Intercessory Prayer and Science Intersect

14 04 2011

If you pray for my brother to recover from diabetes, will he? What if 1,000 people meditate for him to do so?  What if 10,000 people say the rosary, meditate, pray, or daven to God, to Shang Ti, or to Allah? Will he recover?

Maybe it’s not called praying, and maybe God isn’t the name of the one or many we beseech, but whatever the terminology, the question is, does it work?

Dr. Herbert Benson and colleagues  designed a study about the effectiveness of intercessory prayer – one person praying on behalf of another.  In 2005, his group published the findings of their big study that was supposed to be the study on intercessory prayer, with about 1,800 subjects enrolled.

The results indicated that intercessory prayer doesn’t work. To the surprise of many, it appeared that the prayers did more harm than good.

I’m guessing believers didn’t want to hear this and agnostics were disappointed, although atheists probably held an “I told you so” behind their teeth.

Gil Guadia, Professor Emeritus, State University of New York at Fredonia, said that researching intercessory prayer is akin to “attempting to study the existence of miracles.” Let’s just say he was a little POed at the idea of funding being spent on what he considered a fruitless quest, and non-scientific to boot.

Benson didn’t give up.  He noted that study limitations may have affected outcomes.

So what’s the answer? Can you pray, or meditate, or whatever your faith calls it to heal my brother and will those beseechments wipe out the effects of diabetes?

Perhaps, if you’re in the same room, or so suggests a study published in 2010. Unlike Benson’s study, which involved DIP (Distant Intercessory Prayer), Candy Gunther Brown’s study looked at PIP (Proximal Intercessory Prayer), where the one praying is physically near the prayee, and sometimes laying hands on the individual.  The 25 subjects in this study had either impaired hearing or impaired vision, and they reported improvement post-PIP.

Maybe intercessory prayer works if you breathe the same air as the patient.  Maybe you have to lay your hands on the patient.  Maybe there are too many variables to say for sure.  And maybe Benson’s study was right.

Wherever the facts reside on this question, the act of communing with something or someone beyond one’s workaday world provides comfort to those who believe in it. I’m not sure if it provides miracles.

What do you believe?

(This blog post reflects the curiosity of its author, Trish Parnell)