About intercessory prayer:
The scientific study of miracles.
In 1748 the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume, first published his
"lemon test" concerning miracles. It goes like this:
"No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony
be of such a kind that its falsehood would be even more miraculous than the
fact which it endeavors to establish."
Hume concludes his point by saying:
"When anyone tells me, that he saw a dead man restored to life, I
immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable, that this
person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he
relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the
other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my
decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his
testimony would be more miraculous, than the event which he relates; then,
and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion." 1
By carrying out research into the effects of "intercessory prayer" medical
researchers are, in effect, attempting to study the existence of miracles,
defined as an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human
Let me emphatically state at the outset, that I do not criticize anyone for
praying for themselves or anyone else if they choose to. Nor do I deny that
there may be benefits to some individuals that stem from prayer. These
activities do, apparently, stimulate subtle mechanisms of psychology and
physiology which, when understood more fully, may add to the established
benefits of medication and surgery, as they obviously do in psychiatric
illnesses. Along with placebo effects, the alleged benefits of prayer may be the
result of feelings of well-being, optimism and confidence, that result from
praying and similar practices like meditation or relaxation. I agree, all of
this may exist, and could, perhaps should, be a subject of legitimate scientific
But the interaction of psychology and physiology is not the subject of my
commentary. My comments are addressed only to what most people mean when they
say, "I’ll pray for you." The meaning that implies a request for intercession
from a "higher power." What this reference to prayer means, is that the wishes
of the supplicants will be heard by some agent and if the agent is convinced to
act, the course of events will be changed for the better, in accordance with the
prayer. Thus, the meaning of "intercessory prayer" which this commentary
attempts to address: the study of the existence of miracles, which implies the
study of the existence of God.
The issue is about prayer to a deity or his representativebeings that do not
exist within the known physical universe, a qualification acknowledged even by
educated religious believers, which should include medical researchers who
engage in the scientific investigation of natural phenomena. What I am trying to
make clear is that those who believe in God and the power of intercessory
prayer, are speaking of concepts that are not material and therefore not part of
the physical world. Yet they want to connect these phantasms with the
scientifically demonstrated forces and structures of the physical world. . . .
and moreover, to have these influences measured in physical experiments.
Many of these studies claim to have demonstrated the effectiveness of
intercessory prayer. 5 Of
course, many do not, and one meta-analysis of fourteen such studies concluded,
"There is no scientifically discernable effect for Intercessory Prayer
(IP) as assessed in controlled studies. Given that the IP literature lacks a
theoretical or theological base and has failed to produce significant
findings in controlled trials, we recommend that further resources not be
allocated to this line of research." 6
I hasten to point out, that some studies indicate that there may also be
certain disadvantages that accrue from similar psychological and physiological
mechanisms. In a most notable example, in the April issue of the American
Heart Journal one of the study's findings was that "a significantly higher
number of the patients who knew that they were being prayed for — 59 percent —
suffered complications, compared with 51 percent of those who were uncertain."
One of the investigators, Dr. W. Bethea, said it is possible, "that being aware
of the strangers' prayers also may have caused some of the patients a kind of
performance anxiety. . . . It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so
sick they had to call in their prayer team?" 7
So not only do some "scientists" seem to believe that intercessory prayer can be
helpful, some are also concerned that it could be harmful. This is suspicious,
to say the least, because it should be apparent that, most of these "results,"
both positive and negative as well as neutral, are explainable either as
psychosomatic effects, as above, or even more likely, as statistical artifacts.
But more importantly, if the concept of intercessory prayer has any meaning
whatsoever, in the metaphysical sense, would that mean that the deity was not
only ignoring the request, but in some instances, punishing the supplicant as
Whatever the competing explanations may be, a major reason for the
indeterminacy, is that the dependent variables which are chosen in all of these
studies, by their very nature, were not unambiguous enough to produce an
unequivocal outcome. There is and always has been in these studies, the
likelihood that the null hypothesis, or alternative hypotheses, prevail.
In order to carry out a confirmatory experiment -- one that would leave no
possibility of an alternative explanation --the investigator would have to
produce evidence of an effect that could only be explainable by a force unknown
to science: the intervention of a deity or its agent. There are outcomes that
could eliminate doubt about experimental artifacts and they would have to
involve dependent variables that could not occur except by divine intervention.
Investigators would have to come up with a dependent variable that could
withstand the lemon test, one that would yield clear-cut results. There are such
For example, one very simple experiment, the results of which would leave little
or no doubt about the effectiveness of intercessory prayer, could involve the
regeneration of an amputated limb. 8
All that would be required is an adequate sample of amputees as subjects (who
undoubtedly would love to regain their lost limbs) and a sizeable number of
believers who will earnestly pray over them who (given the current American
obsession with religion) should not be hard to locate. The investigators could
employ as many universities and people as possible, and all the willing
believers in the country if necessary, to pray every day for a year that at
least one amputee would have a limb regrown, and then, at the end of that year,
examine all the thousands of amputees for signs of regenerating limbs.
Any amputee who wants to be included in the experimental group would be examined
beforehand by a panel of physicians to ascertain that he or she is indeed an
amputee. DNA samples on the subjects would be taken before and after the study
to ascertain that the amputee identified at the beginning would indeed be the
person who was examined a year later. There would be no limit on the sample
size. No need for randomization, t-tests, analyses of variance, factor analyses,
significance levels or confidence intervals. The subjects would present
themselves at the end of the year and be examined to see if a single missing
limb had been restored. Any priest, minister, rabbi or lay person would be
permitted to recommend subjects for the experiment, and any could observe the
examination for the regenerated limbs. There should be no limitation on the
number of amputees, people who pray for them, and observers to keep everything
on the up and up. When a single limb has thus been observed to have been
regenerated, then we will have seen unequivocal evidence for the power of
Perhaps this study could be even carried out at Duke University Medical
Center in Durham, NC, under the aegis of the study going on there, known as
the MANTRA II (Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic TRAinings) Project. "Noetic"
interventions like prayer and music imagery and touch studies called (MIT)
therapies are defined as "an intangible healing influence brought about without
the use of a drug, device or surgical procedure," according to the researchers.
The word noetic generally has to do with intellectual matters, which under the
circumstances seem to be the dubious use of a perfectly good English word. They
have already published the results of the phase I feasibility-pilot, known as
the MANTRA I. 9,10
Prominent in the field, Duke University has a long history of interest in arcane
practices, going back to the work of J. B. Rhine as early as 1927. Rhine was
interested in mediums, the afterlife, telepathy and clairvoyance and as the
originator of the terms "extra sensory perception" (ESP) and "psychokinesis" (PK),
he provided "legitimacy" and material for prestidigitators, psychics and
entertainers like Uri Geller (of spoon-bending fame), while maintaining that he
was advancing a new field of science he called "parapsychology." Incidentally,
he had been accused of fraudulently juggling his data by, among others
(including his wife) Martin Gardner. 11
His legacy has undoubtedly influenced the studies on intercessory payer now
known as the MANTRA I and MANTRA II, which were carried out at Duke. 12
Intercessory prayer is a request to God to change his or her mind about the
already established plan for the universe and make it go another way. Of course,
this implies that a perfect deity’s plans, which would (by definition) have to
be perfect, should now be altered at the urging of an imperfect being. This is
logical reason enough to refute the possibility of intercessory prayer’s effect,
since perfect beings cannot be outguessed by fallible mortals. Nevertheless,
believers in the power of gods, saints and angels claim that these agents are
able to alter or suspend the well-established laws of the universe at their
whim, . . . or at the request of the believer, through prayer.
If we were speaking of magic or sorcery, or any belief systems outside of
Western Judeo-Christian tradition, most investigators would agree that these
ideas (of intercessory prayer’s effectiveness) are ridiculous and consist of
superstition at best. In only one area, the field of Judeo-Christian theology,
are the very same phantasms accorded the status of legitimate entity, and
amenable to scientific scrutiny. Why? Why are Judeo-Christian ideas --
superstitions by any accepted taxonomy of logic -- allowed to maintain a grip
on, not only political, social and economic values in our society, but on
scientific ones as well. How can we explain the avalanche of articles that are
now apparently available about this current preoccupation of American medicine
with the miraculous. 13,14,15,16
In March of 2005, my article "Searching in the Darkness: About Prayer and
Medical Cures" was published as a commentary in Medscape General Medicine.
17 I was motivated to write
it after seeing that there were fifteen articles listed in Medscape on the
subject of "intercessory prayer," and at that time, I found it hard to believe
that so many researchers would spend their time on such an endeavor. Many of
these studies were aimed at investigating the possibility that prayer could
influence the outcome of a variety of medical conditions ranging from
infertility to cardiac surgery. This occurred shortly after the exposure of "the
Columbia University prayer fiasco" 18
and I believed that, in its aftermath, we would begin to see a diminution of
interest in this allegedly scientific area of research.
Last week, I put the word "prayer" into Medscape’s search engine, and to my
astonishment, it provided me with a list of 136 articles. In disbelief, I went
to Google, and entered the search words, "intercessory", "prayer", "cure" and
"medicine", and it yielded 206,000 "hits."
I believe that this focus on "intercessory prayer" is but one manifestation of a
larger movement, begun when the National Institutes for Health (NIH)
formed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM).
The goal of this organization is ostensibly an attempt to bring more diverse
tools into the healing professions’ armamentarium, and it provides the funding
for many of the studies that deal with alternative
The NCCAM at the National Institutes of Health released a survey in May of 2004
that showed that, "36 percent of U.S. adults use some form of alternative
remedies." They defined complementary and alternative medicine as "a group of
diverse medical and health care systems, practices and products that are not
currently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Those practices
include acupuncture, meditation, the use of herbal supplements and prayer. When
prayer used specifically for health reasons is included in the definition of
complementary and alternative medicine, the number of U.S. adults using
complementary and alternative medicine rises to 62 percent." 20
It is disheartening to see the number of supposedly educated and intelligent
professionals who are involved in the futile process of attempting to
investigate that which cannot be part of the physical universe, and hence, not
open to scientific examination. As I quoted him in my earlier article on this
same subject, Desiderius Erasmus described these people as "looking in utter
darkness for that which has no existence whatsoever." 21 Scientists have no business
wasting their time and money (and certainly not the taxpayers’ money where it is
NCCAM funded research) investigating "that which has no existence whatsoever."
In fact, in my opinion, those who do, should be labeled "pseudo scientists."
22, 23, 24
Let’s re-examine, for a moment, the notion of supplication to a deity, or one of
his agents, in which a request is made for a suspension of the known laws of
nature. We don’t know them all, but they do exist, and science is their
investigating agent. For any scientist to engage in a study that attempts to
understand how something that does not exist in the material world (God or his
agents), employs a mechanism that does not exist in the material world
(miraculous cure, amelioration of symptoms, or redirection of bullets) is simply
working in the wrong field. He or she does not belong in science - or one of
its main applied areas -- medicine. Theology would be an acceptable alternative.
Have the tentacles of politico-religious, anti-scientific zealotry ensnared
medical researchers? It seems to me, that political, financial and ideological
forces are behind the rise in so-called alternative medicine, and intercessory
prayer is riding the wave. For a description of this issue and articles that
deal with the many complications surrounding an investment in alternative
medicine and its implications for traditional western medicine and all of
science see the website of Dr. Clark Bartram, a pediatrician with a sense of
Because of the situation I have described, in my opinion, it represents a
serious degeneration of the meaning of the terms, "medical research," and/or
"scientific research." As a result, accepted standards of scientific research
are falling by the wayside.
Here’s the incredible irony of all of the previous "experiments" involving
intercessory prayer. Every one of them has been seeking evidence of a most
trivial kind (that could even be mistaken for a placebo effect, or a statistical
artifact) from an alleged power of the most unimaginable magnitude. Power which
presumably was the source of the incredible creation of hundreds of billions of
galaxies, which are composed of hundreds of trillions of stars, dotted with
singularities and "black holes" possessing immense gravity and crushing
annihilatory densities; all of which are dancing with exquisite accuracy in
spectacular elliptical orbits over a span of fourteen billion light years; power
that has designed astonishingly complex molecular systems, composed of amazingly
intricate atomic foundations; all operating according to the mechanics of
gravity and other little-understood forces which bind atomic nuclei together
while swarms of electrons maintain their balance around their stupendously dense
centers in microscopic imitation of the grander galaxies; power which
orchestrated the rules of light propagation and spectrums of colors all arranged
in fantastically diverse, visible, as well as invisible, wavelengths and
Meanwhile, they seek evidence of this breathtaking immensity by searching for a
measurable difference between the arterial blood flow of a few cardiovascular
patients who were prayed for and a few other unfortunates who were not . . . a
difference in blood pressure between one group of hypertensives who were prayed
for and another who were not. It is as if one were asking a composer with a
quadrillion times the musical capacity and comprehension of a Ludwig Von
Beethoven to demonstrate his musicianship by writing out the notes to "Mary had
a Little Lamb."
How petty and insulting to whatever deity these investigators claim to be
investigating, when the most they can ask of that which has created biological
systems from algae to sequoia giganticus and amoebas to human brains "Let me
see if you can fertilize this ovum in a Petri dish with one of your hands tied
behind your back."
I would like to see a real test put before the immovable object; the
irresistible force; the ultimate omniscience, the omnipotent, omnipresent
supremacy of all that the believers in a supernatural being endow that Master
Architect with. The creator of the entire universe should have no problem
recreating a limb.
The Tangled Web:
For reasons that go way beyond the scope of this commentary, expressions like
"seek and ye shall find" (Matthew 7:7) and the common scientific admonition
"believing is seeing" both of which express what may be called "observer
effects" or the "experimenter effect," there is an interesting conglomeration of
characters, locales, organizations, traditions, etc., which cluster around
studies into the arcane. For example, is it an accident that Dr. Krucoff is the
principal investigator of the Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Trainings
(MANTRA) Study Project at Duke University Medical Center; and is also on the
board of directors of The Rhine Research Center, which was established by J. B.
Rhine the preeminent investigator into the paranormal?
In addition to the political complexity surrounding NCCAM, including why it has
funded over a half-billion dollars worth of research into Reiki, herbal
remedies, chiropractic and "distance healing," it would take an inordinate
amount of time to investigate the backgrounds of all the private funding
organizations behind the prayer studies and behind "faith-based initiatives."
Some of the funds for studies mentioned in this commentary were provided by
grants from the RAMA Foundation, Bakken Family Foundation, George Family
Foundation, FACT Foundation, Duke University Heart Center, Duke Clinical
Research Institute, Columbia University Medical Center, Geisinger Medical
Center, Scripps Clinic, and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and the Templeton
Foundation. Perhaps someone would be willing to study the relationship and
motivations of granting agencies that support these studies.
This would be a gigantic investigation in and of itself, and beyond the scope of
this commentary, in which I intended to focus exclusively on intercessory
prayer. However, it is important to note that some of the "Complementary and
Alternative" procedures, e. g., acupuncture and herbal supplements are based
upon something physical, a substance and/or a process, and as strange as many of
these procedures may seem to be, they are still within the testable universe of
physical science. Intercessory Prayer is another matter entirely.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Selby L. From David Hume, "An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,"
Bigge, ed. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1902 pp. 114-16.
Lundberg G.D., "Evidence-based medicine or faith-based medicine?,"
Medscape General Medicine. 2004;6(4). Available at:
Arias, Donya C., "Alternative Medicines' Popularity Prompts Concern: Use
of Alternative and Complementary Remedies on the Rise," Medscape General
Medicine. 2004; 8(2). Available at:
Masters, K, Spielmans, G. and Goodson S. Annals of Behavioral Medicine
2006, Vol. 32, No. 1, Pages 21-26
Benson, J. Dusek, J. Sherwood, P. Lam, C. Bethea, W. Carpenter, S.
Levitsky, P. Hill, D. Clem, Jr., M. Jain, "Study of the Therapeutic Effects
of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter
randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory
prayer," American Heart Journal, April 2006, Volume 151, Issue 4, Pages
Krucoff, M, Crater, S, Gallup, D Blankenship, J Cuffe, M Guarneri, M
Krieger, R Kshettry, V, Morris, K Oz, M., "Music, imagery, touch, and prayer
as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation,"
The Lancet, Volume 366, Issue 9481, Pages 211-217.
Gardner, Martin. "On the Wild Side," Prometheus Books. Amherst, New
See www.rhine.org for a history of Rhine’s work.
Arias, Donya C., "Alternative Medicines' Popularity Prompts Concern: Use
of Alternative and Complementary Remedies on the Rise," Medscape General
Medicine. 2004; 8(2). Available at:
Glickman-Simon, Richard, "Introduction and Complementary and Alternative
Medicine: An Evidence-Based Approach," Medscape General Medicine. 2004;6(4).
Désirée Lie, "Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine
(CAM): What Should Physicians Know?" Medscape General Medicine. 2004;6(4).
Solomon, Hana R., "Complementary and Alternative Medicine: Advances in
Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology," Medscape General Medicine. 2004;6(4).
Gaudia, Gil, "Searching in the Darkness: About Prayer and Medical
Cures," Medscape General Medicine. Commentaries. March 2, 2005
Cha KY, Wirth DP, Lobo RA., "Does prayer influence the success of in
vitro fertilization-embryo transfer?" J Reprod Med. 2001;46:781-787.
Department of Health and Human Services; National Institutes of Health;
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.