The Radford Files
The Power of Prayer
A closer look
A tragic event in Albuquerque on June 25 cast a pall on the July 4 weekend. According to a front-page article by Albuquerque Journal writer Hailey Heinz, “A woman attending a church conference in Albuquerque with her husband didn’t call for medical treatment while giving birth to twins in a hotel room, even as one of the newborns struggled to breathe. ... That child died while church members gathered in prayer. ... Samuel and Tammy Kaufman told police at the scene they did not believe in man's medicine, only God, and that their child’s death was God’s will.”
The idea of parents praying over their suffocating, dying infant instead of calling for medical help shocked the city. Still, one Journal reader responded in a letter to the editor, stating assuredly that prayer had been proven to work. And I’d heard the same from several churchgoing friends of mine, who were sure science had proven the power of prayer.
It’s a common belief—and one that appears in several New Age books, such as those by Santa Fe’s own Larry Dossey—but the evidence simply does not support the claim. Intercessory prayer (petitioning a higher power on behalf of a patient, as the Kaufmans did) has been studied, and there’s no evidence it works. Several studies have been done to see if people who are prayed for recover any faster (or are cured of disease at a higher rate) than those who are not prayed for. All showed no proof that it works.
I would hope that if God knows you need help, He would bestow it without being begged to do so.
In 2006, researchers at six major medical centers, including Harvard and the Mayo Clinic, completed the largest prayer study to date. The research ("Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer 'STEP' in cardiac bypass patients," published in the American Heart Journal) was conducted over nearly a decade and led by Dr. Herbert Benson. It included 2,000 cardiac surgery patients who were randomly assigned to one of three groups. One group was prayed for after being told they may or may not be prayed for; the second group was not prayed for after being told the same thing; and the third was prayed for after being told they definitely would be prayed for. The people who were prayed for fared no better than the group that wasn’t prayed for. Prayer had no beneficial effect on recovery time, death rate or any other factors.
This is scientific confirmation of the obvious: Evidence of the failure of prayer is all around us. Every day in the newspaper and on the nightly news there are countless stories of injured people—from car accident victims to wounded police officers—almost all of whom have people praying for their recovery. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t; but it is the secular, scientific medical treatment that makes the difference.
It also seems rather cruel and capricious for a benevolent God to only help those who He is asked to help. Presumably, a lone hiker in the wilderness suddenly struck unconscious and mortally wounded in a rock slide would be ignored by God if no one knew of his circumstances and offered prayers for him, while a man struck down by lightning in front of his family would get God’s immediate attention. I would hope that if God knows you need help, He would bestow it without being begged to do so.
Like the Kaufmans, most believers in the efficacy of prayer frame the idea so that their assumption cannot be disproven. If the prayed-for person improves or recovers, it is seen as a blessing, and an obvious sign that prayer worked. If the prayed-for person stays the same, the fact that the person did not get worse (or even die) can be seen as answered prayer. If the prayed-for person gets worse or dies, it is not seen as a failure of prayer but instead the result of God’s will. Faith is a fine thing, but it should be tempered with common sense and a respect for evidence.
Robert Ingersoll, one of the great orators of the 19th century, concluded, “Prayer is beggary—an effort to get something for nothing. Labor is the honest prayer.” Indeed, it is the hard work of police officers, EMTs and doctors that cure people and save lives—not the unanswered requests of higher powers.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.
Benjamin Radford has investigated mysterious and unexplained phenomena for more than a decade. He is a columnist for LiveScience.com and managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine. His latest book is Lake Monster Mysteries , available at his website: RadfordBooks.com.