Prayer under a microscope

Scientists enlist the help of religious groups in an effort to measure the healing power of faith from afar.

July 31, 2005|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

The names of the sick arrived at the Towson monastery by e-mail. Later in the day, gathering for Vespers, Sister Patricia Scanlan and the other Carmelite nuns would solemnly recite each new name aloud, beseeching God to restore these strangers to health.

Each day, millions of religious faithful around the globe make holy appeals like these in behalf of sick friends, relatives and even those unknown to them. Most take it on faith that their prayers make a difference. But now a handful of researchers are wondering: Do prayers from afar really have the power to heal?

To find out, scientists at some of the country's leading universities and hospitals are enlisting the help of religious groups to pray for people with AIDS, brain tumors and other illnesses. The Carmelites were among two dozen religious groups recruited by Duke University researchers studying the effect of distant prayer on heart disease.

Not surprisingly, the research has been highly controversial.

Although a handful of trials over the past two decades have hinted that distant prayer has a measurable effect on health, critics have dismissed these studies as deeply flawed and their results as little more than statistical sleight of hand. In some cases, suspicions have swirled that results might have been manipulated.

Studies of prayer have also irritated some theologians, who question whether it's appropriate - or medically useful - to put God under the microscope.

"Let's say that we show it has no effect - are we now going to tell people to stop praying?" asks Jeffrey Bishop, a physician, Episcopal priest and co-author of a critique of prayer studies in the Dec. 18 issue of the British medical journal BMJ. "If we show that prayer works, are we going to start writing prescriptions for prayer?"

Experts say the Duke University study, published this month in The Lancet, is the most rigorous clinical test of distant prayer to date. But it's not likely to settle the debate.

The study found that the prayers of the Carmelites and other religious groups had no statistically significant effect on more than 700 people preparing to undergo risky heart procedures. But scientific proponents of prayer research argue that it's too early to draw firm conclusions.

"At this point, I don't think there's enough data to conclude anything," says Marilyn Schlitz, a researcher at the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco who is conducting a federally funded study of distant prayer on wound healing. "We're still right at the very beginning stages of this type of research."

Tying God to science

The first scientist to put prayer to the test was Sir Francis Galton, a Victorian polymath and cousin of Charles Darwin who was best known as the father of eugenics and fingerprint identification. In 1872, Galton reasoned that because millions of Britons prayed each day for the health of the country's monarch, royalty would live longer than ordinary citizens.

But when Galton consulted the relevant statistical tables, he discovered to his surprise that the ruling class, on average, lived the shortest lives, dying earlier, on the whole, than doctors, lawyers and members of the army and navy.

For a century afterward, prayer remained largely untouched by science. Then, in 1988, cardiologist Randolph Byrd reported a prayer study of 393 heart patients at San Francisco General Medical Center. Published in the peer-reviewed Southern Medical Journal, it showed that patients prayed for by born-again Christians required less breathing assistance and fewer antibiotics and other drugs than patients who received no supplementary prayer.

The study generated considerable news media attention and piqued the interest of other scientists, despite criticism that it was poorly designed.

A few years later, Elizabeth Targ of the California Pacific Medical Center reported that the distant prayers of faith healers had had a positive health effect on a small group of AIDS patients.

In 1999, William Harris of St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., reported that coronary care patients who were prayed for by Christian groups fared better than patients with no assigned prayers.

Published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, the St. Luke's study tracked 990 heart patients and 35 measures of their health, including length of hospital stay, the drugs they required and the number of deaths reported.

Neither patients nor the study's organizers knew who was receiving prayers, which were offered on a patient's behalf each day for four weeks.

Research quandaries

But even proponents of prayer research concede that evaluating something so ineffable is fraught with challenge. And studies over the years have struggled to reconcile the notion of prayer with the gold standard in clinical research: the "double-blind, placebo-controlled" trial.

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