Thursday, July 28, 2005

Do Prayers for the Heart Patient Help?

A study by Dr. Mitchell W. Krucoff, a professor of medicine at Duke University and reported in the British medical journal, The Lancet, has found that prayer from a distance - whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish or Buddhist - did not significantly improve the outcome for common elective cardiac procedures performed on a group 737 patients. The study did find some positive benefit in bedside stress-reduction techniques like music, imagery and touching.

Half of the study participants were randomly assigned to a group to be prayed for, and half to a group that was not prayed for. Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist congregations were then given the names of patients to be prayed for, and prayed for their healing for five to 30 days. The group prayed for had no significant reduction in deaths either in the hospital or in later hospital readmissions, although the report does say that 6-month mortality was slightly lower (in fact 25% compared with 35%!) in patients assigned to the prayer group.

Dr. Krucoff conceded the results was "not a disproof of prayer," noting that "most of the patients - whether or not they received prayers from the congregations - had friends and relatives praying for them." This last alone would seem to invalidate any such intercessory prayer experiments. An essential component of an experiment is the ability to isolate the variable one is seeking to study, which in this class of experiments is God! Specifically, how could the experimenter ever be able to rule out that persons outside the experiment are not praying for individuals in both the experimental and control groups, and that God is not answering some of those prayers? Former atheist-turned Christian Paul Glynn asks of a similar experiment involving cardiac patients, where the results seemed to indicate that prayer had made a significant difference:

"Then there was the more fundamental problem of putting `prayer' itself in this fashion under the scientific microscope. Presumably, some of the patients in the control group had relatives and friends praying for them. Indeed, one would expect the majority of people in coronary care units to have people praying quite earnestly for them. Why should the prayers of the control group's relatives not have been `heard,' while the prayers of the strangers in Byrd's recruited prayer groups were? Were the latter prayers `better,' even though they came from strangers who did not know the patients? How earnestly did the prayer groups pray, and for that matter did they pray at all? Byrd's was an ingeniously and carefully structured study. But as is clear, one sails quickly off the scientific deep end in this kind of research." (Glynn, 1997, p.91)
This is apart from other issues, such as the assumption that "Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist" are all praying to the same God (according to comparative religions scholar Huston Smith, "Buddhism is atheistic"), and that God is not some automatic celestial vending machine who would obligingly cooperate with a scientific experiment that sets a limit that He must work on just the prayed-for patients, within the allotted six months time-frame in response to prayer from "five to 30 days"! As Glynn had previously observed, the idea that God can be manipulated to perform in this type of experiment is more akin to magic, than genuine spirituality:
"There is a kind of relentlessly utilitarian bent to the American mind that is prepared to reduce everything in life to a tool or a commodity. Spirituality is no exception. Think about it for a moment. Over the course of centuries, countless children have prayed earnestly over sick parents-and for that matter parents over sick children-who, despite countless, earnest prayers, have died. To date, none of us have escaped that particular earthly fate. Precious few of us escape illness over the course of a long life. Statistics show that religious people are, on average, physically and mentally healthier than their atheistic or agnostic counterparts, and that is well and good. Nevertheless, they do get sick, and they do die. The notion that spiritual forces can be invoked at will to change the material conditions of our lives, or those of others, properly belongs not to religion or to genuine spirituality as it has been understood by mankind's greatest religious teachers, but rather to magic. It is not accidental that one of the most important phrases in Christian prayer is `Thy will be done.'" (Glynn, 1997, p.92)
Christian teaching on prayer is that it is primarily in the context of a a private personal relationship between the individual believer and God (Mat.6:6); prayer often has to be persistent (Luke 18:1-5); personal righteousness is an important factor in effective prayer (James 5:16); God can answer prayers with a "no" as He did to the Apostle Paul's request for healing (2 Cor. 12:7-9); and even Jesus' prayers were conditional on their being in accordance with God's will: "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will." (Mat. 26:39).

Which is not to say that God does not heal in answer to prayer. He does, but in my experience it is always on His terms. For example, several years ago my wife accompanied her friend, who was suffering from chronic pain in her face, to a travelling Christian healer's tent. After being prayed for by the healer, my wife's friend's pain went completely away a couple of days after the meeting and has not since returned. My wife, who has MS, was not herself seeking healing but the healer asked her if she wanted him to pray for her too, so she said yes. While my wife was not healed of her MS, a couple of months later she realised that she had not had one of her regular migraine headaches since that healing meeting, and that is still the case today. Needless to say, neither my wife, nor her friend, nor I, need scientific experiments to convince us that God answers prayers for healing, even if it is not always exactly what we ask for!

"Prayer 'no aid to heart patients'," BBC, 15 July, 2005.

"Prayer Groups, Other Therapy Found Ineffective," Ivanhoe's Medical Breakthroughs, July 15, 2005.

Bakalar B., "Do Prayers for the Heart Patient Help?" The New York Times, July 26, 2005.

Glynn, P., "God: The Evidence: The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World," Forum: Rocklin CA, 1997.

Krucoff, M.W., et al., "Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study," The Lancet, Vol. 366, No. 9481, 16 July 2005.

Osterweil, N., "Prayer Does Not Affect Primary Heart Outcomes," MedPage Today, July 14, 2005.

Smith, H., "The World's Religions," [1958], Harper Collins: New York NY, Revised, 1991, p.114.

Wible, B., "Healing Power of Prayer Doubted in Patient Study," Los Angeles Times, July 16, 2005.

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

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