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Prayer as a supplement to, or as a
replacement for, medical treatment

Effectiveness of personal prayers
used in addition to medical treatment

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Controversy about the use of prayer:

There is a growing belief in the U.S.. Canada and other countries that a strong faith and prayer can help individuals recover from illness and disease. "Countless church prayer groups and individuals engage in prayer healing on a regular or as-needed basis. Some [groups] also have services in which the laying-on of hands is practiced." 1 Prayer is often a devout person's natural first reaction when learning that they, or a family member or friend is ill or has been in an accident. However, the use of prayer to help cure a disease is not without controversy. In the UK, for example:

bulletIn mid-2000, the Church of England issued a report on the ministry of healing, called "A Time to Heal. According to The BBC News, the report suggests that "where physical healing does not take place, people have a need to try an emotional, psychological or spiritual approach....But it warns that there is nothing predictable about faith healing - except the assurance of God's love and care."
bulletThe Rt. Rev. John Perry, Bishop of Chelmsford, UK, said that the evidence that faith healing works was "overwhelming...Prayer is integral to the whole process of healing....The church has always sought to work hand in hand with those in the medical profession." He said that faith healing did not substitute for traditional medicine, he said, but might complement it.
bulletDennis Cobell, a nurse with 25 years experience and president of the UK Secular Society, suggested that the same positive effect could be achieved without prayer, by "the warmth of human comfort". 2 People who are being prayed over are generally aware of the support that they are receiving. They might well feel a sense of comfort and well being, which might in turn speed their recovery.

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R. P. Sloan, et al: Study of the effect of religion on health:

The Lancet is a prestigious medical journal published in London, England. In their issue of 1999-FEB-20, a group of American researchers reported on their review of many international studies which had attempted to link religion with patients' medical condition and recovery from disease. These involved distant healing prayer, as well as studies which correlated healing with the patient's belief, religious affiliation, religiosity, etc. 3

FreeThought To-day for 1999-MAY reported that the team evaluated "many studies assessing the effects of church attendance, prayer, comfort from religion, and health differences as a function of denominational affiliations or orthodoxy of belief. They conclude that such studies fail to control for factors such as behavioral and genetic differences, age, sex, education, health status, etc. One study of recovery rates of elderly women who had surgery for broken hips associated religiosity with better ambulation, but failed to control for the all-important variable of the age of the patients. A widely reported study cited a positive association between church attendance and health, but the researcher himself later admitted the finding was probably due to failure to control for functional capacity. In other words, people in poorer health are less likely to go to church." 4

The researchers wrote: "Linking religious activities and better health outcomes can be harmful to patients, who already must confront age-old folk wisdom that illness is due to their own moral failure. Within any individual religion, are the more devout adherents 'better' people, more deserving of health than others? If evidence showed health advantages of some religious denominations over others, should physicians be guided by this evidence to counsel conversion? Attempts to link religious and spiritual activities to health are reminiscent of the now discredited research suggesting that different ethnic groups show differing levels of moral probity, intelligence, or other measures of social worth. Since all human beings, devout or profane, ultimately will succumb to illness, we wish to avoid the additional burden of guilt for moral failure to those whose physical health fails before our own."

The authors conclude: "Even in the best studies, the evidence of an association between religion, spirituality, and health is weak and inconsistent."

It is reasonable to expect that frequent church attendees will have longer life expectancy. Devout elderly people who are in good health will probably tend to have greater energy and mobility, will attend church more frequently, and will live longer. A similar group of elderly in poor health will probably attend church less, and will live shorter lives. However, the groups' life expectancy is probably a function of their initial health, not church attendance.

Church attendance may well enjoy better than average mental health for two reasons:

bulletPeople who go to church have a ready-made support group to draw upon for assistance.
bulletThey are also more likely to believe in Heaven after death. Non-believers are more likely to be skeptical about any type of afterlife. Believing that life on earth is like being temporarily in the ante-room of Heaven may well contribute more hope than believing that death involves the complete termination of one's consciousness.

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Larry Dossey: Evaluation of past studies:

Larry Dossey has studied the effect of prayer on healing. In his book, he reports on "an enormous body of evidence: over one hundred experiments exhibiting the criteria of good science, many conducted under stringent laboratory conditions, over half of which showed that prayer brings about significant changes in a variety of living beings." 5 Dossey describes a survey by a physician, Daniel J. Benor, of experiments attempting to find positive effects of prayer on enzymes, cells, yeasts, bacteria, plants, animals, and human beings. That survey found 131 publish studied of which 56 showed "statistically significant results at a probability level of <0.01 or better." 6 A probability level of 0.01 means that one out of every 100 replicated experiments would be expected to produce the result, merely due to random chance. However, none of the studies produced a p-value of 0.01% -- 100 times more stringent -- which is the standard generally required in scientific research. 7

While it is true that many impressive scientific studies have been published, there may well be many more studies which produced zero or negative results of which we are unaware. Skeptic Victor Stenger wrote: "We have no idea how many experiments may have been done that gave no positive effects and consequently were never published (the 'filedrawer effect')." 7

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Conclusions:

Some past studies have shown that prayer promotes healing. However, none have reached the level of certainty required to produce confidence that a real effect is being observed. Many of the studies have been defective in their organization, so that researcher or subject bias affected the results. A large meta-study has shown that prayer may neither aid nor inhibit healing.

It is unlikely that any study into the effectiveness of prayer will fully convince everyone. If a properly designed study were conducted which proved beyond reasonable doubt that prayer works, the results would profound effect on both religion and medicine. It would force scientists and physicians to review their basic understanding of the universe.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Numbers of Healers in The United States of America," Wholistic Healing Research, at: http://www.wholistichealingresearch.com
  2. "Church leaders encourage faith healing," BBC News, 2000-JUN-8, at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  3. R. P. Sloan, E. Bagiella & T. Powell, "Religion, spirituality, and medicine," The Lancet, 1999-FEB-20.
  4. "Lancet Essay Rips Faith-Health Link," FreeThought Today, 1999-MAY, at:
     http://www.ffrf.org/
  5. Larry Dossey, "Healing Words by physician: The power of prayer and the practice of medicine," Harper SanFrancisco, (1997). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store
  6. Daniel J. Benor, "Survey of spiritual healing research," Complementary Medical Research 4, no. 1 (1990). Pages 9 to 33.
  7. Victor Stenger, "Reality check: The science of prayer," Skeptical Briefs newsletter, 2001-DEC, at: http://www.csicop.org/sb/2001-12/reality-check.html

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Copyright 1996 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-JAN-14
Latest update: 2007-JUL-02
Author: B.A. Robinson

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