I noticed “Prayer Changes Things” written on the front of the van of a local church. I thought that studies had demonstrated the truth of this statement. Whether one wants to draw the conclusion that this proves God’s existence is a different story.
A lot of marginally recalled information is suspect. I didn’t want to rely on the accuracy of my recollection. So I did a quick google on “effects of prayer and health.” Here is an interesting transcript of a conference held by the Heritage Foundation. The first speaker mentions that numerically, many studies show religious people (usually defined as people who pray) obtain better health outcomes. In 5 of 7 studies, for example, cancer patients who are religious survive longer than the non-religious. Of course, this could just mean that 5 out of 7 cancer/religion studies are poorly designed. And that 14 of 15 studies of the linkage between recovery from depression and personal prayer are poorly designed. Or that there really is a linkage.
A Study administered by Duke University Medical Center tested to see if patients undergoing heart surgery who were prayed for (without their knowledge) did any better than people who were not prayed for. There was no difference in the outcomes. All sorts of hypotheses can be generated. The prayers were done by various groups of Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews. Perhaps Yahweh helped the folks prayed for by Jews but He was poorly disposed toward those prayed for by Muslims. The net result was therefore that the outcomes for the group prayed for were statistically identical to the outcomes for the group whose members were not prayed for. Other fun/blasphemous/insulting hypotheses can be proposed.
A followup study was done. This divided 748 patients into 4 groups: those being prayed for (unbeknownst to them), those receiving “Music, Imaging, and Touch” therapy prior to surgery, those who received both, and those who received neither. There was no appreciable difference in the outcomes for those groups right after the surgery. At a point six months after the surgery though, the group that had received both MIT therapy and anonymous intercessory prayer had the lowest mortality rate, those who had only received MIT were next, and those receiving only prayer or neither prayer nor MIT had equivalent mortality rates.
The study noted that 89% of those enrolled knew of someone praying for them (not the prayer groups assigned by the study). The article did not note how many patients were praying themselves.
The processes that go on in our brains are chemical and biological. It seems reasonable that the attitudes we choose result in different mixes of chemicals, different groups of neurons firing, different groups of muscles tensing or relaxing. Stress, or its relief, will change the chemical and biological mix. And it is easy to imagine that this chemical/biological backdrop will influence the effectiveness of therapies, treatments, and health. Therapies and treatments ultimately are instantiated in biological and chemical process that result in our health and attitudes. A tantalizingly complex feedback system, us. Designed by God or evolved.
And it seems reasonable to assume that chemical and biological processes in the brains of people we are unaware of will have no effect upon us. That’s what the second study demonstrated.
What does this mean? My take is that if prayer is going to make a difference, you need to do it yourself. And that many current studies indicate that it may make a difference. Prayer Changes Things, if you do it yourself.
Acting as though you had free will is once again shown to be a good thing.