Friday, March 31, 2006

This Doesn't Have a Prayer

A fair amount is made about the “power of prayer”, and how it can aid in recovery from illness. Not being a particularly religious person, I’ve always been pretty skeptical of this claim. I do think there is good reason to believe that positive thinking can be helpful in situations like this, but a recent study indicates that my intuition on this subject was correct: prayer doesn’t do much of anything for recovering patients, healing-wise. Of course, there might still be good reasons for people to pray because of psychological benefits to both the sick individual and those close to that person. But the evidence from this study show no correlation between prayer and recovery, and actually a slightly higher rate of complications among people who knew they were being prayed for. A great quote comes from Jon Mandle at Crooked Timber, in response to a theologian/doctor who says the findings are “not surprising”, since science is "not meant to study the supernatural”:

No, it’s designed to study the natural. Like, for example, whether prayer can help recovery from bypass surgery.

UPDATE: Predictably, the federal government has been spending millions of tax dollars over the past few years studying the potential for distant prayer in healing the sick.


At 1:55 PM, Blogger Christeen said...

This study disturbed me. How it's design ever got approved is beyond me. How can you quantify the power of prayer in terms of a specific outcome? I mean, that would be to assume to know what the intended outcomes are supposed to be.

The religious fanatic side of me could argue "well, my dad's cousin recovered fully from a fatal prognosis of brain cancer only after my aunt contacted a north american-wide nun prayer network in Montreal"; and furthermore, the bible does say "do not test your God" which could be used as an argument for why the study failed (conveniently)., but then I'd be guilty of being one of those people who takes any little quote and argues it for my purpose. And I don't want to be one of those people.

BUT, I do know that they've studied monks and have proven that they have permanent anti-depressant neurochemical changes due to years of intense daily prayer and mediation.

Which is kinda cool.

Maybe it all proves that prayer helps the prayer in state of mind and spirit, regardless of outcome. Maybe that's the point? Just as any other spiritual ritual (i.e. taking that lucky charm to the exam) can ease our minds.

At 4:49 PM, Blogger Scott McC said...

Well, I assume that when people are praying for a sick person, they are praying for that person to get better (making that the intended outcome). And the study found no positive correlation between those two things. The monk study is cool (I'd never heard of that)...although I wonder if we can say that the changes are due to prayer and meditation, and not to some other factor (i.e. diet). And of course, it's very different because those are changes caused within the SAME person rather than changes in other people. As for anecdotal evidence of the power of prayer, well, that's why it's called anectodal evidence and we do scientific studies. I agree with you on your final point, however - prayer does not need to cause a physical improvement in the sick person to be worthwhile. The benefits to someone knowing they are being prayed for must be very comforting to a religious person, and as well as helping the state of mind of those close to that individual.


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