realm of the supernatural.

Unsurprisingly, most scientific research on the effects of prayer has been conducted in the United States, where religious beliefs tend to be more prevalent than in the rest of the developed world.

Science Looks at The Effects of Prayer

One study, published in 2001 by scientists working at Duke University in the United States, concluded that patients undergoing heart surgery experienced were almost 30% less likely to experience complications if someone was praying for them. Prayers were said around the world by groups belonging to a number of different religions. A range of “alternative” treatments, including image, touch and relaxation therapies, were also tried, but prayed proved to be the most effective. Some critics complained about the small sample size of only 150 patients, though. When the same researchers followed up years later with a larger patient population, they found prayer had no significant effects.

Another study, reported by Leibovici, even looked into the possibility of praying for someone retroactively! The prayers were said long after the patient had experienced the medical problem and undergone treatment. The outcome was already clear, but those doing the praying did not know it. Only the scientific researchers did. After all, the hypothesis went, if God is omnipotent, he should be able either to go back through time and change things or have correctly anticipated the future prayers in the first place, and responded to them before they had even been said! Amazingly, this study concluded that those who were prayed for did experience better health outcomes than those who were not! Their fevers were of shorter duration and they did not need to spend as long in hospital, for example. The rate of mortality, however, clearly the most important measure of a patient’s health, was not significantly different between the two groups.

One study looked at the results of exclusively Christian prayers on the health of 1800 patients recovering from heart surgery. No statistically significant difference was found. There was a difference, but it was not in the direction expected. The researchers found that patients who knew they were being prayed for were more likely to develop complications than those who did not!

Can Scientists Measure Prayer Properly?

Some of the defenders of prayer reject the results of these studies. They say that the experiments have not properly measured prayer’s potential. Why? Well, they complain that prayer is a personal thing, and for it to work the person praying should have some knowledge of, and emotional connection to, the person who is ill.

In most experiments, by contrast, praying is conducted on an almost industrial basis. Names of patients are farmed out to praying groups, members of which then recite pre-defined prayers by rote. Knowledge of the personal circumstances of the prayer targets is usually limited and sometimes non-existent.

There are also a vast number of religions in the world which usually have competing claims to absolute truth. Most scientific studies on the effects of prayer assume that one religion is as good as another, or even that different denominations within a religion are substantially identical. This may be true, but history shows that, in the past, people often fought violently to defend and assert these differences. Perhaps just sweeping them aside and assuming that all religions are equivalent, therefore, isn’t a very scientific thing to do.

Hypothetically, if one particular religion, or even branch of a religion, really was plugged into “absolute truth”, and did bring about real effects, the results could be buried in the statistics somewhere because of all the other “false” religions which had been lumped in with it.

Science and Prayer – The Temptations of Fraud

There was only one study which clearly demonstrated a strong positive effect of prayer on health outcomes. It was conducted, or at least so it was believed at the time, at Columbia University in 2001, and published in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine. The study demonstrated that the efficacy of In Vitro fertilisation treatment was more than doubled when those being treated were also prayed for. Media outlets quickly picked up on this sensational news and reported it widely. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a complete fabrication. Some of those behind the study are now doing prison time for fraud, while the others have departed the university. In fact, it’s not clear whether any real study ever took place.

The Power of Prayer – Conclusion

Opinions continue to differ not only on whether prayer has any effect on health outcomes, but whether such an effect is even measurable in principle. Regardless of what scientists say, however, there is no doubt that desperate people the world over will continue to hope for supernatural intervention. After all, they say, even if there’s nothing to it, what have they got to lose by trying?

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