It's an appealing and comforting thought. Friends, family and even total strangers pray for you when you're seriously ill. When you recover, you may be grateful for those prayers. But did they contribute to your recovery? How would you know? Is it a question even worth asking?
Praying on another person's behalf to improve their health is called "intercessory prayer." And, believe it or not, researchers have attempted to scientifically study its effects on health and recovery from disease. The results are intriguing:
Skeptics criticize these studies, suggesting that the study designs were flawed or that something other than prayer could explain the findings.
Several of the best studies of intercessory prayer in recent years have come to conclusion that it doesn’t work. For example:
The value of prayer is not something that scientific study can easily settle. Besides, the results are unlikely to change what people do. Here's why:
It's natural for friends and family to hope for the best when a person is sick. To the extent that praying is an active expression of that hope, is it worth proving if it's worthwhile or not?
Doctors tend to do all they can to help patients and families maintain hope while also being realistic about the situation. Why should scientists go out of their way to scientifically analyze an activity that is nearly universal, defies logic or known scientific principle, and may discredit a source of hope?
Large, expensive studies to prove or disprove prayer seems to me a bit like trying to make a case that the chicken came before the egg. It's hard to see how the outcome of such a study could be useful, and it’s unlikely to settle anything.
My guess is that when a person is ill, it may be comforting to know that others are praying for him or her. Similarly, people praying may feel that they are at least doing what they can to help.
A recent survey of more than 1,100 U.S. physicians found that 85% believed religion and spirituality (including prayer) had a positive influence on health and recovery. But, only 6% of these doctors believed it had any effect on the "hard" medical endpoints, such as speed of recovery or death. About three-fourths of these doctors thought religion and spirituality helped people cope and maintain a positive outlook. As you might expect, religious doctors endorsed the value of religious resources, such as prayer, more readily than non-religious doctors.
Is the value of intercessory prayer a myth? Maybe it is. I doubt there will ever be consensus on how to answer this question. But I don't think that's such a problem.
Compared with many other unproven remedies, there is little cost or risk associated with prayer. And at the least, it provides some measure of comfort to both the people praying and the people they are praying for.
I believe that the decision to pray or not pray should be decided by individuals and those praying for them, not researchers. If I controlled the world's research funding, I'd spend it on something other than assessing the value of intercessory prayer. This will never be easily settled. And I'm not sure it should be.
Robert H. Shmerling, M.D. is associate physician at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and associate professor at Harvard Medical School. He has been a practicing rheumatologist for over 20 years at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. He is an active teacher in the Internal Medicine Residency Program, serving as the Robinson Firm Chief. He is also a teacher in the Rheumatology Fellowship Program.