Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Research on the Healing Power of Distant Intercessory Prayer: Disconnect between Science and Faith

Academic journal article Journal of Psychology and Theology

Research on the Healing Power of Distant Intercessory Prayer: Disconnect between Science and Faith

Article excerpt

Interest in non-medical treatments for illness has grown exponentially in recent years as evidenced by the expansion of health psychology and establishment of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. One particular area of research that has generated attention and even enthusiasm from the media and Christian groups alike is distant intercessory prayer (IP) for healing. Several double blind, randomized, controlled studies have examined whether a statistically significant effect can be found when prayed for groups are compared with controls. The central premise of this article is these studies lack any theological or rational theoretical foundation and consequently produce non-interpretable findings. It is further argued that the experimental methods of science are based on important assumptions that render them ill-equipped to study divine intervention. As a result IP studies are seen as a distraction from more appropriate work that should be done in the areas of religion and health.

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Since the foundation of the Christian church, believers have prayed for the healing of the sick. Indeed the Bible documents many instances of divine healing (e.g., Matthew 8:1-13; 15:29-31; John 2:1-13, etc., New American Standard Version) and indicates that the prayers of the righteous may accomplish much (James 5:16). This is not unique to Christianity. Practitioners of many other major religions of the world also offer up prayer for those who are sick. Though these prayers are sometimes said in the presence of the ill person, or during enactment of religious rituals such as laying on of hands or anointing with oil, they are also offered when the sick individual is not present, i.e., they are spoken from a distance. Further, sometimes the prayers are not for a particular person as in global prayers for healing of the sick and afflicted. This presumes that at least some of the individuals being prayed for are unaware of the prayers offered on their behalf. Historically, academic study of prayer has been largely the purview of seminaries and other institutions steeped in a religious heritage. These studies were based on literary investigation of sacred texts and exegesis of important historical passages subjected to hermeneutical analysis. Recently, however, prayer has become the focus of scientific investigators at secular institutions who utilize the methods of science, namely randomized controlled clinical trials and similar experimental designs, to study questions such as whether prayer can be shown to have an impact on morbidity and mortality.

The increased scientific interest in studying prayer and health is one aspect of a contemporary trend embracing the study of health interventions and conceptualizations that are not overtly biological, chemical, or surgical (mechanical) in nature. This trend is perhaps best exemplified by the recent establishment of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) within the U.S. National Institutes of Health. NCCAM reports that in 2002, 62% of Americans used some form of alternative medicine. Of the 10 most often utilized alternative medicine therapies, prayer for self (43%) and prayer for others (24.4%) were the two most commonly named therapies and being in a prayer group (9.6%) was fifth (Barnes, Powell-Griner, McFann, & Nahin, 2002). Clearly prayer is viewed by many Americans as having relevance to their own and others' health.

Health psychology. Similarly, the explosive growth over the last 15-20 years of health psychology as a professional area of specialization provides evidence that interest in behavioral and emotional variables as they influence and are influenced by health is strong. The remarkable development of health psychology has been due to many factors, too numerous to detail here, but a few examples will suffice. First, it became widely recognized that certain behaviors (e.g., smoking, overeating) are associated with negative health outcomes whereas others (e. …

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