Can prayer heal people?

The Results Are In?

The Amish -- like this couple who attended the funeral of a man whose house they rebuilt after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina -- are often portrayed as models of piety in America. Is science capable of proving or disproving the effectiveness of their religious beliefs?
The Amish -- like this couple who attended the funeral of a man whose house they rebuilt after it was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina -- are often portrayed as models of piety in America. Is science capable of proving or disproving the effectiveness of their religious beliefs?
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Proving the existence of God through scientific inquiry can make people a bit touchy. To those who believe in the existence of God and the healing power of prayer, science simply isn't capable of undertaking such a venture. In other words, God can't be rooted out via the scientific method. "God is beyond the reach of science," Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence of New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center told the Washington Post. "It's absurd to think you could use it to examine God's play."

Some scientists are irked that science is lending any weight to the existence of God by investigating prayer at all. Others say if science were to undertake an effort to find God, it should be on a much more massive scale. Looking for evidence of God in the recovery of cardiac patients, wrote Stanford University's Dr. Gil Gaudia, "is as if one were asking a composer with a quadrillion times the musical capacity and comprehension of Ludwig van Beethoven to demonstrate his musicianship by writing out the notes to 'Three Blind Mice'" [source: Medscape].

Still, interest in studying the power of prayer hasn't waned much since Byrd published his study in 1988. A survey conducted in 2000 evaluated scores of studies on the power of prayer and other types of "distant healing." The researchers uncovered 23 studies that featured high-quality methodologies -- the steps used in experiments to measure results and control for external influences. Of these studies, 57 percent found significant results supporting distant prayer's positive impact on health.

Researchers have found that there are a great many challenges to investigating what effects, if any, prayer has on healing. Those seriously invested in studying prayer have a hard time finding the best way for science to examine something so unscientific.To begin with, prayer, after all, is not like a new drug being tested on a human patient. It can't be measured in micrograms or cubic centimeters. So how can researchers determine how much prayer one person receives?

In a similar vein, those conducting studies of the effects of intercessory prayer are well aware that their study populations (the people being studied) aren't scientifically pure. Groups that are not meant to receive prayer in a study may be prayed for by people outside of the experiment. And those who are meant to receive prayer may also receive additional prayer from others outside of the study. Patients, too, may pray for themselves. Each of these factors effectively destroys the reliability of the data. This is akin to an experiment testing the potential for a fertilizer to grow grass where the researcher can't say with absolute certainty that no one else has come along afterward and added more fertilizer.

Despite -- or possibly because of -- the obstacles, the debate over the medical value of intercessory prayer continues. As long as people believe in prayer, science will probably continue to investigate its effects. But until methodologies can be refined or until irrefutable evidence for or against prayer's power is uncovered, belief in prayer as a factor in healing will continue to be a matter of faith.

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  • Astin, John A. Ph.D., et al. "The efficacy of 'distant healing': A systematic review of randomized trials." Annals of Internal Medicine. June 6, 2000.
  • Bernardi, Luciano, et al. "Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study." British Medical Journal. December 22, 2001.
  • Byrd, Randolph C. MD. "Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population." Southern Medical Journal. July 1988.
  • Dusek, Jeffrey A. Ph.D. "Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) Study design and research methods."
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  • "Many cancer patients turn to complimentary therapies for healing." University of Rochester. June 7, 2004.
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