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Can prayer really aid healing?
[ by Eimear Vize www.irishhealth.com]
A new study, which suggests that praying for another person’s healing just might help the healing process, has re-opened the debate on a hotly contested question - can prayer heal?
Investigators in the US-led study say a crucial difference between their research and previous studies in this area is its key focus on proximity – the person praying is physically near the person being prayed for. This, they claim, could make all the difference.
The new research, carried out in rural Mozambique, measured surprising improvements in vision and hearing after proximal intercessory prayer (PIP) was administered.
“We found a statistically significant effect of PIP for the population of both those with auditory and visual impairments,” says study lead author Dr Candy Gunther Brown, an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University.
“We didn’t generally find that people who were totally deaf or blind to start with ended up with 20/20 vision and perfect hearing, but those with moderate-to-severe impairments, when tested before the intervention, had a much, much improved threshold.”
Scientific research on intercessory prayer has in recent decades generated a firestorm of controversy, with critics charging that attempts to study the effectiveness of prayer are inherently unscientific and should be abandoned because the mechanisms are poorly understood and too complex to measure. Not surprisingly, several research efforts have produced contradictory findings.
Dr Gunther Brown’s research was published recently in the Southern Medical Journal. She and her colleagues studied the activities of the healing groups Iris Ministries and Global Awakening in Mozambique and Brazil because of their reputation as hotspots of specialised prayer for those with hearing and vision impairments.
The researchers used an audiometer and vision charts to evaluate 14 rural Mozambican subjects who reported impaired hearing, and 11 who reported impaired vision, both before and after the subjects received PIP.
The study focused on hearing and vision because it is possible to measure them with an audiometer and vision charts, allowing a more direct measure of improvement than simply asking people whether they feel better.
Subjects showed improved hearing and vision that was statistically significant after PIP was administered. Two subjects with impaired hearing reduced the threshold at which they could detect sound by 50 decibels. Three subjects had their tested vision improve from 20/400 or worse to 20/80 or better.
Dr Gunther Brown recounts that one subject, an elderly Mozambican woman named Maryam, could not see two fingers held up just one foot in front of her when she arrived for a Pentecostal prayer intervention in her village. Nor could she see the eye chart from a similarly close distance.
But after a healer at the evangelical meeting laid hands on her and prayed for less than a minute, Maryam was able to not only see the five fingers held up in front of her but could count them as well. The eye chart also came into view, with Maryam able to read down to the 20/125 line.
The published study also reports on a follow-up study with similar findings conducted by the same researchers in urban Brazil.
While Dr Gunther Brown doesn’t discount the possibility that some of the results may stem from a placebo effect, the magnitude of measured effects exceeds that reported in previous suggestion and hypnosis studies.
“‘Miracle’ is not a word that makes sense within the paradigm of scientific naturalism,” she says.
“The term ‘healing’ likewise can mean different things, and the same with ‘science’ – all these terms take on a life of their own. The question is how people interpret their experiences of illness and healing.”
She has observed that many people who turn to divine healing also try ‘holistic’ approaches such as chiropractic, acupuncture, yoga, homeopathy, and Reiki.
“When people are sick many look for healing wherever they can find it. They really don’t care about philosophical or theological consistency.”
Irish bio-ethicist Dr Donal O’Mathuna has explored the prayer and healing issue in great detail, conducting a thorough review of research into the healing power of prayer for a book he co-authored on alternative medicine for the Christian Medical Association in the US.
Although one might not immediately associate prayer with the myriad of complementary medical therapies available, Dr O’Mathuna says it is one of the most frequently reported alternative treatments used.
Several prominent surveys, led by David Eisenburg, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, which examined trends in alternative medicine use in the US, repeatedly found that prayer was by far the most commonly reported alternative therapy, as defined by the researchers.
“Yet they would then leave that out of their overall conclusion because, if they incorporated that statistic, they would effectively be saying that about 85% of Americans use alternative medicine,” says Dr O’Mathuna, who is senior lecturer in ethics, decision-making and evidence in the School of Nursing at Dublin City University.
“I think the recent interest in the healing power of prayer has arisen in part because when you define alternative medicine as broadly as it has been defined, prayer falls into that definition. But the traditional secular or non-religious approach to medicine, as it has become, would prefer not to deal with the issue of spiritual and sacred prayer."
“Medicine is very scientific and prayer for healing is both very difficult to define and very difficult to measure, and yet it is so important with the general public, more important with the patients than perhaps secular medicine wants to acknowledge, or is aware of.”
Dr O’Mathuna points out that research on prayer is not a recent phenomenon. In 1872, Carlow native John Tyndall, a professor in London, proposed having all Christians pray for patients in a particular hospital for a number of years.
Tyndall was sceptical of prayer’s efficacy and anticipated no differences in health outcomes.
Although his proposed experiment was never carried out, it created much controversy, raising methodological, theological and ethical concerns that still apply today. One response published by Sir Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, boldly observed that royalty and clergy, for whom a long life is frequently prayed for, had shorter life expectancies than other gentry or professionals.
During the course of researching his book, Dr O’Mathuna identified approximately 30 scientific studies on prayer for healing conducted over the past couple of decades. But he remarks that, on closer examination, from a methodological perspective, many of these suffer from some clear limitations.
Dr Benson’s STEP study, along with a number of other research endeavours in this area, examined the efficacy of different prayer approaches from various religious traditions by combining the different types together.
“To me, this is a really weak way to design scientific research; it’s like trying to study the effectiveness of a drug, but doctors can administer it in whichever way they feel like, and at whatever dose they want."
“Other researchers have taken a different approach and used a particular prayer from a particular religious tradition. For example, the first most significant study was a trial published in 1988 by Dr Randolph Byrd, who used only born-again Christians practising daily devotional prayer and actively involved in Christian fellowship. He evaluated the effects of distant intercessory prayer in about 400 coronary care unit patients."
“Byrd found in some of the results that there was a significant difference but in the majority of measurements there wasn’t a difference. Of course, when the study was picked up, the press tended to focus on those significant improvements but left out the fact that there were many results that didn’t find any difference.
“From a methodological point of view, you would want to have one or two specific primary outcomes and they should be the focus as to whether there is a significant difference.”
Of those prayer studies that adopted this approach, Dr O’Mathuna says that only one showed dramatic improvements in the prayed-for group, compared to the control group.
The controversial findings, published in the September 2001 issue of the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, revealed that a group of women who had people praying for them had a 50% pregnancy rate compared to a 26% rate in the group of women who did not have people praying for them. None of the women undergoing the IVF procedures knew about the praying.
However, this hopelessly flawed Columbia University ‘miracle’ study has since been discredited. Critics of the study question its methodology – involving several ‘tiers’ of people, some praying for the study subjects and others praying that the prayers would be effective – as well as the fact that no informed consent was obtained.
Since its publication, the lead author, Dr Rogerio Lobo, has withdrawn his name from the paper. Furthermore, co-author Daniel Wirth was sentenced in November 2004 to five years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiracy to commit mail and bank fraud.
And in February 2007, the third author, Dr Kwang Cha, was charged with plagiarism of a study he published in 2005.
Although there is nothing conclusive to show that the results of this study are fraudulent, there are huge question marks over its methodology, Dr O’Mathuna says
Commenting on the recent prixinal intercessory prayer (PIP) research, examining proximal intercessory prayer, he highlights the absence of a control group as an obvious disadvantage.
“That’s going to suffer from the limitations of any before-and-after study. They may show real differences in a person’s life but they’re not going to be able to show what the causes of those differences were.”
However, he adds that the PIP study confirms the importance that medicine is a relational profession.
"Of course the doctor’s or surgeon’s skill is very important, but for medicine to really heal people you need to have the whole relational, personal aspect taken care of. Whether it’s the surgeon or the nurse at the bedside, family members or community to take care of those needs, all of that is what these types of studies are confirming.
“From a Christian perspective, clinical trials cannot control for the intervention of God to heal patients in one study group or the other. Also, the Bible teaches that God may answer prayers, not by granting a healing but by giving the patient greater strength and greater faith.
“Perhaps, if prayer research could measure the outcomes of people’s ability to deal with illness and tragedy, we could expect significantly positive results.”
(This article also appears in the current issue of 'Scope', published by Medmedia)
|Tommy KT Posted: 04/03/2011 19:22|
thank you for your article on prayer affecting healing.it is most interesting.
i think the first question one must answer is: does one believe in a good, loving, almighty, sovereign God?
if one doesn't - then all discussions re: this topic ends here.
if one does - then it would be most natural to pray to God to ask for supernatural* healing. for those who believe - not praying is not about being unethical (you can't stop yourself praying to see if it really doesn't work) - it is simply contradictory to what they believe.
whether He does or not - only God knows (& i'm not saying that flippantly). one thing for sure - if you will believe it - is that God will, in all things work for the good of those who love Him - even if that means illness and death in a post-Eden fallen world.
the belief that He is good and loving - means that He will bring about good - whether the person is healed or no - albeit the good is defined by His terms, not ours.
the belief that He is almighty and sovereign - means that He can heal - if that will bring glory to Himself.
and the ultimate belief is - even if one dies - many people believe, or at least claim to believe, that there will be a resurrection.
for people who are interested in this topic - we come back to the main question - does one truly believe in a good, loving, almighty, sovereign God?
|Jamie Posted: 07/03/2011 10:53|
Tommy, so you're saying is basically god can do no wrong. If he heals someone, then it's gods work, and if the person isn't healed, then it's for the greater good. Did you ever think that he doesn't heal anyone? I find it strange that people can thank god for healing someone when at the same time an earthquake kills 200,000 people. Or while malaria kills 20,000 people each day.
|Anonymous Posted: 07/03/2011 15:01|
In order to prove it, it must stand up to to scientific testing and merit. Otherwise it is at best a placebo and at worst furhter self-verifying non-rational superstition.
|buzz Posted: 07/03/2011 17:23|
Agree, it seems sometimes that when good things happen, God gets the credit and when bad things happen, we are told "well that's because He gave us free will and therefore we have to be able to make our own mistakes and learn from them blah de blah" - never really bought it myself The only possible benefits of prayer that I can see are either the effect of chanting on the body's state ie can lead to relaxation and a sort of trance, and the blind indoctrination that leads people to believe the man in the red suit will make it all better.
|Jamie Posted: 08/03/2011 14:35|
Can all religions claim that prayer helps healing? Because some of the gods have to be the wrong ones. You could be making the real one angry and endangering someones life if you're praying to the wrong one. Best not to pray and let doctors do their job.
|Tommy KT Posted: 12/03/2011 10:30|
thank you for all your comments. great to hear other people's views and much appreciated.
my response to an article such as this - is merely to point out that there is no actual need for further discussion or scientific studies re: prayer and healing, because as you have all correctly identified - this issue is not about whether prayer can aid healing.
Rather its about whether one truly believes in a good, loving, almighty, sovereign God?
and i simply propose that if one doesn't then of course one wouldn't pray. whereas if one does, then it is only most natural that one would pray for healing.
to expand on the above a bit more - if one doesn't have such a faith - then your comments above are all most reasonable. i would then suggest that when facing sickness and death - natural inevitable consequences of simply being alive - these should simply be accepted, without upset or resentment. (who/what/why would you be upset with or resent?)
however if one does believe in a good, loving, almighty, sovereign God - then although sickness and death are, in this post-Eden fallen world, natural inevitable consequences of living in such a world - for one who has a faith in such a God - s/he can also then have a hope in a future where sickness and death no longer exist. The sorrow of death / bereavement is of course normal - however it is temporary, as one can also look to a future joy - if so s/he chooses to believe.
|Anonymous Posted: 14/03/2011 12:03|
But Tommy, that does not address the scientific question as to whether is aids healing, at all.
|buzz Posted: 14/03/2011 14:08|
Tommy are you trying to suggest that one facing sickness or death is not allowed to feel emotions? So if a friend or parent has cancer and is dying, we are not allowed to feel for them and to feel sorrow at their suffering, because we do not believe blindly in fairy stories? If someone you love dies you will feel sorrow because you will MISS them. Feeling sorrow and pain are not some sort of exclusive emotions that are only accessible to the sheep among us.
|Tommy KT Posted: 19/03/2011 08:44|
you are correct. i am not addressing the scientific question as to whether prayer aids healing, at all. there is no need for this question. if God is real - He clearly can work miracles. (what kind of God doesn't / can't?). if God is not real - then em...clearly prayer does not / will not work. whether prayer aids healing or not depends on whether you believe that there is a good, loving, almighty, sovereign God.
of course human emotions are most natural. Jesus wept when Lazarus died. and then when he resurrected, everyone rejoiced. (NB not just one set of emotions - but two - re-inforcing the reality of emotions).
but for those who propose that either there is no God, or that there are a plethor of gods - some of whom can't be real / must be wrong ones - then death is but a natural stage in life, and ends there (even if there was life after death - there is no consensus as to how to get there). and as Jamie suggested, best not to pray. but if that is the case - then why get upset? what should one be upset about? there is nothing after life anyways? coz if one gets upset / angry - they will probably only remain so - so i propose better not to get upset / angry.
my own mother passed away most unexpectedly (never having had any medical conditions - despite being screened for blood pressure, diabetes and cholesterol) and died suddenly ("just like that") of a massive subarachnoid haemorrhage / bleed - and died within 48 hours.
i grieved / missed her - and i certainly agree that this is a most natural human response. however - sorrow can turn into joy if one realises that there is life after death, and that you can be sure that you will see your loved / missed one some day in the future, after death.
i only suggest that if one does not believe in a good, loving, almighty, sovereign God, and that this world and nature works by laws of its own - then death is most natural and will be accepted as such - and i'm not sure where grieving / missing will lead to. or that one will continue only in a state of grief. as there is nothing else to hope for.
people who pray - hope for something in the future. based of their faith / belief.
people who don't pray / have faith - either feel they don't need anything, or feel they have everything, or that "no one is out there". it is of course therefore most logical not to pray, since you don't need to / or there is no one to pray to. and if this is the case - death can almost be received with "ah its to be expected" (isn't it to be expected?). and why/who/what will you get upset / angry with?
back to the main point - its not about whether prayer aids healing.
its about - does one believe in a good, loving, almight, sovereign, God?
|buzz Posted: 21/03/2011 09:33|
"but if that is the case - then why get upset? what should one be upset about? there is nothing after life anyways"
You haven't actually answered my question. I have already said, people will be upset because loved one is suffering or has passed away and they MISS THEM. What part of that sentence do you not understand and I will try to help you with it? Do you think people who do not believe in God are somehow devoid of any emotions? That they are not capable of MISSING someone or feeling SAD because they are suffering? What kind of rational permits you to believe that only those of us who have been indoctrinated are capable of feeling pain or loss? Indeed, what kind of rational permits you to tell us that only those who have been brainwashed are entitled to feel pain or loss?
I see you had a go at another poster for raising the issue of multiple gods. Why is this? By your own admission your God is the "right" or only God. But others of a different faith might have the same opinion of THEIR God. So who is right? It was a fair point!
You would gain far more respect by actually responding to the points put to you rather than simply repeating yourself in every post.
|Anonymous Posted: 21/03/2011 10:14|
Tommy, there is every need for that question. In fact that question is the entire point of the whole exercise. Miss / misunderstand the question and you Have failed to understand the entire point. Medicine is based on scientific evidence so in not addressing the functionality of any healing modality as a scientific question, you miss the entire basis that scientitic medicine is based on and render your point about as baseless as saying that ones belief in teddy bears, clouds or lollipops aids healing. As with all evidence based medicine - proof is required and as with all evidence based science - belief or opinion is not and cannot be required as a basis of fact or proof. For example, you do not have to believe that antoibiotics kill bacteria in order for it to be so. You do not have to believe that a cast enables a broken arm to heal in order for it to do so. Mechanics, electronics and plumbing work in exactly the same way. In order to claim something works, it is baseless without evidence or fact - regardless of belief of opinion. if God is real - s/he/it can work miracles according to you and if s/he/it is not real then prayer does not work. But you see it is scienticially and logicaly impossible for both of those statement to be true therefore to claim both statements can exist independantly according to what a person imagines is utterly nonsensical. Eiither a god / gods exists and there therefore there is prooif of such not merely opinion or conjectute or god/s do not exist and are a figment of brainwashing combined with imagination.
|Jamie Posted: 21/03/2011 11:37|
Tommy, a few questions: You said god can "clearly can work miracles". How do you know this? This isn't clear to me at all. And you said: "whether prayer aids healing or not depends on whether you believe that there is a good, loving, almighty, sovereign God". So you think prayer aids healing if you believe. Why do sick people die when an entire congregation pray for them 3 times a week? My church used to do this. And if god is good and loving as you say, why wouldn't he help someone that doesn't believe? You contradict yourself on the grieving process. On one hand you say people that don't believe will say "isn't it to be expected?" and "why get upset". But earlier you say " of course human emotions are most natural" and grieving is natural. Are you saying people who don't believe have no emotions? I'm not sure what god you believe in, but if it's the standard catholic god, I don't know how that makes death easier. You have a lot of rules to live your life by to avoid spending eternity in hell.
|badger5079 Posted: 04/04/2011 19:13|
The answer is "no".
This article is embarrassing.
Try using studies that apply scientific rigour.
I still don't know why religious delusions are given their own category to allow religious people to be classified as non-delusional.
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