Studies won’t settle issue of whether prayer works
"The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much," says the biblical book of James.
Maybe, maybe not, say scientists. A study released last week found that prayers offered by strangers did not affect patients' recovery from heart surgery, and that patients who knew they were being prayed for had more complications after surgery — perhaps because of anxiety related to the prayers.
Researchers including Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston, used rigorous scientific methods.
They divided patients into three groups and organized church groups to pray for two groups of patients but not for the third group. Half the patients who received the prayers were told they were being prayed for, while the other half were told they might or might not receive prayers.
Scientists even wrote a partial script for prayers — the phrase "for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications."
The study concerned strangers' prayers, not the personal interaction described in James: "Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed."
But a lot of religious people would dispute the idea that strangers' prayers are ineffective. They can cite many experiences that scientists would discount as anecdotal evidence.
Perhaps the most astute expert criticism of the study was this: Nobody knows how much prayer each of the patients received from friends, families, and congregations everywhere who pray daily for the sick and dying.
Religious people should find it gratifying that scientists consider prayer to be a serious enough topic to spend $2.3 million on this study. But religion and science usually serve society better when they keep a respectful arm's length — as we've seen in the debate about creationism and evolution.
We don't need scientists telling us whether to pray or preachers deciding what schools will teach about science.