Freethought Today March 1996


Prayer And Healing

By Marc Petrowsky and Bill Zellner

Humankind has always had a begging relationship with god. Prayers are sent skyward with the hope that some blessing will derive from the effort. Children beg for bikes, teenagers for cars, adults for money, and the sick of every age for good health.

Nothing is as important as good health. This has prompted scholars and religionists alike to attempt to determine the efficacy of prayer as a healing agent. During the later part of the nineteenth century, noted British eugenicist Sir Francis Galton did a statistical analysis, comparing the life expectancies of groups, some assumed to be more prayerful than others. He found that among ". . . the clergy, lawyers and physicians, clergy are the shortest lived of the three." He concluded that prayers of the clergy ". . . appear to be futile in the result."

Contemporary research on prayer and health takes two forms. One approach is simply to ask subjects if they think or have seen evidence of prayer impacting positively on health. The disadvantage of this approach is that respondents are asked to make retroactive assessments of the utility of prayer. Such research does not control for other variables which may have caused healing, such as medical treatment and time. An example of the latter is the common cold; most people get over one in ten days whether they pray for relief, take medicine, or do nothing at all. Such research is simply too subjective to be scientific.

The second type of research employs what appears on the surface to be acceptable scientific method. Scrutinized, these studies are methodological nightmares.

In such studies, prayer is manipulated to determine if it has an impact on health. Such measurements must be made while holding constant other factors which could influence outcomes. The three cases that follow are typical of this pseudo-experimental genre.

In 1965, C. R. B. Joyce and R. M. C. Welldon of the London Hospital Medical College, England, studied 48 patients suffering from psychological or rheumatic diseases. The patients were loosely matched by sex, age, marital status, religion and primary diagnosis. This resulted in 19 pairs of subjects. Only three of these pairs matched in all of the extraneous variables.

One member of each pair was chosen randomly by flip of coin to an experimental group. The first names of the patients in this group and a brief description of their problems were given to six prayer groups. During the course of the study, each person in the treatment group received approximately 15 hours of prayer.

Physicians evaluated the clinical progress of the patients throughout the study on a five point scale from very poor to very good. The patients did not know they were participating and the physicians did not know whether the patient had been assigned to a prayer group or not. Medical treatments were administered throughout the course of the experiment.

The net change in health for prayed for members of the selected pairs and the patients not assigned to a prayer group was observed. Ties were eliminated. Ultimately, the experimenters concluded that no statistical difference existed between participants prayed for and those not assigned to a prayer group.

Findings in this study support the contentions of the authors of this article. Anonymous prayer does not promote healing. Nevertheless, this study is egregiously flawed methodologically. Matching procedures used to control for extraneous factors were imprecise. In at least one case, and possibly more (the authors are unclear in their descriptions), matching by diagnosis compared an individual with a mental problem to a patient with arthritis.

Also, the population (19 pairs) was so small that statistical aberrations could have skewed the results.

Additionally, the manipulation of prayer was not controlled. The prayers were not offered consistently in terms of how many prayed, how long they prayed, when they prayed, intensity of prayer, and the total duration of the praying. Doubtless there were friends and relatives praying for those not selected by Joyce and Welldon to receive prayer. If in fact prayer is a viable mechanism for achieving health, is group prayer better than the prayers of individuals? Fortunately, this study did not yield a false positive as well it might have. But in the study that follows, unwarranted claims are made for the efficacy of prayer.

In 1969, Platon J. Collipp, chairman of a pediatrics department in an East Meadow, New York hospital collected data on leukemic children, including name, age, date of diagnosis and, later, date of death if death occurred. Monthly data from parents and physicians collected independently asked "whether the illness, the child's adjustment, and the family's adjustment was better, unchanged, or worse."

Collipp reported that 10 of the 18 children were randomly selected for prayer. Their names were sent to a friend who organized a prayer group. The group was told to pray daily for the children, but not told that the study was on the efficacy of prayer. After 15 months, 7 of the 10 children prayed for were still alive, while only 2 who were not prayed for were living. These findings are statistically significant at the 90% level. Prayer promotes healing! Or does it?

As in the previous study, there was no control over prayers. Were not others praying for children in both groups?

Collipp noted several methodological problems, among them small sample size and inadequate control of extraneous variables. For example, the patients were not paired to control for all variables known to influence survival, such as different types of medical therapy. Also, the purported random distribution of children into the group "not" prayed for included two children having acute myelogenous leukemia which is much more malignant than acute lymphatic leukemia. None of the children prayed for had the more virulent form of the disease. And, interestingly, why were 10 patients assigned to the prayed for group and 8 to the group that did not receive prayer? Any experimental design would dictate a 9 to 9 division.

The most influential study employing an experimental design was conducted by a "born again" medical doctor, Randolph C. Byrd, in 1988. Brought to the fore in every alternative medicine colloquium since, it is offered as proof that prayer heals.

The study focuses on intercessory prayer (praying for the benefit of others) to the Judeo-Christian god. Does such prayer have any effect on the patient's medical condition and recovery while in the hospital?

Byrd studied 393 patients who entered the coronary care unit of San Francisco General Hospital between August, 1982 and May, 1983. Subjects were randomly assigned into two groups. One group would receive prayer, the other would not. The research utilized a double blind experimental design. Researchers, staff, physicians and patients didn't know who was in which group.

Intercessors were chosen on the basis of being "born again" Christians who pray daily and go to church. The group was composed of both Protestants and Roman Catholics. Patients in the experimental group were assigned three to seven intercessors. The intercessors were asked to pray daily for recovery with no complications and offer prayers in other areas they felt beneficial. The intercessors were told their patient's first name, health problem, and were later given updates on their conditions.

Patient progress was measured on the basis of 26 variables which Byrd characterized as "new problems, diagnoses, and therapeutic events after entry." Statistically significant differences were found between the prayed for group and those not prayed for on six variables (congestive heart failure, diuretics, cardiopulmonary arrest, pneumonia, antibiotics and intubation/ventilation.) It seems to us that if there is a god that can be manipulated by prayer, then surely she/he/it would bat 1,000, on all variables.

Further, it is questionable that Byrd understands the concept of testing for statistical significance. He never identifies his population and imputes medical significance to findings of statistical significance. For example, the variable which shows the greatest statistical significance between the experimental group and those not prayed for is "intubation/ventilation." None of the prayer group required this therapy, but only 6% of the control group required it. While the difference is statistically significant, how much medical (or religious) significance can be imputed to a difference of 6%. The same observation can be made for all of his so-called "significant" findings (and remember, only 6 of the 26 variables were significantly different.) Moreover, the prayed for group didn't do as well as the control group in some of the areas (ex. antianginal agents, unstable angina, temporary pacemaker, third-degree heart block and permanent pacemaker.)

Other methodological problems exist in Byrd's study, more than space will permit discussion in Freethought Today. Much of it has to do with experiments that involve human complexity. In an attempt to eliminate the human element from an understanding of prayer as a healing agent, Christian Scientists Bruce Klingbeil and his son John published in 1993 after 18 years of investigation The Spindrift Papers. One of their many experiments involved soy and mung beans. They first injured the beans by placing them in a saline solution. Then the beans were prayed over in two different ways. Goal-directed prayer asked that god increase the weight of the beans, whereas holy prayers sought whatever was best for the beans. According to the Klingbeils, both kinds of prayer promoted growth, but the beans that got the holy prayers had greater growth. Shortly after the report was published the Klingbeils committed suicide.

A lot of wasted time and effort has gone into the study of prayer as a healing agent. Some of the studies, especially Byrd's, are replete with scientific trappings. On evaluation, there is so much assumption and subjectivity in all such experiments that any result must be suspect. Byrd's study appears more an ethnocentric attempt to prove the existence of a Judeo-Christian god through "his" divine works than to prove the efficacy of prayer. Only "born again" Christians were permitted into his prayer group. This is typical of a narrow-minded fundamentalism which assumes that god doesn't hear the prayers of people outside the pale.

At best, if indeed prayer does work as a healing agent, it is only stop-gap in nature. Everyone who was born and prayed for prior to the 1800s is now dead, as are most of the people born and prayed for in the 1800s. And why pray for healing at all if there is a heaven? This suggests that there are many doubters in the religious community. Better stay on board rather than risk the unknown.

Most studies of prayer and healing are conducted with the bias that indeed prayer does heal. In Byrd's case an interesting ethical issue arises. He firmly believed in prayer as a healing agent when he began his experiment. There were 192 patients prayed for by his "born again" Christians. Prayer was withheld from 201 patients. Given his beliefs, he was playing god with his patients, and it was a breach of ethics to withhold prayer from 201 subjects. In his acknowledgment, he thanked god ". . . for responding to the many prayers made on behalf of the patients"--192 of them.

All of the experimental studies we examined were fraught with subjective, human judgments. What constituted improvement in cases of arthritic patients, mental patients, kids with leukemia, heart attack victims? In some cases it was self-report, in other cases medical judgment, sometimes predicated on self-report.

The authors of this paper offer the following research design to the next religious "scientist" who believes that intercessory prayer has a healing effect. Find a hundred people who have had arms or legs amputated. Gather together as many popes, ayatollahs, fundamentalist preachers, shamans and witch doctors, the more the merrier. Give them the names of the amputees and their condition. Ask them to pray that god grow them a new limb. Don't tell the amputees they are being prayed for. Take as much time as you like. Call us when you are successful.


Marc Petrowsky earned his Ph.D from the University of Florida, Gainesville in 1975. Before coming to East Central University, he taught at Clemson University, South Carolina. His areas of specialization are gerentology and the sociology of knowledge. He is the coauthor of an introductory sociology text. He is currently an assistant professor.

Prof. William W. Zellner is serving a second term as president of the Association for the Scientific Study of Religion. He is a professor of sociology at East Central University, Oklahoma. Prof. Zellner received his doctorate from South Dakota State University. His book on cults in America, "Countercultures," was published by St. Martin's Press. He authored the fifth edition of "Extraordinary Groups: An Examination of Unconventional Life-styles" which is in use in as many as 600 universities and colleges. His article "Deep in the Bible Belt--One Atheist Professor's Experience" appeared in the December 1995 issue of Freethought Today.