Prayer and Healing: The Verdict Is in and the Results Are Null

By Shermer, Michael | Skeptic (Altadena, CA), Fall 2005 | Go to article overview

Prayer and Healing: The Verdict Is in and the Results Are Null


Shermer, Michael, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)


IN A LONG-AWAITED comprehensive scientific study on the effects of intercessory prayer on the health and recovery of 1,802 patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery in six different hospitals, prayers offered by strangers had no effect. In fact, contrary to common belief, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications such as abnormal heart rhythms, possibly the result of anxiety caused by learning that they were being prayed for and thus their condition was more serious than anticipated.

The study, which cost $2.4 million (most of which came from the John Templeton Foundation), was begun almost a decade ago and was directed by Harvard University Medical School cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson and published in The American Heart Journal. It was by far the most rigorous and comprehensive study on the effects of intercessory prayer on the health and recovery of patients ever conducted. In addition to the numerous methodological flaws in the previous research corrected for in the Benson study, Dr. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia and author of the forthcoming book, Blind Faith: The Unholy Alliance of Religion and Medicine, explained: "The problem with studying religion scientifically is that you do violence to the phenomenon by reducing it to basic elements that can be quantified, and that makes for bad science and bad religion."

The 1,802 patients were divided into three groups, two of which were prayed for by members of three congregations: St. Paul's Monastery in St. Paul, MN; the Community of Teresian Carmelites in Worcester, MA; and Silent Unity, a Missouri prayer ministry near Kansas City, MO. The prayers were allowed to pray in their own manner, but they were instructed to include the following phrase in their prayers: "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications." Prayers began the night before the surgery and continued daily for two weeks after. Half the prayer-recipient patients were told that they were being prayed for while the other half were told that they might or might not receive prayers. The researchers monitored the patients for 30 days after the operations.

Results showed no statistically significant differences between the prayed-for and nonprayed-for groups. Although the following findings were not statistically significant, 59% of patients who knew that they were being prayed for suffered complications, compared with 51% of those who were uncertain whether they were being prayed for or not; and 18% in the uninformed prayer group suffered major complications such as heart attack or stroke, compared with 13% in the group that received no prayers.

This study is particularly significant because Herbert Benson has long been sympathetic to the possibility that intercessory prayer can positively influence the health of patients. His team's rigorous methodologies overcame the numerous flaws that called into question previously published studies. The most commonly cited study in support of the connection between prayer and healing is Randolph C. Byrd's "Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronory Care Unit Population," Southern Medical Journal 81 (1998): 826-829. The two best studies on the methodological problems with prayer and healing are the following: Richard Sloan, E. Bagiella, and T. Powell. 1999. "Religion, Spirituality, and Medicine," The Lancet. Feb. 20, Vol. 353: 664-667; and: John T. Chibnall, Joseph M. Jeral, Michael Cerullo. 2001. "Experiments on Distant Intercessory Prayer." Archives of Internal Medicine, Nov. 26, Vol. 161: 2529-2536. www.archinternmed.com

The most significant flaws in all such studies include the following:

1. …

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