Can You Pray Your Way to Health?

Studies show that praying for your own health may be beneficial, but they are less conclusive about when others pray for you.

News stories, midmorning talk shows, and celebrity figures such as Deepak Chopra claim that prayer can improve health. Biologists, pundits, and others scoff at the same assertion. As is typical of so many debates regarding faith, people often see what they want to see: believers seeing proof of prayer and skeptics seeing disproof. This raises the question: What does the research show?

According to Dr. Harold Koenig, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University and the country's leading authority on faith-and-medicine studies, academic research does show that prayer has beneficial health effects, although mainly for the person who does the praying. Studies of "intercessory" prayer--Person A prays for the health of Person B--find scant if any effect. But studies of "petitionary" prayer, in which a person prays for his or her own health or peace of mind, show tangible statistical results. When you pray for your own health--especially your own mental health, in cases of clinical depression--science suggests you may be on solid ground.

Objective attempts to determine whether prayer has demonstrable effect on health trace to the 1860s, when Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, studied the subject. Galton examined English mortality records to determine if ministers, whom he presumed would pray more than the public at large, had longer life expectancies than those in other professions. He found that, at that time in England, the typical cleric lived 69 years, versus 68 years for lawyers and 67 years for physicians. Galton thought this was too small a difference on which to base any claim of prayer benefits.

Galton also studied death records for English aristocracy, whom he assumed would live longest of all if prayers were answered--because standard Anglican liturgy of the period asked parishioners to offer prays for "the nobility" of the nation. But rather than enjoying prayer-conferred longevity, Galton found, English nobles of the 1860s died on average after 66 years. From such numbers, Galton concluded that prayer has no effect.
Although Galton's work was rigorous by the standards of a century and a half ago, it had what today would be considered "control" problems. Galton made no attempt to determine whether ministers actually did receive more prayers than others; he just assumed it. Similarly, he assumed that since the Anglican liturgy asked parishioners to pray for the health of nobility, people must be doing so. But we know from sociology that millions of 19th-century Britons despised the titled class: Maybe churchgoers were silently praying that the local lords and ladies would come to woe.

Today, many skeptics who reject prayer-and-health studies cite Galton, without mentioning the flaws in his work. They also don't mention Galton's bias--he was an ardent foe of religion.

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