Does Prayer Work? Do Prayer Studies Work?

On March 31, 2006, the New York Times published a front page article under the headline, “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer.” The article reported the results of a multiyear study designed to determine whether prayers offered by strangers influenced the recovery of people undergoing heart surgery—they did not.

Published in the prominent American Heart Journal, this was the latest in a line of medical research studies published over the past forty years that sought the answer to this hotly debated question.

But do these findings actually lead to a final conclusion that intercessory prayer does not help people recover from heart surgery? Can such a question be answered through a double-blind clinical trial? Is prayer “measured” in these studies in ways that even make sense?

The health care providers I interviewed for my book about religion and spirituality in hospitals asked me some of these questions; wanting to know what I thought about intercessory prayer studies as a scholar of religion. Knowing nothing about them I began to read, recently publishing in the Journal of Religion what I believe to be the first social history of medical studies of intercessory prayer.

Between 1965 and 2006, about 75 researchers working in small teams published eighteen research articles in English language medical literature reporting on intercessory prayer studies. The Cochrane Review (an organization that compiles medical studies on specific topics to offer clear recommendations) analyzed the literature—first in the 1990s, and several times since. While initially they suggested further study of intercessory prayer, TCR recently called for an end to such studies.

Intercessory prayer studies first gained broad media attention in the United States in 1988 when Dr. Robert Byrd published an article, “Positive Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer in a Coronary Care Unit Population,” in the Southern Medical Journal.

The study included 393 people admitted to the cardiac care unit at San Francisco General Hospital, half of whom were prayed for by born-again Christians who were active in local churches. Each intercessor was given the assigned patients’ names, diagnoses, and general conditions, and asked to pray for “rapid recovery” and for “prevention of complications and death.” After analyzing the data gathered, Byrd concluded that “intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God has a beneficial therapeutic effect in patients admitted to the CCU [cardiac care unit].”

Patients who were prayed for by born-again Christians they had never met, he argued, had better health outcomes than those who were not the subjects of prayer. A later study, “A Randomized Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit,” led by William H. Harris and published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999, claimed to confirm these positive findings.

On the other hand, many studies reported negative effects of intercessory prayer, finding (like Benson and colleagues in 2006) that prayer did not improve the health of those prayed for. As time went on, researchers and people who wrote letters to the medical journals’ editors in response to these studies also began to wrestle with bigger questions. They asked how prayer should be offered in such studies, what the right “dosage” is, how intercessors should be trained, and how to handle non-Christian intercessors.

They raised questions about whether the people not being prayed for by intercessors in the studies were prayed for by family and friends, and if that were a problem. Letter writers asked about methods of data analysis and whether these studies, if they are science, should be reviewed by institutional review panels that grant permission to do research with living beings. Some also asked about the conceptions of religion and of prayer that underlie these studies, raising questions about deep theological and existential questions about why people become ill, why some recover and others do not, and the differences between religious and scientific approaches to such questions.

I do not know why physicians and scientists conducted these studies. Some may have been motivated by their personal religious beliefs, while others may have just been curious. As a group, these studies suggest that prayer does not heal people; at least not according to double-blind clinical trials. The bigger question, though, is whether such trials are even the right tool for answering this question. Probably not.

Perhaps more interesting than their ability to determine, once and for all, “whether prayer works,” these studies may be seen as cultural artifacts illustrating how researchers’ understandings of prayer were influenced by their contexts. From single Protestant-based prayers in the 1960s, to some more recent attempts to combine Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and other prayers, researchers’ approaches to prayer reflect changing American religious demographics, evolving ideas about the relationship between religion and medical science, and the development of the clinical trial as a central biomedical research tool in this period.

And, even as they critique these studies, few researchers or commentators even asked why prayer should be studied rather than other practices or rituals. Prayer has a long history in the treatment of the sick, of course, and it appears, from the perspectives of researchers and medical doctors, to be fairly standard and uniform across traditions—though not to experts in religion. For physicians familiar with double-blind clinical trials, prayer appears to be an ideal religious practice because it is imagined to be relatively straightforward: no particular equipment, leaders, physical space, or training are required.

There are also no financial costs for the prayer or the intercessors, and the distance between the intercessors and people being prayed for is not a problem. From a scientific perspective, prayer is an ideal “intervention” because it is imagined to be pan-religious (and therefore inclusive), and has been constructed instrumentally in a way that fits the practical scientific needs of research teams.

Do such instrumental conceptions accurately reflect the lived experiences of people of faith? Not really, no. Until an agreed upon standard for prayer is used in studies, then, it’s difficult to answer that question on the minds of so many Times readers. What are the results of the proverbial “Long-Awaited Medical Study [that] Questions the Power of Prayer”?

For more: Cadge, Wendy. 2009. “Saying Your Prayers, Constructing Your Religions: Medical Studies of Intercessory Prayer.” Journal of Religion 89: 299-327. Email us at [email protected] for a copy.