Tag Archives: prayer versus placebo

Pray for Me, Doc!

I remember reading over the years about experiments funded by the mysterious Templeton Foundation that studied whether prayer could really heal. They’re odd experiments, in a way, since no scripture I know of claims anyone who prays can heal, much less at a distance, and no religion I know of has ever claimed prayer-healing proves the existence of God.

The New Testament certainly shows Jesus and (in the Book of Acts) his disciples walking around first-century Palestine healing sick people – usually by touching them, not praying for them, — but these signs are used to reveal the divine nature of Jesus and the Twelve, not everybody else. In fact, Simon Magus’ claim to be a healer in Acts is taken as evidence of evil.

So Christian scripture, at least, very much limits the ability to cure the sick to Jesus and his inner circle.

But there’s an understandable modern impulse to test the God hypothesis in a lab setting, and so we have a series of well-publicized prayer-healing experiments, described by Harvard neurohistorian (coolest job title ever) Anne Harrington in her recent article “The Placebo Effect: What’s Interesting for Scholars of Religion?” in Zygon.

In 1988, a cardiologist at San Francisco General Hospital recruited a group of born-again Christians to pray for coronary patients. There was a control group of patients who were ignored. There was no overall prayer benefit detected in terms of mortality; however, the prayed-for group showed statistically significant improvements in 6 of 26 kinds of complications. Evangelicals site this study as a win for God, but the results were underwhelming.

Ten years later, a double-blind study of AIDS patients, also in San Francisco, was more encouraging. One group was prayed for based on a name and picture, while a control was not. Neither were told. In the end, the prayed-for group had slightly better outcomes than the control. God: a weak 2 points.

However, the best study yet, run by Dr. Herbert “Relaxation Response” Benson and published in 2006 in The American Heart, involving 2,000 patients at six sites, had a surprising outcome.

First, patients who were prayed for did not fare any better than those who were not. Second, a group of patients who were prayed for and told actually did worse than a group who’d been prayed for but kept in the dark.

Benson hypothesized that those who were told their doctors were seeking divine intervention for their coronary condition might have been freaked out.

What have we learned today, girls? Once again, God has evaded detection in the lab. And if you are a doctor and decide to assign a prayer group to cure a seriously ill patient — for God’s sake, don’t tell them!