Does God Answer Prayer? Brian Bolton

By Brian Bolton


Brian Bolton and Larry Dossey

Every survey conducted during the past half-century indicates that between 90% and 95% of Americans believe in a god or some form of higher power. Virtually the same proportion of respondents affirm a belief in the efficacy of prayer–which refers to communication with the god or higher power. More specifically, prayer is defined as a petition or request for intercession based on an unquestioning faith that is characterized by complete trust, confidence, and reliance on the deity. The purpose of this article is to summarize the unequivocal facts that address the question posed in the title.

From a methodological perspective, three types of prayer can be distinguished: personal prayer, interpersonal prayer, and intercessory prayer. The alleged benefits of personal prayer (for oneself) and interpersonal prayer (with or for others who are present or know that they are targets) are difficult to isolate because of the confounding effects of belief (or placebo effect) and interpersonal support, respectively.

In contrast, intercessory prayer (for others who are not present and do not know they are intended recipients) is amenable to scientific investigational strategies. Consequently, the focus of this review is on research studies that have addressed the utility of intercessory prayer (which is also called “distant healing” in the literature).

Before summarizing the scientific studies, it is appropriate to consider a category of evidence that encompasses the numerous events that are reported regularly in the print and television news. For example, an 11-year-old boy was found alive after spending four days lost in the rugged Utah wilderness in June 2005. His mother declared that the family’s prayers were answered.

During the very same week, three boys were found dead in the trunk of a car in New Jersey after a five-day search. Of course, there were no public laments about the futility of the fervent prayers by family and friends. Situations like these occur daily and raise the obvious question: why would a loving god return the Utah boy to his family while allowing the New Jersey boys to slowly suffocate to death?

Regardless of the nature of the tragedy, whether lost or abducted children, patients with serious illnesses, or victims of natural disasters, the reaction is always the same. Family, friends, and strangers pray for a happy outcome. When the prayed-for individual survives, all credit is given to god, and the power of prayer is acclaimed (“Praise the Lord, our prayers were answered”). But when the prayed-for person dies, the inevitable response is “She has gone to be with Jesus” or “God has called him home.” Clearly, the traditional religious framework does not permit prayer to fail. The infallibility of prayer is an article of faith that cannot be questioned.

Even overwhelmingly negative evidence does not cause believers to doubt the value of prayer. After a reader’s brother died of cancer in January 2001, Billy Graham explained in his column that god did answer the family’s prayers–because the brother was now perfectly healed and free of illness in heaven! The Reverend Graham told the surviving sibling to rejoice that the brother was beyond all sickness and pain.

Another strategy for avoiding the obvious conclusion that prayer fails on a regular basis is to restrict requests for intercession to the generic prayer, “Thy will be done.” So, no matter what the outcome, it is always god’s will.

The first major experimental investigation of intercessory prayer (called a randomized double-blind clinical trial) was conducted by Randolph Byrd and reported in the Southern Medical Journal (1988, 81, 826-829). A total of 29 diagnostic and outcome variables were recorded for 393 coronary patients who had been randomly assigned to prayed-for and not prayed-for groups. Christian intercessors prayed daily for the patients in the experimental group. Statistically significant differences were obtained on six variables and also on a global judgment of improvement completed by Byrd. However, Dr. Byrd subsequently revealed that his study contained two serious procedural violations. The global judgment of improvement was made after the data were unmasked, and the study coordinator knew which patients were assigned to the prayer group. These compromises could easily account for the slightly favorable results.

A decade after the Byrd study was published, William Harris and nine colleagues attempted to replicate Byrd’s findings ( Archives of Internal Medicine, 1999, 159, 2273-2278). Thirty-five variables, including all of Byrd’s, were recorded for 990 cardiac patients who had been randomly assigned to prayed-for and control groups. None of Byrd’s 29 variables or his global judgment of progress was statistically significant. Clearly, the attempted replication completely failed. However, a barely significant result was obtained for a new composite recovery score. Contrary to the original report, less than one percent of the variance in overall recovery was explained by prayer–hardly evidence for the power of an omnipotent god.

The third large-sample investigation of intercessory prayer was carried out by Jennifer Aviles and six colleagues ( Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 2001, 76, 1192-1198). Five primary outcome variables were assessed at a six-month follow-up for 762 coronary patients who had been assigned to prayed-for and not-prayed-for groups. Christian intercessors initiated prayers for patients in the experimental group at the time of hospital discharge. No statistically significant differences were obtained for the total group comparisons or for subgroups of high-risk and low-risk patients.

The most recent major study of intercessory prayer was conducted by Mitchell Krucoff and 14 colleagues ( Lancet, 2005, 366, 211-217). Four outcome variables, in-hospital and six-month follow-up, were recorded for 748 coronary patients who were treated at nine medical centers. Participating prayer groups encompassed Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions. There were no statistically significant differences between the randomized prayed-for and control patients. It is noteworthy that Dr. Krucoff is an enthusiastic advocate of the use of prayer in conjunction with standard medical treatment.

Of the several published small-sample studies, one deserves mention because of the wide public attention it initially received and the later revelation that research malpractice was involved.

Fred Sicher and three colleagues, including the late Elisabeth Targ, designed and conducted the controversial investigation (Western Journal of Medicine, 1998, 169, 356-363). Forty advanced AIDS patients were randomly assigned to prayer or control groups. Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and secular healers served as intercessors. Of the 11 outcomes measured, six were statistically significant. Unfortunately, these seemingly favorable results were illusory. An article by a journalist detailed the numerous violations of accepted research methodology (Wired, 2002, 10 (12), 174-179, 22-223).

At least this investigation was actually carried out, unlike the Columbia University miracle prayer study ( Freethought Today, 2004, 21 (9), 6; Skeptical Inquirer, 2005, 29 (2), 52-53).

While there are many ways to evaluate the benefits of prayer, observable outcomes such as recovery from illness provide the strongest evidence. Because the four major investigations were carried out in hospitals with coronary patients, a quick recovery with minimal complications was the focus of the prayers for intercession. Of course, the ultimate complication and indicator of failure in medicine is patient death. Contrary to believers’ hopes and expectations, the mortality rates were virtually identical for prayed-for and control patients in the four studies (overall, 7.1% versus 7.4%). Why would god allow a total of one hundred patients in the four studies who were recipients of Christian prayers to die, when Jesus promised, “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:12-14)?

The most predictable reaction to the thoroughly negative results of the scientific prayer studies comes from believing professionals: they dismiss the disappointing findings by invoking a variety of ecclesiastical excuses. For example, John Chibnall and colleagues (Archives of Internal Medicine, 2001, 161, 2529-2536) claim that god is outside the domain of science and that it is a violation of faith to test god. Specifically, Chibnall et. al. outlined a theological argument, with a series of pseudoscientific misrepresentations of measurement and statistical issues–all for the purpose of denying the validity of the intercessory prayer investigations. Why? Because, as true believers, they simply cannot accept the unequivocally negative research results. Chibnall has flatly stated, “Studies cannot be designed in a scientific way” (Parade, March 23, 2003). In other words, Drs. Byrd, Harris, Aviles, Krucoff, Targ, and Dossey are scientific and theological illiterates!

Other dogmatic religionists have also made public statements rejecting the negative findings of the intercessory prayer studies. Cynthia Cohen of Georgetown University declared that the research is “based on a total misconception of how god responds to prayer” (Newsweek, November 16, 2003). Greg Plotnikoff of the University of Minnesota said, “I don’t believe that we can randomize god or truly understand his will” ( Minneapolis Star Tribune, December 11, 2001). In his popular book, The Healing Power of Faith (1999), Harold Koenig asserted that “research can neither prove or disprove the reality of answered prayers or divine intervention.” Then why conduct the research? Interestingly, Dr. Koenig coauthored the Krucoff et. al. (2005) study!

In contrast to the religiously motivated dissenting opinions, the acknowledged guru of distant healing, Larry Dossey, has repeatedly affirmed the validity of intercessory prayer research. For example, he declared that “Byrd deserves credit for establishing the principle that prayer can be tested scientifically, Krucoff’s study deserves high marks for methodological soundness, and Targ’s study of HIV patients sets the gold standard” (Hippocrates, August 2000, 22-24). In numerous articles and books, Dr. Dossey has cited the results of intercessory prayer research as scientific evidence supporting the distant healing hypothesis (e.g., Reinventing Medicine, 1999). Ironically, Dr. Dossey has been called an agnostic by Christian fundamentalists because he believes that all prayers (e.g., Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, and Native American) are equally valuable, and god is not required in his conceptualization of distant healing.

In recent years, popular news magazines (e.g., Newsweek, U.S. News, Reader’s Digest, and Parade) have published many feature articles touting the alleged connection between religiosity and health. The topic of prayer is inevitably addressed, usually under headings like “New Proof Prayer Works” and “The Healing Power of Prayer.” Writers typically rely on believers as their sole source of information and never devote equal time to rational skeptics. It is abundantly clear that the major news media in the U.S. irresponsibly distort the evidence for the purpose of promoting the myth that god answers prayer. The conservative charge that the so-called liberal media harbor an anti-religious bias is simply false.

In summary: Faith in god and belief in the efficacy of prayer are virtually synonymous. Hence, religious faith does not permit the possibility that prayer fails, despite the overwhelmingly negative evidence of everyday experience. Four large-sample experimental investigations of Christian intercessory prayer, conducted by evangelical Christians for the purpose of demonstrating god’s power, produced indisputably negative results. The few instances of statistical significance were due to chance or admitted research malpractice. Apparently god was not motivated to respond to altruistic prayers for strangers with serious medical conditions. Many religious professionals deny the validity of the scientific evidence by attacking the research methodology as theologically defective. The only rational conclusion supported by the studies is that the god of religionists does not answer intercessory prayer, most likely because god does not exist, except in the imaginations of believers.

Foundation Life Member Brian Bolton is a psychologist, a Humanist minister and University Professor emeritus at the University of Arkansas. He now lives in Texas.

Freedom From Religion Foundation