If, like me, you grew up religious, prayer meetings where men in suits and women in dresses earnestly bowed their heads, clasped their hands and petitioned God were a weekly ritual. Nobody needed research to prove that our prayers were important; we had faith. How things have changed. Scientific investigations of prayer have lately been making headlines in North America. It's now well established that the act of appealing to the divine is health-enhancing for the person doing it. And it's acknowledged that knowing someone is praying for you will lower your stress. The only real debate centres on the intriguing question of whether prayers for the sick can heal even if the prayed-for are ignorant of the effort on their behalf.
The notion that talking to your personal deity could influence the course of another person's illness is a radical one for men and women of science. Skeptics say that many investigations of the benefit of prayers for someone who is unaware of the intercession have suffered from sloppy research methods. And the slightly positive results sometimes tallied, they advise, could be produced by chance.
Spiritual folk point out that God will not necessarily do what study designers want. So the truth of divine intervention must remain a mystery. This leads some to suggest we should throw out the theological implications and look at prayer studies as possibly proving the power of human thought.
The bottom line? Asking for prayers will help if you welcome them, so long as you don't take up the notion that prayer is a substitute for other therapies. But nobody knows yet if overtures to the divine will do any good if you don't know about them."Science is not closed to non-materialistic explanations. But you need extraordinary evidence to make an extraordinary claim. The studies on prayer all fail in not being of the kind of quality that would be demanded in other fields. If the data were there, I would have to believe it. If the data were to support any of these hypotheses, any scientist would have to try to replicate the results."
VICTOR STENGER, professor emeritus in physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii, visiting fellow in philosophy at the University of Colorado"It's hard to measure cause and effect in an area like this. How can you tell whether someone's really praying or not? Getting better or not? I've seen studies that suggest prayer is helpful, others that say it isn't (in medicine). It's important for people to know there is no evidence either way and that no one should be blamed when they're ill, blamed that they're not sufficiently upbeat, don't have a positive attitude, aren't praying enough, don't have sufficient love of Jesus in their heart."
JAMES ROBERT BROWN, professor of philosohy, U of T, with a strong interest in science and religion"I'm doubtful that intercessory prayer studies will really amount to much. When you randomize people to the control group, they're probably still getting prayers. So it becomes not a matter of whether they're being prayed for, but how much are they getting. What kind of God would count up the number of prayers? And does this God only answer prayer during the time frame of the study? You can't control and confine God, so let's look at what these studies are really testing: do positive thoughts affect people at a distance if they don't know (about them)? I think we ought to leave God and formal religion out of it to make things a lot cleaner."
HAROLD G. KOENIG, MD, associate professor of medicine and psychiatry, Duke University Medical Centre, Durham, NC; author, Spirituality In Patient Care"At the Riwoche Temple we perform a regular general healing ritual for people whose names are listed and for the world in general. In Tibetan culture, prayer, ritual and mantra play a large part in healing. I have seen a number of remarkable cures performed. When we refer to a being's intrinsic goodness, we elicit something positive in them -- that's what I think prayer does. Prayer doesn't always work. If the person has the karma to be helped, they may be. I'm cynical about prayer studies. Double blind studies are shaky enough, but when studying something ephemeral like prayer, it would be hard to separate out the projections of the people doing the test."
SHAKYA DORIE, physician of Tibetan medicine"Praying is calming and improves heart function. At the cardiology clinic at Stanford Hospital, we ask people at intake about their religious beliefs. If people pray, I tell them research has suggested it may be of value to them. With people who are not interested, I don't think the research is strong enough to push it. In 10 years time it may be. We also started a prayer care program. We are in contact with local religious groups and ask people about to get surgery if they're interested in being prayed for. If somebody asked me, I would certainly say yes."
FREDERIC LUSKIN, PhD, research associate, Stanford University school of medicine, Stanford, CA; author, Forgive For Good"We hold a healing service on the first Wednesday of every month. There's a difference between miracle cures and healing. Someone could be blind and could stay blind but still have healing -- fullness of life. Knowing I'm being prayed for is wonderful. Does God need us to pray for someone? No. God loves us all, but it is helpful when we hold one another up in prayer -- maybe that's our responsibility."
LINDA BUTLER, minister of worship and pastoral care, Bloor Street United Church