Fugitives from Fundamentalism

The Musings of Adult Missionary Kids (MKs) & Former Born-Again Believers

‘No health benefit’ from prayer

Posted by Clamence/The Chaplain on March 19, 2009

praying_handsA study conducted on patients recovering from heart surgery found that prayer had no benefit in their recovery. To this, theologians responded that such an experiment is bound to fail because it would be “putting God to the test.” Really? In other words, God wouldn’t be so foolish as to fall for such a test because we are supposed to have faith and not question God’s power, so God definitely wouldn’t answer prayer in a situation like that.

What is interesting to me is that this test was conducted by a group at Duke University Medical Center who initially concluded that prayer was effective. Their first study only involved 150 patients. After testing 750 patients, the study revealed that prayer made no significant difference. I guess God wasn’t answering…

Don’t get me wrong–I think that prayer does make people feel better when they pray. But the benefit seems to be only to the people who do the praying.

Check out the BBC article:



8 Responses to “‘No health benefit’ from prayer”

  1. The Chaplain said

    Thanks for posting this. Similar studies have been done in the past, although I am shocked that more large-scale studies have not been done. Then again, it’s not too surprising given that scientists are too busy worrying about the real world to waste their careers on what is already a patently ridiculous belief in the supernatural and spirits and what not. And as the quotes from pastors in this story reveal, no amount of evidence is ever going to convince believers that their beliefs are false. There is always a way to rationalize your beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming proof (just ask Creationists).

    I would extend your final statement, “the benefit seems to be only to the people who do the praying,” a bit further. If I remember correctly, earlier studies revealed that when the ill knew they were being prayed for they had statistically significant better outcomes in recovery and and/or treatment. In other words, a certain percentage of those being prayed for benefited from knowing that others prayed for them. This makes complete sense when you consider the power of the placebo effect. The mind and body are part of the same organism, not separate from each other, so it makes sense that hope and positive thinking (in the form of a placebo or an equally effective prayer) would result in benefits for some people.

  2. Paulo said

    I would buy that. People do seem to mentally benefit just from knowing they are cared for and loved by others and that they are supported by other people, so I guess prayer in that aspect would help a person if they knew they were being prayed for. The study is interesting because the patients did not know they were being prayed for, so that would eliminate any placebo effect.

  3. JN said

    Well, you have to be fair. The study is based on the presupposition that the purpose of prayer is to manipulate the spirit(s) to do the will of the faithful…which is the way that probably most pray-ers see it (though they won’t admit it). I don’t care what you believe, but this is false even from a biblical standpoint.

    Praying is supposed to be for the benefit of the one praying. It’s more like meditation than a wish list. At least that’s my take on the matter.

  4. Paulo said

    It would be fair to say there are many types of prayer. Here we are talking about the type of prayer that petitions God for his divine intervention–which is very biblical. At least that is my understanding. The Bible is full of examples of people praying to God and asking for things, and God answering their prayers. People pray for stuff everyday, like, “Dear God, we ask that you put your healing hand on brother so and so…” which is clearly prayer intended not just as a personal meditation, right?

  5. The Chaplain said

    Yes, there are different purposes for prayers, but there are also entirely different concepts of prayer within different denominations. I could be totally wrong here, but I had thought that some forms of Presbyterianism don’t hold to a belief in the strong, Santa-Claus-type of intercessory prayer that other Christian denominations do. This viewpoint makes sense, since it is the only one that can make itself mesh with the reality that there is no supernatural and that people are actually talking to no one when they pray. Those Christians who do believe in intercessory prayer (that their prayers actually caused God to do something He wouldn’t have done otherwise) are clearly more susceptible to confirmation bias: they remember the times their prayers match desired outcomes, but they ignore the fact that there is an equal number of times that their prayers do not match desired outcomes. The intercessory view of prayer causes extreme cognitive dissonance in some right-wing Christians I have observed (e.g. they are very angry that Obama won, since it seems to suggest that God doesn’t care about all the little babies being murdered through abortion, they are angry that they didn’t get the President they chose, but they also believe that Bush was appointed by God. By extension, Obama must be appointed by God, but how can that be, since he is a filthy baby killer? Damn, being a Christian is just a big mess of cognitive dissonance!)

  6. JN said

    It also depends on your view of who (or what) God is. You can make all sorts of different claims on what prayer is and use all of the same verses.

    Many of the prayer warriors I know really feel like they’re having an impact. I don’t necessarily think this is a bad thing, unless they start bringing this “power” into the limelight for personal gain. If they want to pray for them, let them.

  7. The Chaplain said

    I don’t think any of us were arguing people should be stopped from praying or that what they are doing is bad. To me, the significance of studies like this is that it is in an area where science can actually comment on religion. Other religious arguments, such as the claim that God exists, cannot be tested for by science, since you can’t apply the scientific method to something that is invisible (this goes for deities, flying spaghetti monsters, and invisible teapots). However, when religion claims to have an effect on the natural world, as opposed to the make believe supernatural world, then science can test that hypothesis. Then, science can say, “there is no evidence to support your claim that the natural world was affected by the supernatural.” People can still go on praying, but to continue to think that they are having an effect would be irrational.

  8. Ann said

    Prayer feels good for the people praying, yes, and for the people who know someone is praying for them, yes, yes. But, I think it’s fair to say that we shouldn’t be treating people experiencing major depression or anxiety with prayer versus empirically validated interventions, such as cognitive therapy or medication. The most recent meta-analyses of research on prayer have failed to validate it as an effective form of treatment for any mental health issues. Can you picture it?

    “Instead of therapy and medication, I’m going to spend the next few weeks treating you with prayer. I realize you feel hopelessness and despair, but I believe God will take this from you permanently if I pray with you. Let’s put standard treatment aside for some of God’s healing.”

    I actually think it would be great if a God existed that would lay his healing hand on us whenever we really needed it. Though I suppose it would put therapists and doctors out of work.

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