Responsible religious leaders will breathe a sigh of relief at the news that so-called intercessory prayer is medically ineffective. In a large and much-touted scientific study, one group of patients was told that strangers would pray for them, a second group was told strangers might or might not pray for them, and a third group was not prayed for at all. The $2.4 million study found that the strangers’ prayers did not help patients’ recovery.
The results of the study, led by Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist and director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute near Boston, came as welcome news. That may sound odd coming from an ordained minister. But if it ever could be persuasively demonstrated that such prayer “works,” our religious institutions and meeting places would be degraded to a kind of commercial enterprise, like Burger King, where one expects to get what one pays for.
Historically, religions have promoted many kinds of prayer. Prayers of praise, thanksgiving and repentance have been highly esteemed, while intercessions of the kind done in the Benson study — appeals to God to take some action — are of lesser importance. They represent a less-respected magical wing of religion.
In fact, many theologians reject out-of-hand the notion that any person or group can effectively intercede with God in any respect. Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, the two major Christian theologians of the 20th century (and certainly no opponents of prayer) would have scoffed at the idea. The Lord’s Prayer, the central prayer of Christendom, contains no plea for God to influence specific events in people’s lives.
The news from science will not lead religious people to stop praying for others. Prayers are expressions of empathy that strengthen a caring community and bring comfort to those who are suffering. Comfort in this context undoubtedly has therapeutic health benefits. But scientists should not leap to the assumption that the ruler of the universe can be mechanically requisitioned to intervene in people’s suffering or health.
It is unsurprising and not a little ironic that patients in the study who were told unequivocally they were being prayed for did worse than those who were told only that they might be. When medical personnel dabble in religious practices, we should anticipate that patients might interpret this as a sign of desperation.
Doctors in particular should be pleased that the Benson study demonstrated no benefit from intercessory prayer by strangers. Recently, a colleague told me about a devout, well-educated woman who accused a doctor of malpractice in his treatment of her husband. During her husband’s dying days, she charged, the doctor had failed to pray for him. If prayer could be scientifically shown to help, every doctor would be obligated to pray with patients, or at least provide such service, and those who declined to do so would properly be subject to charges of malpractice.
In my several decades as a clergyman working closely with doctors, I have never met one who prays with patients, nor one who prescribes intercessory prayer. There are other ways to express personal care and concern.
Besides, the earlier, smaller scientific studies claiming that intercessory prayer was effective have been exposed as flawed. Perhaps the monumental Benson study will mark the end of all such research.
We should note that the impetus for this recent research has come almost entirely from scientists, not from religious leaders. It seems that no credible theologian has been involved in planning, directing or even consulting on such studies. But scientists who conduct research on religious practice should at least consult reputable theologians. Had they done so to begin with, a considerable amount of money could have been saved.
Scientists who undertake the work of theologians are as reckless as theologians who pretend to be scientists.
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