Monday, August 5, 2019

Studies Examine Power of Prayer

A friend in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, after learning that I don’t believe in God, said she would pray for me.  She should have prayed for her husband, who died weeks later.  Nevertheless, she is just one of many people claiming to pray for me.

Actually, it’s hard to go anywhere in this society without seeing someone praying for someone or something.  Many athletes clearly offer prayers or say thanks after some feat in a game.  Prayers precede all NASCAR races, among other events.  They are standard fare in hospitals, religious settings and rituals, such as weddings.

Muslim prayer
Muslims are obligated to pray five times a day. Orthodox Jews are supposed to pray three times a day.  Christians are encouraged to pray.  In fact, virtually all religions include prayers in various ceremonies. In the once-popular movie, Bruce Almighty, the main character is confronted with multitude of prayers God supposedly sees on a daily basis and answers all of them positively, although only affecting a small cluster in the Buffalo area.

That idea that God listens to prayers remains pervasive, in and out of the movie theater.  Look at the reaction after one of the horrible mass shootings in this country.  Everyone offers prayers.

That raises the question: Do prayers actually have any effect?

Ask any religious folks, and they are sure to insist prayer does help.  Scientists, however, have been studying the effect of prayers since the 1800s.  They have found some very different results.

The scholar approach was kicked off by Sir Francis Galton, a 19th century English scientist best known for his studies of human intelligence.  In the 1870s, he decided to investigate prayer using a rigid methodology in an effort to show what effect, if any, prayer had. His study appeared in the 1872 Fortnightly Review and was reprinted in August 2012 in the International Journal of Epidemiology, Volume 41, Issue 4.

In it, Galton began with a search of literature and reported, “I have been able to discover hardly any instance in which a medical man of any repute has attributed recovery to the influence of prayer.” He added that many people have a “general belief in the objective efficacy of prayer” but no one could offer a specific example.

He then conducted a study of the mean age attained by males of various classes who had survived their 30th year, from 1758 to 1843.   He said kings probably were the targets of more prayers than the average person, but “literally (were) the shortest lived of all who have the advantage of affluence. The prayer has therefore no efficacy.”

His study also included clergy, lawyers and medical men, noting for clergy that it’s “their profession to pray, and they have the practice of offering morning and evening family prayers in addition to their private devotions.”

1800s clergyman
Clergy, he found, show a life-value of 69.49, as against 68.14 for the lawyers, and 67.31 for the medical men.  Sounds positive, but, Galton added, “this difference is reversed when the comparison is made between distinguished members of the three classes … the value of life among the clergy, lawyers and medical men is as 66.42, 66.51 and 67.07, respectively, the clergy being the shortest lived of the three. Hence, the prayers of the clergy for protection against the perils and dangers of the night, for protection during the day and for recovery from sickness, appear to be futile in result.”

Galton went on to examine missionaries, who travel amid a cloud of prayers.  “The painful experience of many years shows only too clearly that the missionary is not supernaturally endowed with health.  He does not live longer than other people, “ Galton concluded.

Naturally, there have been plenty of studies ever since.  Several supported the idea that prayers have a positive effect.  However, attempts to duplicate the results invariably have failed.  Several touted studies have been discredited, including one where the main author turned out not to have participated in the study and was given help to write it.

Valid, uncontested studies, however, are consistent. 

Open heart surgery
A 2001 Mayo Clinic double-blind study that covered 799 discharged coronary surgery patients concluded "intercessory prayer had no significant effect on medical outcomes after hospitalization in a coronary care unit."

A 2006 Harvard study, the largest of its kind, reported that “not only did prayer not help the patients, those that were told they were being prayed for experienced more complications.”  The research, published in the April 4 issues of the American Heart Journal, included 1,800 people who underwent coronary bypass surgery at six different hospitals.

Not only that, but patients who knew that others were praying for them fared worse than those who did not receive such spiritual support, or who did but were not aware of it.

More recently, research by Chittaranjan Andrade and Rajiv Radhakrishman, published in the 2009 October-December issue of the Indian Journal of Psychiatry, found “intercessory prayer did not influence the 26-week outcome after discharge from a coronary care unit.”

In addition, the researchers reported, “Remote intercessory prayer did not improve outcomes after coronary artery bypass graft surgery. In fact, the knowledge of being prayed for was associated with a slightly but significantly higher rate of postsurgical complications.”

Orthodox Jews in prayer
Prayers apparently are dangerous.  Psychiatrists suggest that people being prayed for think they are worse off and therefore see their health decline.

Regardless, the evidence clearly shows that prayer has no positive effect, whether offered for a friend, a patient or the victims of mass shootings.

I don’t recommend stopping prayer, but, based on extensive research, proper medicine and stronger laws likely will have a more beneficial impact.

Long-time religious historian Bill Lazarus regularly writes about religion and religious history with an occasional foray into American culture.  He holds an ABD in American Studies from Case Western Reserve University.   He also speaks at various religious organizations throughout Florida.  You can reach him at He is the author of the recently published novel The Great Seer Nostradamus Tells All as well as a variety of nonfiction books, including The Gospel Truth: Where Did the Gospel Writers Get Their Information; Noel: The Lore and Tradition of Christmas Carols; and Dummies Guide to Comparative Religion.  His books are available on, Kindle, bookstores and via various publishers.  He can also be followed on Twitter.