Prayer as Therapy

By Cohen, Cynthia B.; Wheeler, Sondra E. et al. | The Hastings Center Report, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Prayer as Therapy


Cohen, Cynthia B., Wheeler, Sondra E., Scott, David A., Edwards, Barbara Springer, Lusk, Patricia, The Hastings Center Report


A Challenge to Both Religious Belief and Professional Ethics

Suddenly, praying for the sick has become a topic of compelling interest. It has created a splash in newspapers, magazines, and medical journals as if it were some new and heretofore unthought of possibility. Of course, praying for the sick is one of the oldest religious practices in the world, witnessed to in the documents and prayer books of many traditions. But it is not the ecclesial practice of prayer that is the focus of this new wave of interest. It is prayer understood as a kind of treatment modality, one more in the arsenal of weapons available to medicine to fight against disease.

From the standpoint of modern scientific medicine, no treatment should be employed without evidence of its effectiveness and safety. Therefore, it is not surprising that some scientists are attempting to test the efficacy of prayer as a form of therapy. In a recent study, physicians at St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri, found that patients admitted to a coronary care unit who were prayed for without their knowledge for four weeks suffered about 10 percent fewer complications than those who had no one assigned to pray for them.[1] At Harvard University, Herbert Benson, in an experiment said to include more than 500 patients, hopes to show that prayer can heal cardiac disease.[2] (The study is being "kept secret" to avoid the possibility that others will pray for these patients.) Meanwhile, investigators at Duke University are employing prayer for seriously ill patients who are undergoing cardiac catheterization, while others at Temple University are evaluating whether the prayers of volunteers can speed the development of babies born prematurely.[3]

Some commentators argue on the basis of those studies of prayer with positive results that health care professionals ought to engage in discussions of prayer with their patients and encourage them in its practice.[4] Others venture even further, maintaining that such studies indicate that physicians and nurses should initiate prayers with their patients at the bedside.[5] This contemporary way of linking prayer and medicine, however, is grounded in a basic misunderstanding of the nature and role of prayer in the Judeo-Christian and other theistic traditions. One purpose of this article is to display that prayer is not a strategy for controlling the outcome of events, not an intervention whose effectiveness can be tested by how many petitions are granted.

This is not to declare that, according to theists, all studies of the import of prayer and religious belief for the health of patients are valueless. Nor is it to maintain that health care professionals must ignore the prayer practices and spiritual concerns of their patients. Religious and spiritual beliefs are significant forces that shape the decisions many patients make about medical treatment and help them to cope with illness and disability. This truth provides good reason for clinical caregivers to take their patients' religious faith and prayer practices into account as they jointly develop treatment plans.

Yet a scenario in which health care professionals delve into the religious beliefs of their patients is fraught with ethical concerns. Are such inquiries consonant with professional ethics? Should health care professionals go beyond merely inviting patients to discuss their religious concerns and assist them in addressing these? How should physicians and nurses respond to patients who request them to pray at the bedside? Should they initiate such prayer themselves? While it is important for health care professionals to care for patients as whole persons, their professional ethic imposes certain constraints on how they should go about doing this. Our second purpose here is to explore ways in which health care professionals can respond helpfully and appropriately to patients' religious concerns.

An even larger issue is at stake. …

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