Biggest Study: Prayer Harmful to Patients

The largest study to date on the so-called healing powers of prayer, conducted by researchers at Harvard Medical School, found that intercessory prayer actually had a negative impact on cardiac patients. The study, released in March 2006, was conducted by spirituality guru, Dr. Herbert Benson.

Harvard and five other U.S. medical centers looked at 1,802 coronary bypass patients in a mammoth $2.4 million study, largely funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The study was published in American Heart Journal (April 06).

Strangers, either Roman Catholic monks or other Christian believers, prayed for no complications for a group of heart patients, using their first names and the first initials of their last names. They were supposed to include the phrase for a successful surgery with a quick healthy recovery and no complications.”

There were three random groups: some received prayers but were not informed; some got no prayers and were not informed; others got prayed for and were told so. The latter group had a significantly worse complication rate than the other two groups, whose complication rates of 52% were virtually identical. The complication rate of the group knowing it was prayed for was 59%.

At the time the results were announced, TV anchors scurried around like crazy trying to sugarcoat the findings so they wouldn’t offend true believers.

A remarkable statement was made by Dr. Mitchell Krucoff of Duke University Medical Center in an editorial in the American Heart Journal, advising that researchers “must be vigilant in asking the question of whether a well-intentioned, loving, heartfelt healing prayer might inadvertently harm or kill vulnerable patients in certain circumstances.”

The team had assumed that prayers would enhance patient well-being. They speculated that the reason for the unexpected outcome could be that telling a patient you’re praying for him or her implies doctors are expecting the worst. It could also induce “performance anxiety.”

According to The New York Times (March 31, 2006), the government has spent more than $2.3 million on prayer research since 2000. One publicly-funded study, released in 1997 by the University of New Mexico, found that men and women alcoholics in rehab fared worse if they knew they were being prayed for.

Fueling piety in the medical profession may be the personal beliefs of many physicians, who are far more religious than others in science professions as a whole. A 2004 Jewish Theological Seminary survey of more than 1,000 physicians found that 73% of them believe in miracles.

Among the study apologists are Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at Duke University Medical School. Koenig, one of the greatest propounders of prayer studies–who has received huge public grants to study prayer–admitted that science “is not designed to study the supernatural” (Associated Press, March 30, 2006).

Widely quoted when the study came out was Richard Sloan, author of Blind Faith, who told The Washington Post (March 24, 2006): “There’s nothing we know about the physical universe that could account for how the prayers of someone in Washington, D.C., could influence the health of a group of people in Iowa–nothing whatsoever.”

–Freethought Today

Freedom From Religion Foundation