Does Prayer Work?

Mar 15, 2007 3:33pm

The power of prayer.  It’s something that many people would say cannot be reduced to a mere experiment.  But many researchers–some of whom call themselves religious, others who don’t–have tried. If you are someone who prays, and you feel it’s made life better, or it’s helped in difficult times, then the issue is very simple.  As one chaplain told us, "It works.  Marvelously well." The most prominent academic experiment, a year ago, was led by Herbert Benson of Harvard.  (Benson, among other things, is the author of The Relaxation Response and other bestsellers.)  His group looked into cases where someone was undergoing coronary bypass surgery–and others prayed for them, sometimes without their specific knowledge.  The conclusion was negative.  If anything, bypass patients did a little worse if others were praying for them. A quote from Jeffrey Dusek, one of Benson’s colleagues on the study: "We thought that the certainty of knowing about the prayers of outsiders would reduce complications that accompany bypass surgery.  But the results were paradoxical." Now, David Hodges of Arizona State University has come back with a meta-analysis–essentially, a survey of the existing studies.  Hodges, an assistant professor of social work, argues that the case is not closed.  "It suggests that more research on the topic may be warranted, and that praying for people with psychological or medical problems may help them recover.” He adds a caution: “Overall, the meta-analysis indicates that prayer is effective…. Is it effective enough to meet the standards of the American Psychological Association’s Division 12 for empirically validated interventions? No. Thus, we should not be treating clients suffering with depression, for example, only with prayer. To treat depression, standard treatments, such as cognitive therapy, should be used as the primary method of treatment.” It’s a fascinating subject, in that complicated place where science and faith intersect.  Thoughts, as always, are welcome. 

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