The Jewish Journalism of Joel Shurkin

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Let us pray for little Jimmy

Study indicates that prayers for the sick from strangers doesn't work—at least for the stranger. July 19. 2005.

Let us pray. It will make us feel better. You, we’re not so sure about—We’ve all read about it, or even participated in it. Someone is sick, usually a child, and people are asked to pray for the patient. The unspoken assumption is that God will listen and perhaps intervene. Trying to prove religion and faith scientifically is a futile exercise, but every once in a while, someone tries. The most recent, published in Lancet out of North Carolina tests whether those community efforts make any difference. The answer is no. The study, MANTRA II, involved 748 heart patients. Mitchell W. Krucoff, a cardiologist at Duke, took area patients undergoing two heart procedures, and enlisted 12 religious congregations from all faiths around the world to pray for them, giving the prayers the names, ages and descriptions of the disease. They divided the patients into four groups: one had people praying for them, the second received a non-traditional treatment like music, imagery and touch (M.I.T.), the third received both and the fourth, nothing. Toward the end of the test period, the researchers brought in even more congregations to increase the power, I guess. Neither the patients or their doctors knew who was in which group, or more importantly, perhaps, who was being prayed for and who not. The result: virtually nil. It didn’t make much of a difference which group a patient was in. There was a slight advantage in lower stress levels for those receiving M.I.T., and the group receiving both prayer and M.I.T., were slightly less likely to die, but nothing statistically significant. Most religious people were predictably skeptical, mostly claiming—not irrationally—that the powers of faith can’t be studied scientifically. It also doesn’t address whether prayer makes a difference if a patient does the praying directly as opposed to having well-intentioned strangers do it. Krucoff said the slight differences they seemed to find may be a field for further study. [The Lancet article—click above—requires registration. For the WP version, click here.