Monday, April 03, 2006

Study highlights difficulty of isolating effect of prayer on patients

Study highlights difficulty of isolating effect of prayer on patients, Christian Science Monitor, April 03, 2006, Gregory M. Lamb ... The results of a long-awaited scientific study aimed at measuring the effect of third-party prayer for hospitalized patients not only did not match the expectations of those conducting the study, but also may have raised more questions for researchers than it answered. Among them: Can even the most carefully designed trial measure prayer's effects? The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), published online March 30 by the American Heart Journal, showed no positive effect from the use of third-party intercessory prayer on behalf of patients undergoing a specific type of heart surgery at six medical centers around the United States when compared with a control group who were not prayed for as part of the study. Another unexpected result: Patients who knew they were being prayed for had somewhat more medical complications than another group who also had received prayer but were uncertain as to whether they had or not. Researchers had expected the reverse outcome. STEP aimed to provide more accurate results than four previous trials that involved cardiac patients, the authors said. The results of those trials were mixed: Two found a beneficial effect of prayer; two found no benefit. The earlier studies were also criticized for having design flaws, the authors said. But the study itself is unlikely to satisfy those who question whether the effects of prayer can be measured using conventional scientific testing. They ask: How do you define what constitutes a prayer? Are all forms of prayer equally effective? How do you design a "dose" of prayer that is the same for each patient? And how do you rule out the effects of the patients' own prayers or prayers from others not involved in the study on behalf of the patient? About 95 percent of all the STEP participants - including a control group that was not prayed for as part of the study - said that they expected friends, relatives, or members of their religious institutions to be praying for them. About two-thirds strongly agreed with the statement, "I believe in spiritual healing." The authors were careful to point out the limited conclusions that could be drawn from their study. "Private or family prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, and the results of this study do not challenge this belief," the authors wrote. "Our study focused only on intercessory prayer as provided in this trial and was never intended to and cannot address a large number of religious questions, such as whether God exists, whether God answers intercessory prayers, or whether prayers from one religious group work in the same way as prayers from other groups." For some involved in exploring the issues of spirituality and health, the new study only confirms their reservations. "Scientific studies are just not capable of showing that prayer works," says Dr. Harold Koenig, an associate professor of medicine and co-director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health at Duke University's Medical Center. "I think that prayer absolutely does work and that God answers prayer and that we can continue to pray for our loved ones," Dr. Koenig says. "We should not think that science can answer every question there is." ...
If you want to get better - don't say a little prayer, The Guardian, Oliver Burkeman, April 1, 2006 If a religious person offers to pray for you next time you fall ill, you may wish politely to ask them not to bother. The largest scientific study into the health effects of prayer seems to suggest it may make matters worse. Two-thirds of Americans and more than a quarter of British people say they pray regularly, but the study, which took almost a decade and cost $2.4m (£1.4m) suggested that they may be wasting their time. It found that patients undergoing heart surgery did no better when they were prayed for by people unknown to them than those who received no prayers. But 59% of those patients who were told they were definitely being prayed for developed complications, compared with 52% of those who had been told it was just a possibility. Article continues "Here they are, facing the biggest challenge of their lives, just about to go into the operating suite, and don't know whether they're coming back or not," said Charles Bethea, of the Integris Baptist medical centre in Oklahoma City, a co-author of the study. "And then we have someone come in and introduce themselves as a study coordinator." The arrival of the "prayer team" may have convinced those patients that their situation was particularly dire, heightening their anxiety, Dr Bethea speculated. The study, which will be published in the American Heart Journal next week, drew criticisms from religious groups, who argued that science cannot illuminate questions of faith, and from other medical scientists, who said it was a waste of money. "It represents bad science, poor medical care, and it trivialises religion," Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioural medicine at Columbia University, told the Guardian. He argued that the study was not properly constructed because it was impossible to control for how much prayer any of the 1,800 patients might or might not be receiving from other sources. Dr Bethea and his colleague, Harvard professor Herbert Benson, emphasised that their investigations had been restricted to "intercessory prayer" by strangers - excluding prayer from family members and oneself. Praying for oneself has been shown in many studies to be effective. [See also ABC News; CBC & MSNBC. Ironically, the scientifically (i.e. methodologically naturalistic) rigorous way this study was designed, to try exclude all prayers except those in the experiment, may have received their answer from God, in that those prayed for in the experiment had a worse outcome!

But personally I think these studies are a waste of time, and are not even scientific. A fundamental principle of such experiments are that they are supposed to be blind to all participants. But here the main Participant (God) is all-seeing and all-knowing (Ps 139:1-12; Heb 4:13)!

There is also another point that Jesus taught that prayer should be private and personal (Matthew 6:6) and God may well be answering "yes" to some individuals' prayers and "no" (or "keep praying" - Luke 18:1-5) to other individuals, while keeping the overall total balanced, thus revealing no statistically significant result.

The bottom line is that even if there was a small, but statistically significant advantage to those being prayed for (as in fact was the case in a previous study), it would not convince a believer in naturalism. They would ascribe it to the some naturalistic cause, like positive thinking, quantum entanglement, and if all else fails, unknown (and even unknowable ) natural causes!]

PS: Here below (reposted from my terminated list CED) is a long quote of an answer to prayer in the life of the founder of the China Inland Mission, James Hudson Taylor, that made a big impression on me 1968, about a year after my conversion. Briefly, Hudson Taylor had to take over a mission hospital in China at short notice, following the sudden departure of the missionary doctor who founded the hospital. Taylor prayed about it and felt God telling him to continue the hospital's inpatient work, even though (humanly speaking) the money would soon run out. Nevertheless, Taylor felt that God would answer his prayers somehow. But eventually all the money and supplies ran out. But then, just before he would have to close the hospital, Taylor received a letter enclosing a cheque for 50 pounds (a large sum of money in those days) from a wealthy man in England who months before (bearing in mind this was in the 1850's before the days of airmail) had felt that he should offer his financial support.

But as can be seen in responses to that post, the non-Christian I posted it for just dismissed it as a coincidence. As Jesus Himself pointed out in Luke 16:31:

"If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets [i.e. rule out supernatural intervention and revelation on naturalistic philosophical grounds], they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead."

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

"SPARED thus in the mercy of God the loss of his own loved one, Hudson Taylor felt the more deeply for Dr. Parker when the angel of death visited his home. With scarcely any warning, on August 26, Mrs. Parker was stricken with dangerous illness, and passed away at midnight leaving four little ones motherless. The young missionaries at Bridge Street did what they could to come to the help of their friend, and others were ready with practical sympathy, but the shock proved too much for the bereaved husband. One of the children was seriously ill, and amid the difficulties of his changed position the doctor began to realise how much his own health was impaired by five years spent in China. He had neither heart nor strength for added burdens and decided before long to take his family home to the care of relatives in Scotland. But what about the medical mission, outcome of so much prayer and labour? The hospital was full of patients, and the dispensary crowded day by day with a constant stream of people, all of whom needed help. No other doctor was free to take his place, and yet to stop the work seemed out of the question with the winter coming on. How would it be, in default of better arrangements, to ask his former colleague, Hudson Taylor, to continue the dispensary at any rate? He was quite competent for this, and with the hospital closed would not have much financial responsibility. The suggestion, it need hardly be said, came as a great surprise to Mr. and Mrs. Taylor, and sent them to their knees in earnest prayer. All they wanted was to know the Lord's will in the matter, and as they waited upon Him for guidance it was clearly given, but in a direction they little anticipated. Yes, the dispensary must be kept open; and more than that, the hospital must not be closed. The Lord had given them helpers just suited for such an emergency, a band of native Christians who would rally round them and make the most of the opportunities which the hospital especially afforded. And as to funds, or lack of funds-for Dr. Parker had very little to leave-the work was not theirs but the Lord's. To close it on account of the small balance in hand would practically mean that prayer had lost its power; and if so they might as well retire from the field. No, for the good of the native Christians, the strengthening of their own faith and the comfort and blessing of many, they must go forward, and above all for the glory of God. "After waiting upon the Lord for guidance," wrote Hudson Taylor, I felt constrained to undertake not only the dispensary but the hospital as well, relying solely on the faithfulness of a prayer hearing God to furnish means for its support. "At times there were no fewer than fifty in-patients, besides a large number who daily attended the dispensary. Thirty beds were ordinarily allotted to free patients and their attendants, and about as many more to opium smokers who paid for their board while being cured of the habit. As all the wants of the sick in the wards were supplied gratuitously, as well as the medical appliances needed for the out-patient department, the daily expenses were considerable. A number of native attendants also were required, involving their support. "The funds for the maintenance of all this had hitherto been supplied by the proceeds of the doctor's foreign practice, and with his departure this source of income ceased. But had not God said that whatever we ask in the name of the Lord Jesus shall be done? And are we not told to seek first the kingdom of God-not means to advance it-and that " all these things " shall be added to us? Such promises were surely sufficient." Strong therefore in the Lord and in the inward assurance of His call to this enlarged service, Mr. and Mrs. Taylor prepared to move over to Dr. Parker's. The care of the Bridge Street Christians remained in the hands of their beloved colleague Mr. Jones, who from the first had been Pastor of the little Church, and cordial indeed was the prayer and sympathy with which all its members endorsed the action of their missionaries. ... But it had come about so suddenly that no one at any distance was aware of the position or could be more prepared than he himself. "Eight days before entering upon the care of the Ning-po hospital," wrote Mr. Taylor, "I had not the remotest idea of ever doing so still less could friends at home have foreseen the need." But the Lord had anticipated it, and already His provision was on the way, as events were happily to prove. The first step taken by the young missionary upon assuming independent charge of the hospital was to call together the assistants and explain the real state of affairs. Dr. Parker, as he told them, had left funds in hand for the expenses of the current month, but little more. After this provision was used up they must look to the Lord directly for supplies; and it would not be possible to guarantee stated salaries, because whatever happened he would not go into debt. Under these circumstances, any who wished to do so were at liberty to seek other employment, though he would be glad of their continued service if they were prepared to trust the simple promises of God. This condition of things, as Mr. Taylor had expected, led all who were not decided Christians to withdraw ... There are few secrets in China, and the financial basis upon which the hospital was now run was not one of them. Soon the patients knew all about its, and were watching eagerly for the outcome. This too was something to think and talk about ; and as the money left by Dr. Parker was used up and Hudson Taylor's own supplies ran low, many were the conjectures as to what would happen next. Needless to say that alone and with his little band of helpers Hudson Taylor was much in prayer at this time. It was perhaps a more open and in that sense crucial test than any that had come to him, and he realised that the faith -of not a few was at stake as well as the continuance of the hospital work. But day after day went by without bringing the expected answer. At length one morning Kuei-hua the cook appeared with serious news for his master. The very last bag of rice had been opened, and was disappearing rapidly. "Then," replied Hudson Taylor, "-the Lord's time for helping us must be close at hand." And so it proved. For before that bag of rice was finished a letter reached the young missionary that was among the most remarkable he ever received. It was from Mr. Berger, and contained a cheque for fifty pounds, like others that had come before. Only in this case the letter went on to say that a heavy burden had come upon the writer, the burden of wealth to use for God. Mr. Berger's father had recently passed away, leaving him a considerable increase of fortune. The son did not wish to enlarge his personal expenditure. He had had enough before, and was now praying to be guided as to the Lord's purpose in what had taken place. Could his friends in Ja China help him? The bill enclosed was for immediate needs, and would they write fully, after praying over the matter, if there were ways in which they could profitably use more? Fifty pounds! There it lay on the table ; and his far-off friend, knowing nothing about that last bag of rice or the many needs of the hospital, actually asked if he might send them more. No wonder Hudson Taylor was overwhelmed with thankfulness and awe. Suppose he had held back from taking charge of the hospital on account of lack of means, or lack of faith rather? Lack of faith with such promises and such a God! There was no Salvation Army in those days, but the praise-meeting held in the chapel fairly anticipated it in its songs and shouts of joy. But unlike some Army meetings it had to be a short one, for were there not the patients in the wards? And how they listened-these men and women who had known nothing all their lives but blank, empty heathenism. "Where is the idol that can do anything like that? was the question upon many lips and hearts. "Have they ever delivered us in our troubles, or answered prayer after this sort?" (Taylor H. & Taylor G., "Hudson Taylor in Early Years: The Growth of a Soul," [1911], Lutterworth Press: London, 1958, reprint, pp.488-491)

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