Foundation Pursues Protest Of Public-Funded Prayer Studies (June/July 1996)

Following release of the results of a federally-subsidized study on prayer in late April, the Freedom From Religion Foundation renewed its call to the Office of Alternative Medicine not to misappropriate federal funds for studies lacking secular merit.

Last year the Foundation protested a grant of $28,797 to Dr. Scott Walker of the University of New Mexico to study the impact of prayer on alcohol recidivism, calling it a “boondoggle.”

Walker released his findings in April admitting prayer had no measurable effect upon alcohol recovery, and was even deleterious if patients knew that others were praying for their recovery.

In a letter to Donna Shalala, secretary of the Department of Health & Human Services, the Foundation asked for an embargo on future federal funds going toward “prayer studies,” warning that other religiously-motivated researchers are waiting in the wings to employ tax money for similar studies.

Foundation spokesperson Annie Laurie Gaylor called the Office of Alternative Medicine to task for pretending that the prayer study was not religious in nature: “Belief that one can commune with one’s deity is the very essence of religious faith,” she wrote Shalala.

“The First Amendment expressly forbids government from testing hypotheses about prayer, religion, gods, or the supernatural.”

She added: “It appears that Dr. Walker’s study proves our point –Nothing fails like prayer. Given the unimpressive results of Dr. Walker’s study of intercessory prayer, shouldn’t the Department of Health & Human Services be advising the public not to pray?”

The Foundation’s letter to Shalala dated April 23, 1996 was not answered until a June 7, 1996 reply from Wayne B. Jonas, M.D., Director, Office of Alternative Medicine.

Jonas continued to aver that “the purpose of our support for the research was to evaluate objectively any possible therapeutic value of prayer, not to further any religious belief or philosophy. The support was in furtherance of our statutory purpose of facilitating the evaluation of alternative medical treatment modalities. The funding was awarded after careful peer review by outside scientists and clinicians. The decision to fund this study was based upon its scientific merit. Thus, we disagree with your view that the purpose of the study was religious and that the Federal funds were ‘wasted.’ “

The Foundation has requested information under the Freedom of Information Act on the peer review study. A similar request to receive this public information was illegally ignored by the Office of Alternative Medicine last summer.

In the April 12, 1996 write-up of “Intercessory Prayer: A Pilot Investigation” by Dr. Walker, he admits no “difference in drinking outcomes between the two groups,” comprised of 42 individuals, half of whom were subjects of anonymous “intercessory prayer,” half of whom were in a “no-prayer control group.”

“An unexpected finding was that those already aware of someone praying for them drank significantly more heavily during the 6 months of follow-up, as compared with those unaware of someone already praying for them prior to the study,” wrote Walker.

Nevertheless, Walker concluded: “Scientific methods can be used to study the effects of a spiritual intervention.” He rationalized the failure of his study to find prayer beneficial by suggesting that “receptivity to pray, not measured in this study, may affect outcome,” or that “the particular manner of prayer practiced within this controlled study is not effective. It is conceivable, for example, that the context and intention with which prayer is offered exert effects on outcome . . . . Our findings do indicate that intercessory prayer is not invariably effective. It remains an open question whether there are conditions under which effects of intercessory prayer can be reliably replicated.”

The Foundation is investigating another prayer study with connections to a public university. A letter in April requesting information of Dr. Elizabeth Targ of San Francisco about what is being billed as the “first U.S. study of nondenominational healing,” a double-blind study of men with AIDS testing “remote healing,” went unanswered. Targ was available, however, for an interview with TIME Magazine, whose June 24, 1996 cover story on “Faith & Healing” led off with her study of 20 patients with the fatal disease. Targ has not published her results, but claims they are “encouraging” enough to warrant a follow-up study with 100 AIDS patients.

As TIME pointed out, “Twenty years ago, no self-respecting M.D. would have dared to propose a double-blind, controlled study of something as intangible as prayer.”

“Let’s make sure no further public funds are squandered in this irrational and harmful manner,” said Gaylor.

Write: Wayne B. Jonas, M.D., Director, Office of Alternative Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda MD 20892, and Secretary Donna Shalala, Department of Health & Human Services, 200 Independence Ave SW, Washington DC 20201. 

Freedom From Religion Foundation