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Effectiveness of "distant healing" prayer:

Duke University 2005. Harvard
University study. Conclusions

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Duke University studies - MANTRA II study of 2005:

Duke University reported on their third double blind study into remote healing in The Lancet magazine -- the leading British medical journal -- for 2005-AUG.

The study involved 748 patients with heart problems. They were divided into four groups:

bullet One were assigned people to pray for them.

bullet One received MIT (music, imagery and touch) therapy.

bullet One received both distance prayer and MIT therapy.

bullet One received no additional therapy.

There was no significant difference among the four groups in terms of clinical outcomes.

Lead investigator. Dr. Mitchell Krucoff, said:

"We thrilled about this. It has been very startling to be hit with a media response and e-mails that so superficially misinterpret our findings."

Stacey Chase, writing for Science & Technology News stated:

"Although anonymous prayer was not shown to lessen serious complications, hospital readmissions, or death, Krucoff said the study provides the groundwork for future clinical trials."

In this study, the researchers arranged a "higher dose" of prayer by enrolling additional congregations.

Reactions:

bullet Some skeptics say that no plausible mechanism exists to explain remote healing. Dr. Larry Dossey, author of Reinventing Medicine, said:

"An explanatory theory is often a luxury in medicine that is late in arriving. Our knowledge of consciousness and its effects in the world are so appallingly primitive that we should encourage further research activity in the field of remote healing intentions."

bullet

Marilyn Schlitz, of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, an underwriter of the study., said: "

"Open-minded skepticism is essential, but we can’t let this topic die based on one study. So, does it not work, or have we not figured out the right questions?"

bullet

Editors of The Lancet commented:

"The contribution that hope and belief make to a personal understanding of illness cannot be dismissed so lightly. They are proper subjects for science, even while transcending its known bounds."

bullet Harold G. Koenig, co-director of Duke’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health, said that investigators should abandon the use of the word "prayer" in favor of a non-sacred, secular phrase like "testing whether a person can project his or her thoughts through space and time." 1

bullet The Office of Prayer Research (OPR) attempts to "advance scientific research on the healing effects of prayer and to serve as a conduit for the exchange of information..."  Their director, Bob Barth, said:

"An important part of OPR's role is to be the conscience to make sure premature conclusions aren't drawn from this frontier research. We have analyzed hundreds of prayer studies and can affirm there in no definitive study on prayer; there are only formative research enterprises. But just as it has in other fields of study, the science of prayer research will grow. Observation builds on observation. Studies build on studies. Each time a study like MANTRA II is released we learn as much about how to conduct this kind of research as we do from an analysis of the outcomes." 2

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Harvard University STEP study of 2005:

Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard University, is also conducting a study of distant healing. It is called "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer" [STEP]. Their goal was to find out if prayers by congregations who did not know heart bypass patients would reduce the complications of surgery.

David Myers, a social psychologist at Hope College in Holland, Mich., had predicted that this study would also fail to show any effect on patients’ clinical outcomes. He said: "My understanding of God and God’s relation to the world would be more challenged by positive than null results." 1

This was the largest studyof intercessory prayer to date; it involved 1,802 people, all of whom had gone through coronary bypass surgery at six different hospitals across the U.S. They were divided into three roughly equally-sized groups. One group received no prayers; another received prayers after having been told that they may or may not be prayed for; the third group were told that others would pray for them for 14 days starting on the night before their surgery. The study was financed by the John Templeton Foundation and the Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation.

William J. Crombie of the Harvard News Office wrote:

"In a clear setback for those who believe in the power of prayer, their prayers were not answered. Prayers offered by strangers did not reduce the medical complications of major heart surgery. Not only that, but patients who knew that others were praying for them fared worse than those who did not receive such spiritual support, or who did but were not aware of receiving it."

" 'We thought that the certainty of knowing about the prayers of outsiders would reduce complications that accompany bypass surgery,' notes Jeffrey Dusek, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School. 'But the results were paradoxical'. ..."

"Some skeptics believe that studying prayer wastes time and money because its reach goes beyond science. Dusek and [Rev. Dean] Marek, [a chaplain at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN --] scientist and clergyman -- disagree. There's enough anecdotal evidence that prayer influences recovery after surgery and in other circumstance to take a scientific look at the results, they say. 'Physicians and health-care providers want to understand if prayer can be used as part of medical treatment,' Dusek points out. 'In this example, could prayer be used in addition to drugs and other treatments to reduce the complications of coronary bypass surgery'?" 3

"The answer apparently is 'no'."

Results were:

  • Among the group that knew others were praying for them, there were 197 cardiac complications.
  • Among the other two groups, there were fewer: 187 and 158.
  • 18% of those who received outside prayer without knowing about it sufferend major complications, like a heart attack or stroke; Only 13% of the group who were not prayed over had major complicaitons.
  • Deaths during the 30 days after surgery were similar among the three groups: 13 and 16 in the prayed-for-groups; 14 in the no-prayer group.

One theory for the excess complications experienced by those who knew they were being prayed over is that they may have wondered if they were so ill that they had to bring in a prayer team for support. Dusek commented:

"We found increased amounts of adrenalin, a sign of stress, in the blood of patients who knew strangers were praying for them. It's possible that we inadvertently raised the stress levels of these people."

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Conclusions:

  • Does prayer help healing? Some past studies have shown that remote 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. The more recent large, well designed, double-blind analyses -- e.g. the Mayo, MANTRA, and STEP studies -- have shown that prayer neither aids nor inhibits healing.

  • God's existence: What does this tell us about the existence or non-existence of God? Probably nothing. But it might just give a hint about God's nature.

  • The nature of God: In their book "America's Four Gods," Froese & Bader of Baylor University described their findings about how Americans conceive of God. It would appear that Americans approach their holy books -- the Torah, Christian Scriptures, Qur'an, and others -- and come away with different understandings of what God is like. Since about 75% of Americans are Christians, one might conclude that the Bible is ambiguous, at least in its description of God's nature. They found that:

    • Some adults saw God as heavily judgmental, whereas others viewed him as forgiving and understanding.

    • They found that some view God as heavily involved with every person's thoughts and activities even as others saw him as being quite remote and disengaged.

Making the assumption that God exists, if prayer is as ineffective in promoting healing in sick persons as these studies seem to indicate, then one might conclude that God doesn't answer prayer because he is not closely involved in people's lives; he is a remote God.

That conclusion would agree with our small pilot study that we completed on a related topic. We attempted to determine if one can assess the will of God through prayer. That study seemed to show that
prayer is ineffective in that area as well.

  • Are some faith groups more effective? Some of the studies performed to date have involved multi-faith teams involved in intercessory prayer. For example, the Targ study involved Jewish, Native American, perhaps a follower of the New Age, and probably others. The MANTRA study involved Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and perhaps others. It might be revealing to further analyze the data to differentiate among the various religions followed by the prayer groups. Conceivably, prayers from followers of one or more of the religions could be shown to be more effective that the others. That would be a remarkable result! It might give some insight into the nature of God: whether God prefers one religion over others, or listens to persons of all religions equally. A former SBC president, The Rev. Bailey Smith, said, at a 1987 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention words to the effect that "God does not hear the prayer of a Jew." He was given a standing ovation. Comparing the healing effectiveness of prayers by Jews and Christian fundamentalists might indicate whether Smith was correct or mistaken.

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

  • Future prayer studies: With so many large experiments failing to show that remote prayer helps in any significant way, funding for future studies might well dry up.

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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. Stacey Chase, "Does prayer research have a prayer?," Science & Theology News, 2005-SEP-07, at: http://www.stnews.org/
  2. "Office of Prayer Research Welcomes Release of MANTRA II," Office of Prayer Reserach press release, 2005-AUG-10, at: http://www.officeofprayerresearch.org/
  3. William J. Cromie, "Prayers don't help heart surgery patients: Some fare worse when prayed for," 2006-APR-06, at: http://www.news.harvard.edu/

  4. Book cover image Paul Froese & Christopher D. Bader, "America's Four Gods: What We Say about God--and What That Says about Us," Oxford University Press, (2010). Read reviews or order this book safely from Amazon.com online book store

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Copyright © 1996 to 2010 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 1996-JAN-14
Latest update: 2010-NOV-05
Author: B.A. Robinson
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