Can prayer really aid healing?

  • Eimear Vize

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)

Discussions on this topic are now closed.