Monday, January 14, 2008

Does prayer heal?

Many of us have been asked to offer prayers for friends or loved ones in order to help them heal from injury or recover from illness. I know I've said some prayers of that nature over the years. A recent AlterNet article explores the matter of healing prayer.

The article looks at several studies that focused on the effects of medical prayer. The results of the studies are a mixed bag. Much of the information gained from the studies can be subject to interpretation:

A type of statistical merger -- called a "meta-analysis" -- of 15 distant-prayer studies, led by researchers at Syracuse University and published in 2006-07, was unequivocal in concluding that "there is no scientifically discernible effect for distant intercessory prayer on health," regardless of how often or how long patients were prayed for.

In contrast, Dr. David R. Hodge, an assistant professor of social work at Arizona State University, believes he has discerned positive effects of distant prayer on the health of patients. His own 2007 meta-analysis covered 17 papers, most of them in common with those covered in the Syracuse study. He did detect small effects, ones that just scraped past the customarily accepted limit at which they can be considered statistically significant.

That, combined with the fact that six of the 17 papers reported at least some positive effects, led Hodge to suggest that more open-minded medical practitioners might consider using prayer.

Although only small effects have been detected so far (no Bible-caliber tales of patients regaining their sight or rising from the dead in these papers), they're nevertheless important, says Hodge. Whether it's an omnipotent Supreme Being or some as-yet unidentified natural force at work, he maintains, the results can be blurred by experimental noise. As he puts it, "If prayer does produce positive outcomes, it is entirely plausible that the effects, as measured by quantitative methods, would be small when assessed in aggregate."

Whether or not you believe in a Supreme Being, one can concede that there may be a certain psychological advantage that patients have in believing that there is a God that watches over them and is concerned about their health and welfare, and knowing that friends and family are enlisting the power of God to speed the patient's healing process.

One study, though, suggests that prayer may actually have a negative effect:

What is probably the most widely discussed prayer publication to date -- the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) -- also found that prayer may be hazardous to your health. It was conducted by researchers at nine medical institutions, funded by the religious John Templeton Foundation of West Conshohocken, Pa., and published in 2006. The study's results, based on 1,800 patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery, could hardly have been what the researchers had expected.

Among patients who didn't know whether or not they were receiving prayer, the prayed-for and non-prayed-for groups fared the same, so "blind" prayer had no effect. But a third group of patients who were told that they were certain to receive prayer had significantly worse medical outcomes.

Outside observers attributed the negative effects of prayer in the study to phenomena like emotional stress or performance anxiety and suggested that if prayer indeed behaves like a drug that provides no benefits but has potentially harmful side effects, it should not be administered. But the STEP researchers themselves brushed off the one significant finding of their study, writing, "We have no clear explanation for the observed excess of complications in patients who were certain that intercessors would pray for them ... the excess may be a chance finding."

Dr. Bruce Flamm, a critic of belief in healing prayer, lists some reasons why he thinks that reliance on prayer may be detrimental to the health of patients and the medical profession:

It can cause patients to shun effective medical care.

It can lead doctors to diminish their medical efforts.

It can steer insurers to faith-based interventions.

It can promote guilt by suggesting that God is somehow punishing a patient with illness or injury and demands penance as the price of recovery.

It is often linked intimately to prayers for Christian salvation to which a patient might object if informed about it.

My main concern has more to do with the way some see the relationship between science and religion. Too many people rely on religion to do the work of science in explaining physical phenomena, and become disappointed and/or angry at science because it cannot answer the spiritual concerns most of us have. There is plenty of room for science and religion to coexist. If their functions are properly understood, science and religion should compliment one another, rather than be at odds with each other.

Nearly five years ago, my wife almost died from a post-surgical infection she picked up in the hospital and other related complications. She will swear to you that were it not for her faith in God and the prayers of family, friends, and church members, she would not be here today. "I know that prayer works", she said when I showed her the article, "because I'm living proof!" How can I argue with that?