Intercessory Prayer – Does it work?

  • Intercessory Prayer – Does It Work?

The news media recently published a tragic account about an evangelical couple in Philadelphia that was found guilty of their son’s death. Apparently, their prayers and those of fellow church members did not heal their son and he died from a readily treatable illness. Individual states have a variety of laws concerning the legal responsibility of parents for allowing children to die because they believed in the power of prayer. In spite of the liability, many evangelicals, Christian Science advocates, and SDA s still have faith that their God heals in response to prayer.

Prayer is actually useful. It relieves stress, prepares one for death, provides a placebo effect that may play a role in controlling pain and other physiological mind-body relationships. Medical research has confirmed this and it is generally accepted in the medical community. However, reputable studies suggest supernatural healing does not exist. Although there have been numerous intercessory prayer studies that have claimed a positive result, they have been demonstrated to be flawed. Studies that showed no discernible difference between prayed for patients and not prayed for patients are ignored by believers.

The most impressive prayer study was STEP, Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer. It lasted ten years, involved six medical centers including Harvard Medical Center and The Mayo Clinic. 1,802 coronary by-pass patients were enlisted in the study, which attempted to demonstrate that those who were prayed for had fewer post-operative complications than those not prayed for. The opposite proved to be true. Apparently those who were prayed for were stressed because they felt they must be terribly ill with so many people praying for them. They fared worse than those who were not prayed for. Not prayed for patients had less stress and a faster recovery with fewer complications.

Rather than rehashing the flaws of complicated studies that claim positive results for intercessory prayer, a more recent and simple prayer study will be edifying to the average person. The study was published in The Southern Medical Journal (SMJ) and circulated in the world’s news media, with headlines asserting that healing prayer does work. The paper was written by an Indiana University professor who conducted a prayer study done in Mozambique, Africa. It reported improved hearing and sight in twenty-four volunteers who had claimed they had diminished hearing and sight. Although the author of the study warned readers not to jump to unwarranted conclusions, the world press and religious organizations did just that.

What follows is the essence of my letter to the author of the Mozambique study and to the SMJ editor. Neither replied to my letter. The SMJ has a history of publishing controversial religious studies.

Dear SMJ Editor: The Indiana Prayer Study in the SMJ left the false impression that prayer positively influences healing. No empirical scientific/medical evidence was presented to support this impression. The Mozambique study had many deficiencies such as: no placebo consideration, no double-blind consideration, it was without adequate number of patients, it was without controlled clinical/lab conditions (variable light and ambient sound interference), it was without randomly selected patients, without duplicate confirming studies and peer review, without identification of disease etiology if any, without unbiased testers, without immediate pre and post testing of equipment, without follow-up of patients to see if healing endured. Most significantly, no failures were accepted in the study. Patients were hugged, squeezed, and prayed over by a team of so-called “professional healers” up to thirty minutes so as to get the desired results. Patients may have been pressured to claim they were healed because the praying was done in front of  an emotional outdoor crowd of praying and singing evangelicals. I question the usefulness of this study because of its shortcomings and wonder why it was published.

It is puzzling why faith healers and sympathetic researchers, who openly laud the power of an omniscient deity, struggle to show a relatively minor improvement in sight and hearing or, as in other studies, a slightly improved recovery outcome claimed to be due to prayers. Should not an all-powerful deity be able to accomplish much more, such as growing back the amputated limbs of thousands of prayerful amputees in an undeniable demonstration of His power and His existence? Why don’t the authors of the study repeat it with more dramatic cures? Why settle for fractional healing when greater opportunities exist?

Furthermore, spontaneous and unexplained healing occurs in all religions and in non believer populations with and without prayer. Ignorance of a healing modality in no way suggests supernatural intervention. What was considered a miracle one hundred years ago now has an explanation. To date, no well-done scientific studies indicate intercessory prayer works in spite of claims to the contrary.

Sincerely yours, Craig Gosling

Comments: I sympathize with the author of the Mozambique prayer study. She was pressured to do this study for several reasons: 1) Academia requires studies and publications. 2) Available money from The Templeton Foundation and other religious groups was available and tempting. 3) The excitement of a foreign study in Africa was very persuasive. Once organized, the study probably got out of hand with religious influence. Time was running short, weather was not cooperating, and religious elements were pressuring for spectacular results. The author reluctantly and unsuccessfully searched for a publisher. Finally she was forced to go with the SMJ, the only journal that would agree to publish this low-grade research. Unfortunately this prayer paper will now live permanently in the Internet and continue to mislead researchers looking for intercessory prayer information confirming their biases.  It is sad that so many will be misled and given false hopes by this terrible study. 


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About cgosling

I am a retired medical/scientific illustrator who has given up illustration to write about science, superstition, and secular humanism. I consider myself all of the following: atheist, agnostic, secular humanist, freethinker, skeptic, and nature lover. I have several published books but the mass of my writing is unpublished. I write children's fiction, poetry, essays, and several plays and radio theater shows, that are available as free downloads to be used on secular podcasts and meetings. They can be heard on Indy Freethought Radio. I hope some of my writings will be of interest to like minded freethinkers who I cordially invite to respond.
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