Surprise, intercessory prayer doesn't work

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CNN reports that a large study of intercessory prayer has produced a negative result:
Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" for specific patients, for whom they were given the first name and first initial of the last name.

The patients, meanwhile, were split into three groups of about 600 apiece: those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren't prayed for but were told it was a possibility.

The researchers did not ask patients or their families and friends to alter any plans they had for prayer, saying such a step would have been unethical and impractical.

The study looked for any complications within 30 days of the surgery. Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.

It seems to me that we're missing three control groups:

  1. People who knew they weren't being prayed for.
  2. People who thought they weren't being prayed for but were.
  3. People who thought they were being prayed for but weren't.

Kind of hard to get the last two through the human subjects committee, but it would be interesting to know if the third group had the same complication rate as people who knew they were being prayed for (unfortunately, CNN doesn't tell us if the difference is statistically significant).

Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center, who did not take part in the study, said the results did not surprise him.

"There are no scientific grounds to expect a result and there are no real theological grounds to expect a result either," he said.

The whole concept of this kind of disinterested intercessory prayer strikes me as fairly problematic. God was going to let person X die but because person Y (who doesn't know person X from Adam) prays for person X he's going to heal them? It's pretty hard to find an attractive theory of divine motivation that would be consistent with that set of behaviors. Why exactly would this sort of prayer be worthy of reward? Actually, now that I mention it, the whole notion of prayer-based healing is a bit tricky. Deciding who should be healed based on how hard they pray rather than, say, how virtuous they are or how hard they believe seems awfully... transactional. Of course, you could argue that if you're a strong believer you'll pray a lot, but that's confusing cause and effect. Surely any reasonable deity already knows how much you believe. (Sort of related: Nozick's treatment of Medical Newcomb Problems.)


You leave out the class of people who have people actively praying for their demise, sticking pins in voodoo dolls and the like.

I would expect rather more significant results for this particular case, it is certainly more memorable.

One can imagine that if one was told on the way into the operating theatre that a bunch of satanists were camped outside holding a black mass calling for your demise that the response would be of the 'well I'll show you' variety.

When I read about that study, I thought there was another important thing missing. Did the people who were praysed for believe that it would help? Taking things like the placebo effect in account, I would assume that the success rate of beeing prayed for among the believers would be better than for the others.

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