Prayer — Does It Work to Help Cure Illness?
“There is a mighty lot of difference
between saying prayers and praying.”
John G. Lake
Let me start by saying that this is a “Think” piece. What you are about to read are the conclusions I drew from the research I had time to conduct. Another writer given the same amount of time and resources might have a different view.
I am penning this post so that the prayerful, sometimes prayerful, the skeptics and the cynics have a better understanding of the subject and of each other.
It is important to point out from the very beginning that with rare exception most religious organizations recommend prayer as a supplement to medical care. Some, though, go much further: According to Religious Tolerance dot org (http://www.religioustolerance.org/medical2.htm) they either:
- Teach that certain medical procedures are not allowed, or
- Recommend that members generally reject medical attention in favor of prayer.
We at Bob’s Newheart prefer the mainstream approach that allows for and encourages getting medical help when it is needed. There is more than an adequate amount of scientific evidence to support the claim that medical intervention is more beneficial than prayer alone.
According to the New York Times about 300 children have died in the United States in the last 25 years after medical care was withheld on religious grounds. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/21/us/21faith.html?_r=0
The courts often hear cases of medical treatment for children being withheld due to religious objections. In the vast majority of those cases they have ruled in favor of treatment and against prayer being used as the only remedy. We will return to this topic later.
Does prayer work? That depends on what you mean by “work.” If you are asking about the curative power of prayer well, there is a mixed bag of evidence on that one, I was told once that if you torture Google long enough you can get it to c confess to anything I believe that. You can probably find just as much proof that prayer works as you can that it doesn’t. There is an area, though, where we do know that it does offer some benefits to those who are doing the praying. Not long ago researchers from Baylor University found that people who pray to a loving and protective God are less likely to experience anxiety-related disorders — worry, fear, self-consciousness, social anxiety and obsessive compulsive behavior — compared to people who pray but don’t really expect to receive any comfort or protection from God.
On the other hand, the same Baylor University research found that people who have more insecure attachments to a supreme being react differently. If they feel rejected or that their prayers have gone unanswered they can suffer severe symptoms of anxiety and/or depression. So does prayer work? Yes, but perhaps not in the manner you might suspect. Prayer and/or meditation can have a profound effect on your state of mind. You can read more about the psychological effects of prayer here at Spirituality and Health. http://tinyurl.com/ngntzva.
The real question, though, or the one most people are asking is, “Will prayer cure disease, save dying people, or bring me whatever I’m asking for? To be even more precise the question might finally be boiled down to, “Do prayers get answered.”
Science and religion are often at odds on a number of topics but perhaps that’s because neither is very tolerant of or patient with the other. The fact of the matter is that when put to scientific scrutiny some studies have clearly indicated that prayer can be a medical tool.
Psychologists tell us that there are three kinds of prayer, 1) egocentric prayer is when we pray for ourselves, 2) ethnocentric prayer is when you pray for another person and 3) geocentric prayer is when you pray for everyone.
A study of about 150 cardiac patients at the Duke University Medical Center included a sub-group who received ethnocentric prayer had the highest treatment success rate within the entire group. This was a legitimate study, too. It was double blind which means that neither the researchers nor the patients benefiting from the prayers knew who was on the receiving end. The results were similar in another legitimate scientific double-blind study that was done at San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit. The “prayed for patients” showed a greatly diminished need for critical care, maintenance medications and heroic measures. There were also fewer deaths. All of that suggests somehow, something intervened. Just exactly what that variable might be is unclear but there most definitely was a connection.
The great difficulty in researching the topic is that there are so many different points of view and they all claim to be the most accurate source. I decided to use information from those who most clearly communicated their thoughts to me regardless of religious, philosophical or political designation. So, let me begin.
It seems to me there are five groups of people.
- Those who strongly believe in the power of prayer and are devout in their religious convictions. They are often unshakeable even when it appears to others that their prayers have been rejected.
- Those who pray only in emergencies or when they really want or need something.
- Those who pray, but only because they are afraid not to pray. They hope some good will come of their efforts. I’ve known many who pray because they were taught to do so and don’t know what else to do even though they are doubt the effectiveness of the practice.
- Those who are ambivalent or skeptical. They tolerate prayer but don’t engage in it themselves
- Those who are more cynical and for the most part reject prayer and religion as an exercise in futility and a waste of time.
Why do people pray? When you Google the question, “What is
faith?” you have a choice of 801,000,000 results. Eight hundred million. Obviously I did not read but a tiny fraction of them but I did look at a few. The definitions I selected had seemed to best characterize the people I know who appear to be of great faith. There is a very fine line to walk between religion and faith but I’ll attempt the balancing act anyway. .
What is faith?
Still another definition is, “Faith is a sacred, deep, emotionally involved kind of trust that a power greater than you can change anything. Faith requires a trust in your belief that consumes your whole being. “
And finally, “Some argue that faith is a decision. Others understand it to be a gift. Many have never known their life without it, while others can point to a particular moment when faith became a part of their experience. No matter, faith is simply a strong belief that a greater power exists and is in charge of everything.” Somewhere in one of those three definitions you may find a kernel of the element of your faith or lack of it.
If you have “Faith” you probably pray and that’s a word that also needs defining. What constitutes prayer? One definition says, “Prayer includes respect, love, pleading and faith. Through a prayer a devotee expresses his helplessness and endows the task to God. Prayer, it seems, is a very personal way for an individual to communicate with his or her God. In most cases people who pray are asking for something either for themselves or for others. Some believe they always get answers to their prayers and that they actually talk with God and hear his responses. Others pray and hope they are heard. People have different experiences with prayer some good and some bad.
Are Prayers Answered?
The Huffington Post is certainly not highly regarded for their expertise in prayer but some of the writers have interesting thoughts. For example, in story from May of 2012 with the headline,” Prayer: What Does The Science Say? The post notes that an overwhelming 83 percent of Americans say that God answers prayers, but their reaction is a gut feeling and there’s little or no scientific validation offered. Two researchers with opposing positions on the issue have written interesting books to explain their views. If you are interested in learning more on either or both let me refer you to Tanya Marie Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford and author of the book “When God Talks Back” and Michael Shermer, executive director of the Skeptics Society and author of “The Believing Brain.”
One thing is clear. Religion and prayer appear to be inseparable. If you engage in prayer or some kind of communion with a higher power it likely was heavily influenced by your experience and/or exposure to religion, but the water gets a little murky there because according to the Pew Foundation more than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion – or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.
When it comes to the effectiveness of prayer, there are as many answers as there are people. Most of the answers, though, are based on anecdotal rather than scientifically based evidence.
There are those who believe deeply that prayer brings results and therefore comfort and there are others who have no faith in faith and care even less for religion whether organized or not.
One can probably assume that many if not a majority of prayers have to do with health and longevity and our health care system has deep faith based roots that are made obvious with every hospital admission. Patients are almost always asked for religious preference so if an emergency arises the institution can satisfy the patient’s needs in that area.
People of faith are willing to accept a negative prayer response more than those without faith by saying, “Well, that’s the will of God.”
at the same time, though, a cynic might ask, “If prayers work, why do so many prayerful, religious people die horrible deaths? Prayer vigils are organized often for sick people and they die anyway,” say the disbelievers.
I guess the answer depends on who you ask. The atheist would say, “No. Prayer can’t work because there is no God.” For them it is a cut and dried issue.
The answer from agnostics might be a little more complex. That particular group is more likely to equivocate because they claim neither faith nor disbelief in God.
One could site any one of a number of biblical passages regarding prayer. Here are just a few:
John 15:7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
Philippians 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Mark 11:24 Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.
Most of the major religions, as pointed out earlier, believe a combination of prayer and medical science is the answer to most health issues. Some take a harder line than others.
Shortly after my heart transplant in 2007 I started this blog and a Facebook group, Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI), which now has nearly 4200 members. Recently I asked members to give me examples of how prayers worked or didn’t work for them.
Jon Claflin (He requested that he be identified) sent these words to me.
“Ever since I was a child, prayer has confused me. Raised a Christian, I was taught that God has a plan and that He knows all. These two concepts run counter to me interfering with this plan by praying and asking God to make an exception or allow for a different outcome. Of course this is impossible as God knows the outcome anyway.
As an adult, my views on the futility of prayer only increased. As a student of logic and skepticism, I realized that prayer is an unfalsifiable concept as no matter what transpires, the believer can claim that prayer worked. If the promotion at work didn’t come through or their aunt died, they can simply claim that this was God’s will. And if their aunt survived or the promotion came through, then (again) prayer did its job.
This is all the personal belief of the individual turning to prayer and I wouldn’t seek to change this, but when prayer is artificially elevated the level of a legitimate healthcare choice, I do take issue. Heart failure is a serious life or death situation and inserting superstition or talking to invisible deities into this predicament as an alternative to medicine is extremely dangerous, and choosing prayer over evidence-based medicine is deadly. Until prayer can stand up to the rigorous double-blinded testing that medical therapies do, I opt for medical intervention over prayer.”
Other members had a different perspective and this letter is pretty typical of the kind of responses I got. She believes her prayers were answered. Who are we to say she is wrong?
“Almost a year ago now my son had been on PD for 16 months and was feeling sicker by the day. Also, he had developed a hernia most likely FROM PD and we were told he’d have to go on hemodialysis until after he had hernia surgery & had completely healed. I was so heartbroken for him that I went to bed that night desperate – praying & crying till I fell asleep, begging God to just show me what more I could do to help him. I woke up the next morning with the idea to make a Facebook page to find a living kidney donor. I just KNOW that’s what God TOLD me to do. A young man who was a former co-worker of my OTHER son’s emailed me & said he’d be willing to test, and in May it will be the 1 year anniversary of my son’s transplant. His donor has become a member of the family!! He is truly my boy’s miracle!! I love to tell this story!”
That story was told with conviction and with love and while some readers may want to dismiss her contention that God told her what to do, why would they? To what end? Why bother? If she is happy with the outcome it shouldn’t be anyone’s business what she believes.
Of all the responses I got to my Facebook query, no one suggested that prayer alone would solve medical problems.
From what I have been able to gather, a combination of prayer and medical science certainly can’t hurt and it just may be of some help. A story in the Underground Health Reporter said: “Not only can effects of prayer be an important curative tool in times of crisis, but it can also promote a sustained state of well-being. A fascinating study conducted by researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond analyzed the lives of 1,902 sets of twins.
It turned out that twins committed to spiritual lives tended to have lower rates of:
The Richmond study indicated that active involvement in a spiritual community is strongly linked to overall stability and health.
This is Your Brain on God
Most extraordinary of all is the way prayer has been shown to produce physical changes in the brain. Barbara Bradley Hagerty put together a 5-part NPR series called, “Is This Your Brain on God?” In the series, Hagerty explores a possible reason that prayer has such restorative and preventative potential. That is, scientists can see noticeable differences between the brains of those who pray or meditate often and those who don’t.
One scientist in particular had published astonishing findings. His name is Andrew Newberg, and he’s a practicing neuroscientist at the University of Pennsylvania and author of How God Changes Your Brain. Newberg has been scanning the brains of people with religious convictions for more than 10 years. He says meditation in particular has a very visible effect on the brain’s frontal lobe. He believes that the neurological effects of prayer and meditation can be long-lasting. Read more: http://undergroundhealthreporter.com/effects-of-prayer-can-lead-to-healing/#ixzz3RGrtNsjB
So that’s my report on prayer. I came away with this thought. If I or someone I love has a very serious disease I will do two things. I likely will say a prayer or two and then find the best medical team money can buy. Maybe….just maybe the medical team is the answer to a prayer.
All I know is that when I pray, coincidences happen; and when I don’t pray, they don’t happen.”
Bob Aronson of Bob’s Newheart is a 2007 heart transplant recipient, the founder of Facebook’s over 4,000 member Organ Transplant Initiative (OTI) and the author of most of these donation/transplantation blogs. You may comment in the space provided or email your thoughts to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. And – please spread the word about the immediate need for more organ donors. There is nothing you can do that is of greater importance. If you convince one person to be an organ and tissue donor you may save or positively affect over 60 lives. Some of those lives may be people you know and love. You can register to be a donor a thttp://www.donatelife.net. It only takes a few minutes.