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“Scientific” Studies on Prayer’s Effectiveness

Several weeks ago we viewed and analyzed the video, “Prayer is Superstition” from the people at Why Won’t God Heal  During that discussion, the comment was made that the video assumed that prayer had absolutely no effect on healing, when in fact, several studies have shown that prayer is effective in these situations.

I had spent some time researching these studies, and for that reason, mentioned during our discussion that these studies were somewhat controversial because many had come to very different conclusions.  Often, this could be attributed to the methodology employed.  For example, if the patient knew they were being prayed for, it would be more difficult to determine whether it was the patient’s knowledge that was the key factor, or whether it was the prayer itself.

It turns out that we weren’t the only ones exploring the subject.  This month, Christianity Today focused on the issue in the article, “What Do Prayer Studies Prove?”  The article highlights the growing interest in the scientific study of spiritual matters.  Of course, as Christians, we celebrate when a study is conducted that affirms our beliefs.  For example, a 1998 study conducted by Randolph Byrd at the coronary care unit of San Francisco General Hospital found that a group of patients who were prayed for by a group of committed Christians significantly outscored the control group, which was not being prayed for.

But what is our response when these studies go the other way?  Three years ago, a very significant study came to the opposite conclusion.  Predictably, this study did not receive much attention in Christian circles.  The difficulty is that this was likely the most comprehensive and carefully monitored study of its kind.  It was sponsored by the John Templeton Foundation, a faith-friendly organization that funds exploration into the intersection between religion and science.  The study spanned 10 years, was funded by a $2.4 million grant and involved 1,802 patients, the largest group ever studied.  The subjects were three groups of patients who were admitted to the hospital for coronary bypass graft surgery.  Two groups were prayed for by committed Christians, while the third group received no prayer.  Only one of the groups of patients knew that they were receiving prayer.

In the end, the group that knew it was being prayed for did worse than the other two groups in terms of post-operative complications.  And among the two groups that did not know they were receiving prayer, the one that was unknowingly prayed for did worse that the one that received no prayer.  Not exactly the results that the underwriters of the study wanted to see.

Critics of the study, including the authors of the study, noted that there may have been some sort of performance pressure on those that knew they were receiving prayer from strangers.  But what about the two groups that did not know that they were receiving prayer?  Some Christians have attempted to point out that simply praying for strangers is not the model of intercessory prayer that is found in the Bible, and that prayers are more effective when we know and care for the persons that we are praying for.  But that would seem to limit effective prayer to only those that we knew and that we could lay hands upon.  It also ignores commands to pray for a whole host of people we do not know.

So what are we to make of prayer studies?  Some have disputed that we can ever bring any of our scientific methods to spirituality, but that response seems loudest only when those methods come to a conclusion we don’t like.   The authors of the article had a slightly different take:

 “The real scandal of the study is not that the prayed-for group did worse, but that the not-prayed-for group received just as much, if not more, of God’s blessings.  . . .  True to his character, God appears inclined to heal and bless as many as possible.  . . .  Did God answer the prayers of the study’s official prayer teams?  Yes.  But more than that, he answered the prayers of the patients, of their friends and relatives, and perhaps even of those who may not have known they were praying.”


How typical of us to think that only those who were in the “official prayer team” were praying for the patient.  Perhaps we can never study the effect of prayer because we won’t be able to stop people everywhere from praying long enough to isolate who is – and who is not – being prayed for.

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