“I don’t need science to tell me if prayer works.”
This is what a friend once said to me.
It’s a fair point, and I agree.
For some people, prayer is all they have left. For many, it provides a type of comfort that can never be found anywhere else. It can lift a weight from a person’s shoulders.
“Please help me” or “Please forgive me” – these prayers have been uttered many times, sometimes in desperation. I’ve said them myself and I suspect you have too. At other times, we pray for the wellbeing of someone we love or for a positive change in their life.
For many, saying a prayer provides some moments of peace and a contentment that they don’t find anywhere else.
Why would one ever want to try to take some of that peace or comfort away by sowing seeds of doubt?
When I considered my friend’s words, I realised that I perhaps wouldn’t want to know the outcome of scientific studies on prayer … just in case they were negative. I wouldn’t want that doubt in my head.
Because sometimes we need to believe that our prayers can help those we love. There are times when prayers are all we have left. Anyone who has ever known a loved one who is seriously ill knows this.
We don’t want to be told that our prayers don’t do any good.
If science had indeed drawn that conclusion, then I probably would end this blog right here. But it hasn’t.
I have felt and witnessed the comfort that prayer brings, both for myself and people within my family and circle or friends. As someone scientifically trained, I have no interest whatsoever in sowing doubt in the mind of anyone who prays.
And yet, as we seek answers to life’s big questions, we sometimes do this. Due to our training in science, when we get down to the nitty gritty and finer details of stuff we can sometimes become factual, clinical, and quite matter of fact. At times, it becomes all too easy to lose a bit of empathy for people’s needs.
Casting doubt on what gives people comfort is what we sometimes inadvertently do … even when we’re wrong or where our understanding is at best incomplete.
The process of learning and discovery in science frequently takes us through places that cast confusion over things, sows seeds of doubt, and leaves us arguing for or against a thing for years.
In time, we emerge into a brighter, clearer place that not only affirms some of our original thinking but that even gives us greater insight into how to do the thing better.
In my opinion, I think that’s the place that science is heading with prayer.
Research has provided some positive insights where some studies very clearly show that our prayers for others can, and do, help them. Some recent studies even suggest an important ingredient for successful prayers.
That ingredient is empathy and a sense of genuine caring for the person’s wellbeing. Results tend to be less convincing in studies where empathy is missing.
In these more ‘clinical’ studies, many have concluded that prayer doesn’t have any effects. Having reviewed many prayer studies, it is my opinion that these studies simply missed out on this important ingredient of empathy because the study authors hadn’t recognised or deemed that it was important.
This is not meant as a criticism. Consider what prayer is to some people who are not necessarily religious or spiritual. One petitions God or another deity on behalf of someone else. Presumably, all you need to supply to God is the person’s name.
Thus, in these studies, people offering prayers are typically given only the first name and second initial of the person they are to pray for, and sometimes also an ID number of some sort.
In a scientific study, that’s all that seems to be relevant. But there’s no opportunity at all for empathy.
Yet, consider the successful double-blind randomized controlled trial conducted by Randolph Byrd, M.D., from the cardiology division at the University of California at San Francisco and published in the Southern Medical Journal in 1988.
It found that the patients who were prayed for had an overall lower illness severity score (a measure of the severity of their condition) than patients who were not prayed for. They also needed less ventilatory assistance, antibiotics, and diuretics than those who weren’t prayed for.
It involved 393 coronary care unit patients – 192 of them were prayed for and 201 were in a control group for comparison. Groups of Christians, selected from both Catholic and Protestant churches, offered the prayers.
Each intercessor was asked to ‘pray daily for a rapid recovery and for prevention of complications and death,’ in addition to other areas of prayer they believed would be beneficial to the patient.
They were also given the first name, diagnosis, and the general condition of the patient they were to pray for. And they were given regular pertinent updates about their progress.
All of this allowed those praying to form an empathetic, caring connection with the person they were praying for, an emotional investment in their recovery. It’s quite a departure from ‘forename, first initial of surname, and ID number’.
The ingredient of empathy was built into this study.
The Cochrane Review
A large statistical review of prayer studies was carried out by Cochrane, an organization that provides high quality statistical reviews on subjects that are relevant in healthcare.
They analysed all of the high quality research on prayer, including those above, and reported that the results were equivocal – that some studies found prayer to be successful and some found it to be unsuccessful. They were unable to form a conclusion for or against.
One of the criticisms that the Cochrane Review highlighted was that many prayer studies had a relatively small sample size – this is the number of people being prayer for. It means it’s more difficult to draw sound statistical conclusions.
The review pointed out that future studies should involve a larger sample of patients and ensure that people being prayed for didn’t know whether they would or would not receive prayer – all to enable more sound conclusions to be drawn.
A new dawn
Given this context, a study was designed at the Royal Adelaide Hospital Cancer Centre that would meet these guidelines.
Over the period of five years, 999 cancer patients were randomised to either receive prayer or not and they wouldn’t know for sure which group they would be in. The patients’ emotional and spiritual wellbeing would be measured. In cancer patients, spiritual wellbeing is considered an important aspect of Quality of Life.
Prayer groups were asked to add the patients to their prayer lists and were also given some information about each person, enough to help facilitate empathy, but not enough that they might identify any patients.
This study found a clear positive effect of prayer.
There were significantly greater improvements in both emotional and spiritual wellbeing in the patients who were prayed for compared with those who weren’t prayed for.
The result was statistically significant!
More on prayer and empathy
There’s much more that I would like to say about prayer, as well as offering a more thorough explanation as to the importance of empathy in prayers and why studies whose methodology doesn’t allow for empathy tend to fail, but I like to keep these blogs relatively short for ease of reading.
If you would like to read more, you can find it in chapters 9 and 10 of my most recent book, ‘Why Woo-Woo Works’ (Hay House, September, 2021), which also contains references for all studies.
In the book (chapter 8), I also explore the nature of consciousness and current thought in science and philosophy, which one must do if we are to consider positive effects of prayer, and especially if empathy can sometimes mean the difference between a positive or negative effect of prayer. In the book, I explore why this might be.
I’d just like to end this blog by saying that I pray. Every day!
Not necessarily to God.
Each of us have our own spiritual and religious beliefs. For many, they are private. Some pray to God or another deity, some to angels, some even to parents or grandparents who have passed away. Some even talk to deceased pets.
I believe that people should have a right to their beliefs and if a belief gives a person some comfort, especially in difficult times, even if you may disagree with them, then perhaps the goal should be to have greater empathy.
If there is a choice is between being right or being kind, I choose to be kind.
And most of the time, I’ve found that being kind was actually the right thing to do.
Copyright 2022 David R. Hamilton PhD.