I have long had an interest in the effectiveness of prayer for healing. My initial reaction to healing claims tends to be mild scepticism (I believe healing can occur but I don’t believe all claims of divine healing are credible), but I try to find cases where there is good evidence.
So I am interested to see how medical science is exploring the value of prayer and faith in providing real help to suffering patients. One researcher is Professor Candy Gunther Brown, a historian in the Department of Religious Studies at Indiana University.
How to study the effects of prayer
To reduce the possibility of subjective and “placebo” effects, medical research generally uses “double blind studies”, where a control group doesn’t receive the treatment, to provide a comparison with the group that does receive treatment. Neither participants nor those administering the treatment should know which group anyone is in.
Many studies of prayer take this approach – sometimes called “distant prayer”. However this doesn’t examine prayer as it is usually received – personally, which may include interaction between patient and the person praying, such as touch, discussion and variation in the prayer offered as a result. These factors may be important.
Professor Brown therefore argues that research is needed on “proximal intercessory prayer” (PIP), in which the effects of prayer are examined in a more natural setting. This doesn’t allow a double blind study (how can “sham prayer” be offered?) but she suggests a group of approaches, each of which adds to the overall picture.
Four different approaches
- Compare medical records before and after prayer.
- Survey how sufferers feel about the effectivenerss of healing prayer.
- Conduct clinical trials and measure selected health markers of the patients.
- Follow up patients some years later to see if the effects of prayer are lasting.
She has found that each of these approaches has provided evidence of long term healing after prayer.
A small “real life” study
To conduct her own clinical trial, Professor Brown travelled to Mozambique to observe the healing ministry of Heidi Baker of Iris International, a christian healing and relief organisation.
She attended a healing meeting and tested 24 people who sought prayer for renewed eyesight or hearing – these conditions were chosen because they are easily tested in a dynamic “field” situation. All people seeking prayer were tested immediately before and immediately after receiving prayer.
The study found there was a
highly significant improvement in hearing across the 18 ears tested, and
significant visual improvements for those whose eyes were prayed for.
These statistically significant improvements were much greater than the improvement several other studies found as a result of hypnosis or suggestion.
Vision improvements – lower values are better.
One subject, Jordan, was presented as deaf and mute since birth and made no responses to sounds at 100 dBHL; after PIP, he responded to 60 dBHL tones, imitating sounds in a hoarse, raspy voice.
Before prayer, Maryam could not count fingers from one foot away; after one minute of PIP, she was reading the 20/125 line on a vision chart.
Interpreting the results
Professor Brown is guarded in her conclusions. She simply reports the results, argues that PIP merits further study, and draws no conclusion about causes (including whether these results are evidence of God).
Against critics of her methodology, she admits the difficulties, but argues that (1) she has to adapt her methods to the situation, and it is difficult to set up a double blind study in this type of case, and (2) this approach is quite adequate for a preliminary study, but further, more extensive, studies would now be beneficial.
Can we test for God?
There are difficulties in interpreting studies of the value of prayer. Medical studies are designed to test for medical results – which means physical or psychological effects which follow from certain objective treatments. But in the case of prayer, is a medical improvement the result of psychological effects or of God’s action?
Further, God is not an objective treatment that will work in a certain percentage of cases, but a being who makes choices. Studies to test for God’s possible action would be even more difficult to set up.
Nevertheless, I think this study adds to the growing medical evidence for the benefits of prayer, and the likelihood that God does indeed answer some prayers, sometimes quite spectacularly.
References to Professor Brown’s work:
- Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal
Intercessory Prayer (STEPP) on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique by Brown et al, 2010, Southern Medical Journal.
- Articles by Candy Gunther Brown: Testing Prayer: Can Science Prove the Healing Power of Prayer? and What Counts as Legitimate Scientific Research on Prayer? in Huffington Post, and Clinical Trials: Can health outcomes of prayer be measured? in Psychology Today.
- A truly dreadful study into the effects of prayer – a critical review in Secular News Daily.
- Candy Gunther Brown’s CV.
Picture: Heidi Baker praying for healing in Mozambique, courtesy of Iris Global.