Prayer, Plain and Simple

Earlier this week “Dr. Marshall” who describes himself as a retired M.D. & an atheist suggested in a comment on this blog that since science has failed to prove that prayer has no measurable effect on the sick, as a society we need to carefully consider the implications of certain elements of religious freedom – in particular how parents’ faith in prayer as a treatment can hinder a child’s chances to receive proven medical help.

Before taking up his broader, social values/policies question I’d like to tackle Dr. Marshall’s underlying assumption – that his “review of the medical literature on the benefit of prayer convinces me that it has no effect (other than one study in which cardiac patients who were prayed for, without their knowledge, did worse than those without prayer).” Is this true? Are there no validated studies that support the power of prayer?

I challenge this assertion. In the last 25 years a series of well-designed empirical studies have repeatedly validated the physiological value of prayer and spiritual belief.  It seems a person’s faith can heal, or at least affect the health of their body. (See Backus, William Backus’ The Healing Power of a Healthy Mind, 1997). More remarkable still, and contrary to Dr. Marshall’s contention, other studies do suggest that a person’s prayer may be able to heal another person’s body, even when the other has no certain knowledge of having been the object of such intercession. (See Dale Matthew’s The Faith Factor, 1998). I suggest we discuss a few of these studies and the implications they offer.

I acknowledge that “testing prayer” or even more, “testing God” does seem to challenge both established scientific as well as theological assumption. But I do believe there is good cause to pursue these studies and their results. Larry Dossey, a medical doctor and prayer researcher responds to the objections that transcendent “causes” can’t be measured by suggesting that science in general is still adjusting to Einstein’s theories that matter and energy are interchangeable and to the quirky world of quantum science. Measuring anything accurately is now a tricky business. Dossey dares scientists to look at measuring prayer the same way we now have to measure subatomic particles. There has to be an acceptance of randomness. “You can’t really see it,” says Dossey. “You just know that under certain conditions it manifests itself” (See Larry Dossey’s, Healing words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine, 1993).  

So are the effects of prayer measurable? What do you think?

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