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Does prayer work? Not really…

Prayer is attempted communication with supernatural beings (SBs) or metaphysical energies. The word derives from a 14th century French word (preiere) meaning “to obtain by entreaty.” The most common use of the word “prayer” is asking an SB for some favor or entreating an invisible force or energy to fulfill one’s desire. This type of prayer I’m calling intercessory prayer (IP) because it is done to ask an SB or energy to intercede on behalf of oneself or someone else. Technically, I’m told, if you ask for intercession on behalf of oneself, your prayer is called petitionary,and if you ask on behalf of others it’s called intercessory because the one praying is interceding between the SB and the one being prayed for.

Change only takes place through action, not through meditation and prayer. -The Dalai Lama*

When the emergency technician is about to apply CPR, nobody says: “Wait! Let’s pray first.”

Q. “When did you realize that you were God [sic]?”
A. “While praying. I realized I was talking to myself.” -The 14th Earl of Gurney (Peter O’Toole), who has the delusion that he is Jesus, in The Ruling Class


IP is a kind of magical thinking: the one praying tries to bring about an effect in the external world by willing or intending that effect. There are some people who believe that such prayers are effective in curing diseases, reducing crime, defeating enemies, and winning high school football games. Some religions encourage or even require parents to ignore medical treatment for their children—even if to do so is likely to prove fatal—in favor of prayer.*  The prayer of such people, however, is not intercessory prayer, but the prayer of total submission to the will of an all-powerful, perfect god, and faith that whatever happens does so only because some god wills it. Such may have been the belief of the founder of Christian Science Mary Baker Eddy (1821-1910), who wrote what many consider to be the bible of faith healing: Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (1875). “If the sick recover because they pray or are prayed for audibly,” said Eddy, “only petitioners should get well.”*

For an SB to intercede would be for a being from the supernatural world to cause things to happen in the natural world that would not happen naturally. This might sound like a good thing. After all, who wouldn’t like to be able to contradict the laws of nature whenever it was convenient to do so? However, there are at least two reasons for believing that beseeching an SB to intervene in the natural course of events is absurd.

SBs, if they exist, would not be SBs if the acts of mere humans could please or displease them. Epicurus made a most elegant argument centuries ago demonstrating this point. He argued that men make their gods in their own image rather than the other way around (anthropomorphism) and that the gods would not be perfect if our antics or pleas could affect them in any way. Mary Baker Eddy obviously agreed with Epicurus. “God [sic] is not influenced by man,” she said.* ”Do we expect to change perfection?”* she asked.

Second, and more important, if SBs could intervene in nature at will or if invisible energies could be directed by our intentions, then the order and lawfulness of the world of experience and of the world that science attempts to understand would be impossible. We are able to experience the world only because we perceive it to be an orderly and lawful world. If that order and lawfulness were impossible, then so would be the experience and understanding of it.

miracle may be defined as a violation of the laws of nature through willful intervention. By asking an SB or energy to interfere with the ordinary course of natural events, one is requesting a miracle. To believe in miracles, as David Hume argued several centuries ago, is to go against the universal experience that there is an inexorable order and lawfulness to our sense perceptions. All our rules of  reasoning are based upon this experience. We would have to abandon them to believe in miracles. Likewise, we would have to abandon any hope of experiencing, much less understanding, the world we perceive, if it were possible that any event could follow any other event based on the will of SBs or our ability to magically affect mysterious energies. Only if our experience of events following other events is constant and consistent can we perceive and understand the world. And, if you don’t like Hume’s approach, there is Kant’s: only if we experience events as causal can we have any experience at all.

Testing causal hypotheses would be impossible if SBs or human intentions could directly interfere with the course of nature. Scientists test causal hypotheses. Thus, for a scientist to do a causal test on intercessory prayer would be absurd. So, what are we to make of those scientists who design controlled, double-blind studies to test the effectiveness of intercessory prayer? For example, what should we make of studies such as Elisabeth Targ’s studies on distance healing? The National Institutes of Health granted Targ hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars to investigate an absurdity (Gardner 2001). However, she died of brain cancer in 2002, before her latest study was completed, despite the efforts of many to engage spirits and energies to intervene on her behalf. [One of her studies has since been discredited by Po Bronson who detailed her improprieties in mining the data. See the Sicher-Targ healing distance report andA Prayer Before Dying, Wired Dec. 2002.] Others pursuing a similar chimera include Dr. Randolph ByrdDr. William S. Harris and Dr. Herbert Benson, and Dr. Mitch Krucoff. So far, the evidence from their studies does not indicate any healing effect from any kind of intercessory prayer. Despite the fact that there is compelling scientific evidence that healing prayer is ineffective, billions of people turn to prayer at the first sign of distress. Prayer has a comforting effect and it makes people feel empowered in the face of nature’s indifference to their suffering. The belief in the healing power of prayer seems to be based on little more thancommunal reinforcement and selective thinking: people ignore all the times that events don’t coincide with their prayerful desires and they call attention to the times that events fall in line with the intentions of their prayers (confirmation bias).

The latest and largest of the scientific studies was conducted by Herbert Benson et al. The results were published in the American Heart Journal in April 2006 (“Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer“). Patients at six U.S. hospitals were randomly assigned to one of three groups: 604 received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; 597 did not receive intercessory prayer (also after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer); and 601 received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery. The primary outcome was presence of any complication within 30 days of CABG. Secondary outcomes were any major event and mortality. The results indicate no effect from prayer. In the two groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not. Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer. Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the three groups.

In any case, these studies of the effectiveness of prayer on healing seem to be self-refuting. That is, if a god or some other SB were to answer prayers and heal some patients but not others, depending upon which patients had prayers said for them, then we could never know whether anything occurred due to natural causes or due to divine intervention. No causal study could rule out the possibility that its results were not due directly to an SB interfering with the course of nature. In short, it would be pointless to do causal studies, and hence, pointless to study whether prayer is effective in healing.

There are other problems, as well. Those who are not healed may not have died due to natural causes; it is always possible that some malevolent but powerful SB interfered with natural processes and caused the deaths. Once you introduce the possibility of SBs being the cause of events, there is no justification for assuming that only the god of Abraham [AG] can be that cause or that AG only interferes when prayers are involved or that only positive energies can be manipulated by acts of will.

In conclusion, there are logical, scientific, and metaphysical reasons for not seriously investigating such a notion as invoking an SB or metaphysical force to alter external reality from its natural course. The idea is logically contradictory, scientifically preposterous, and metaphysically demeaning. It requires AG to be perfect and imperfect, it makes a mockery of the notion of scientific tests of causality, and it belittles the idea of an omnipotent infinite god, if such exists, and ignores the possibility of lesser supernatural powers or malevolent energies interfering with nature in untold ways. All of this, however, is not to deny that praying or talking to oneself can’t provide solace and comfort, and perhaps reduce stress, thereby aiding the mood and well being of the one praying. The benefits of placebos are well known but are a far cry from trying to employ psychokinetic powers to affect the health and well being of others.

See also alternative health practicefaith healingpious fraud,positive-outcome biasSicher-Targ distant healing reportTen Commandments, and “Healing Prayer and Distant Healing” by Robert T. Carroll.

reader comments

further reading

books and articles

Randi, James. An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural (N.Y.: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).

Randi, James. The Faith Healers (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1987).

Randi, James. Flim-Flam! (Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books,1982).

Can Prayers Heal? Critics Say Studies Go Past Science’s Reach by Benedict Carey, New York Times, October 10, 2004

Bunk: my comments on a Parade magazine article on the healing power of prayer

Some Thoughts about Faith Healing Stephen Barrett, M.D.

A Prayer Before Dying By Po Bronson (Wired Dec. 2002)

Distant Healing and Elisabeth Targ by Martin Gardner, Skeptical Inquirer March/April 2001.

A Magical Death? by Phillips Stevens, Jr. Skeptical Briefs. Sept. 2003.

The Power of Prayer Nicholas Humphrey

If Looks Could Kill and Words Could Heal by Robert Baker (review of Larry Dossey’s Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (Harper, 1993))

Gary Posner’s review of Larry Dossey’s Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine (Harper, 1993)

Reality Check The Science of Prayer by Victor J. Stenger

“Is there scientific evidence that intercessory prayer speeds medical recovery?” A Debate Transcript of the March 13th, 2001, Debate Between William Harris, PhD, Saint Luke’s Hospital, Kansas City, MO, and Irwin Tessman, PhD, Purdue University, West Lafayette, IN

God [sic] in the CCU? A critique of the San Francisco hospital study on intercessory prayer and healing Gary P. Posner, M.D.

Another Controversial Effort to Establish the Medical Efficacy of Intercessory Prayer by Gary Posner, MD

Studies on Prayer and Healing Flawed -

Why Won’t God [sic] Heal Amputees?

news stories

new Texas Governor Rick Perry issues a proclamation to pray for rain in Texas. Bordering states are not included in the prayer.

I, RICK PERRY, Governor of Texas, under the authority vested in me by the Constitution and Statutes of the State of Texas, do hereby proclaim the three-day period from Friday, April 22, 2011, to Sunday, April 24, 2011, as Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas. I urge Texans of all faiths and traditions to offer prayers on that day for the healing of our land, the rebuilding of our communities and the restoration of our normal way of life.

No word yet on what the good Republican thinks is “our normal way of life.” [/new]

Proximity Could be Key to Success of Healing Prayer Candy Gunther Brown, an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University Bloomington, conducted a study of the healing power of what she calls “proximal intercessory prayer” or PIP. The study was funded by the Templeton Foundation

(as part of the so-called Flame of Love Project) and was published in the peer-reviewedSouthern Medical Journal. I’ve reviewed the agenda of the Templeton folks before herehere, and here. The Southern Medical Journal published the infamous Byrd study in 1988, which claimed to have found “Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population.” This lame attempt at bringing science and religion together has, unsurprisingly, never been replicated, though it has been imitated by other desperate souls. (See my two-part essay onHealing Prayer (HP) & Distant Healing.) Gunther Brown’s study is worse than Byrd’s, however, as it used no control group and was not double-blinded. Her sample was small, as well (24 subjects). Gunther Brown calls her work a “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal Intercessory Prayer (STEPP) on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique.” She claims to have measured significant improvements in vision and hearing in poor people who were prayed for up close and personal.

For those who are interested in a model of how to turn garbage into scientific-sounding jargon, here’s the abstract of Gunther Brown’s study:

Background: Proximal intercessory prayer (PIP) is a common complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) therapy, but clinical effects are poorly understood, partly because studies have focused on distant intercessory prayer (DIP).

Methods: This prospective study used an audiometer (Earscan(R) 3) and vision charts (40 cm, 6 m “Illiterate E”) to evaluate 24 consecutive Mozambican subjects (19 males/5 females) reporting impaired hearing (14) and/or vision (11) who subsequently received PIP interventions.

Results: We measured significant improvements in auditory (P <0.003) and visual (P <0.02) function across both tested populations.

Conclusions: Rural Mozambican subjects exhibited improved audition and/or visual acuity subsequent to PIP. The magnitude of measured effects exceeds that reported in previous suggestion and hypnosis studies. Future study seems warranted to assess whether PIP may be a useful adjunct to standard medical care for certain patients with auditory and/or visual impairments, especially in contexts where access to conventional treatment is limited.

I thought the folks from Lodi were bad, but we Californians will have to dig deep to compete with this lady from Texas called Cynthia Dunbar.

Who Needs a National Day of Prayer? by Rev. Barry Lynn
“In recent years, the NDP events have been taken over by aggressive Religious Right groups — like Focus on the Family, founded by Shirley Dobson’s husband — which have used it in a highly offensive way and drenched it in fallacious, right-wing “Christian nation” pseudo-history. Worse, they’ve sponsored “Christians only” prayer events that exclude millions of Americans. (And by “Christians” they mean fundamentalists. Progressive Christians like me got nowhere near the microphone.)”

Mercer [county, Illinois] School Board approves prayer before meetings When a minister asked whether the school board should pray before meetings, the board sought legal counsel instead of telling the minister that the preponderance of the evidence overwhelmingly supports the position that prayer’s only value is in making those doing the praying feel good.

Prayer doesn’t heal, according to scientific study

Questioning Healing Prayer A reevaluation of a study threatens to tarnish the reputations of two prestigious institutions - Time magazine online by Leon Jaroff, July 1, 2004

Exposed: conman’s role in prayer-power IVF ‘miracle’ May 30, 2004

‘No health benefit’ from prayer - Patients did not know they were prayed for The world’s largest study into the effects of prayer on patients undergoing heart surgery has found it appears to make no difference. BBC, Oct 15, 2003

Prayer doctor vows to carry on ‘healing’ 16.08.2003 By ELIZABETH BINNING New Zealand Herald, Aug. 16, 2003

Investigating the Power of Prayer A San Francisco researcher looks into whether prayer can heal even if the person doesn’t know he’s being prayed for - Leon Jaroff, Time, Jan 16, 2002


additional links on prayer:

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