Conclusions and Premises Debated as Big Study's Release Nears
At the Fairfax Community Church in Virginia, the faithful regularly pray for ailing strangers. Same goes at the Adas Israel synagogue in Washington and the Islamic Center of Maryland in Gaithersburg.
In churches, mosques, ashrams, "healing rooms," prayer groups and homes nationwide, millions of Americans offer prayers daily to heal themselves, family, friends, co-workers and even people found through the Internet. Fueled by the upsurge in religious expression in the United States, prayer is the most common complement to mainstream medicine, far outpacing acupuncture, herbs, vitamins and other alternative remedies.
"Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism -- every religion believes in prayer for healing," said Paul Parker, a professor of theology and religion at Elmhurst College outside Chicago. "Some call it prayer, some call it cleansing the mind. The words or posture may vary. But in times of illness, all religions look towards their source of authority."
The outpouring of spiritual healing has inspired a small group of researchers to attempt to use the tools of modern science to test the power of prayer to cure others. The results have been mixed and highly controversial. Skeptics say the work is a deeply flawed and misguided waste of money that irresponsibly attempts to validate the supernatural with science. And some believers say it is pointless to try to divine the workings of God with experiments devised by mortals.
Proponents, however, maintain the research is valuable, given the large numbers of people who believe in the power of prayer to influence health. Surveys have found that perhaps half of Americans regularly pray for their own health, and at least a quarter have others pray for them.
"It's one of the most prevalent forms of healing. Open-minded scientists have a responsibility to look into this," said Marilyn J. Schlitz of the California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco.
The contentious enterprise is at something of a crossroads. Two new studies are about to report no benefit of having people pray for the sick, the only study underway is nearing completion, and the largest, best-designed project is being published in two weeks. Its eagerly awaited findings could sound the death knell for the field, breathe new life into such efforts, or create new debate.
"I will guarantee you that study will have a very interesting impact on a lot of people's thinking," said Mitchell W. Krucoff of Duke University, who wrote an editorial that will accompany the closely guarded findings in the American Heart Journal. "But how you interpret the results will probably depend on your point of view."
Many studies done over the years indicate that the devout tend to be healthier. But the reasons remain far from clear. Healthy people may be more likely to join churches. The pious may lead more wholesome lifestyles. Churches, synagogues and mosques may help people take better care of themselves. The quiet meditation and incantations of praying, or the comfort of being prayed for, appears to lower blood pressure, reduce stress hormones, slow the heart rate and have other potentially beneficial effects.
But the most controversial research focuses on "intercessory" or "distant" prayer, which involves people trying to heal others through their intentions, thoughts or prayers, sometimes without the recipients knowing it. The federal government has spent $2.2 million in the past five years on studies of distant healing, which have also drawn support from private foundations.
San Francisco cardiologist Randolph Byrd, for example, conducted an experiment in which he asked born-again Christians to pray for 192 people hospitalized for heart problems, comparing them with 201 not targeted for prayer. No one knew which group they were in. He reported in 1988 that those who were prayed for needed fewer drugs and less help breathing.
William S. Harris of St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., and colleagues published similar results in 1999 from a study involving nearly 1,000 heart patients, about half of whom were prayed for without their knowledge.