Maybe God only answers the prayers of Methodists

PrayingA $2.4 million study on the effect of intercessory prayer came out last week and received a bunch of coverage. Researchers studying 1,800 heart-bypass patients at three hospitals found that intercessory prayer by strangers has no effect on the health of the person being prayed for. They also found that people fared worse — in the short-term at least — if they knew they were being prayed for.

But the study was a bit more complex than that. Over 3,000 patients were asked to take part in the study and over 1,800 agreed. Patients were randomly divided into three groups:

• people who were prayed for but were told they may or may not be prayed for

• people who were not prayed for but told they may or may not be prayed for

• patients who were prayed for and told they would be prayed for.

Some of the ways this study was done well (and it should have been for $2.4 million!) were that patients were randomly assigned, doctors were not told what group the patients were assigned to, the sample size was large and data collected about the participants showed there weren’t big differences across the three groups.

But there were problems, too. Patients may or may not have been prayed for by people who cared about them and knew them. The study didn’t capture that information — instead it farmed out first names and the first letter of last names to strangers in three different congregations (two Catholic and one Protestant). God had only 14 days to work healing. Or, rather, congregants only prayed for the patients for 14 days. My congregation prays for people as long as they are in need of prayer. In some cases, we have been praying for people for years. It never occurred to us that this meant intercessory prayer was failing!

Stories were sort of all over the map, but most reporters did a good job of characterizing the study. Here’s Michael Conlon of Reuters:

A study of more than 1,800 patients who underwent heart bypass surgery has failed to show that prayers specially organized for their recovery had any impact, researchers said on Thursday.

And here is Rob Stein in the Washington Post:

Praying for other people to recover from an illness is ineffective, according to the largest, best-designed study to examine the power of prayer to heal strangers at a distance.

It’s just interesting to see two reporters in action. The first lead emphasizes the manufactured aspect of the prayers. While the second lead shows the study looked at prayer by strangers, it makes it seem like the study proves all prayer is ineffective — which is much more broad than the study itself purports.

Anyway, I know the unemployed, sick and dying at my church will still be prayed for. Speaking of lead paragraphs, this satirical one made me laugh:

A team of scientists today ended a 10-year study on the so-called “power of prayer” by concluding that God cannot be manipulated by humans, not even by scientists with a $2.4 million research grant.


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  • Maureen

    Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the experimental double-blind test.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    That last one may have been intended as a satirical lead–But isn’t it basically the truth. The scientists are trying to put God in one of their test tubes, so to speak–and God is having none of it. The whole idea is ludicrous – it presumes pull the right levers, in the right direction, with the right fervor, at the right time–then God will dispense goodies like a Las Vegas slot machine. Is there room for God’s grace in all that???

  • Kevin Jones

    Didn’t Francis Galton try an experiment like this back in the 19th century?

  • M. Everest

    Maureen’s right. I’ve been waiting for an experiment that is designed to test what they’re really after: “Does God hear prayer and do anything about it?”

    To answer that question, they would need to design an experiment in which **God himself** was not aware that the experiment was being conducted. It shouldn’t matter if the doctors and patients know—after all, they’re not the subject of the study.

    Good luck getting funding for that one…

  • andy chamberlain

    On this basis, Christians who believe in the power of prayer should avoid scientific studies on the subject if at all possible….

  • Jeff Porter

    I thought The Christian Science Monitor’s Gregory M. Lamb, in an article about the study, gave it a good perspective:

    “The results of a long-awaited scientific study aimed at measuring the effect of third-party prayer for hospitalized patients not only did not match the expectations of those conducting the study, but also may have raised more questions for researchers than it answered. Among them: Can even the most carefully designed trial measure prayer’s effects?”

  • Noah

    Wow, yet again humanity refuses to see the truth. I think we would all be better of if we could drop this curtain of religion. This is the life we have, this is it make the best of it. Stop hating others because they simply question what you believe. Do we really need to think there is a magical man in the sky to do what’s right and treat others with respect? Well I guess until we advance this whole “god” thing keeps the less intelligent and close minded people in check. I just hope I get to see the day we stop acting as slave for an imaginary man and start working together to better our species. We we all die right now… there would be no more “god”, it is a thought only human being are capable of coming up with. With out people’s thoughts there is not “god”…. Funny this “all knowing all powerful” thing kind of reminds me of the stories my mother would tell me about Santa when I was 6. Sorry I am sure this upsets a lot of people, but I am just trying to get you guys to keep your minds open. If we did not believe in god and people in the Middle East did not believe in Ala would we be at war right now? Besides… if we are right would god like us dropping bombs on people? Funny last time god was mad my name sake built an ark to save us all… now god makes bunker buster for us to throw around….. Who’s playing god now?

  • Noah’s Fan Club

    My biggest problem with Christianity are the bible-thumpers who think it is our mission to go around the world bombing everyone else into submission of our God. The fact remains only 2.1 billion Christians are on this rock, which leaves over 4 billion non-christians — while I identify most closely with christianity the part I cannot reconcile is condemning these other 4 billion people to hell, a place so bad they will “beg to die” — How could a God that is merciful be so callous, and have a simple twist of fate (being your birthplace) determine your eternal salvation (studies have repeatedly shown that the majority of people join the religion of their country of origin)

  • Todd


    Before expounding on how wonderful life would be if there were no religion, please carefully read the history of Soviet Russia, as well that of Red China. And please keep in mind that both of these societies are, or were at some point, officially atheistic…

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  • Looking Out For Number One


    I honestly don’t think that, without God, we would be able to “treat others with respect.” Honestly, why respect other people? They’re just another organism like us. They have no rights that are not contrived by society.

    Speaking of which, what do you mean by “better our species”? From an evolutionary point of view that sees humans as products of the impersonal + time + chance, this translates as “let the weak die.” That is, unless you know of a definition that I don’t?

    My point is, I don’t care what the results of this or any other study are. If there were no God, we wouldn’t even be testing whether prayer heals these patients. We would be letting them die.

    Yes, religion does often give rise to violence. But does religion give rise to ALL violence? Is religion inherently violent? I’m with a previous commentator: just look at the Soviet Union or Red China to see that is not true.

  • Jennifer

    So the control group consisted of people who were NOT being prayed for? But the in Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom celebrated in Orthodox Christian churches, and probably in the worship services of many other churches, we pray every week for the sick and the suffering (whether we know them or not — I’m not sure why so much coverage speculates that this must make a difference, to God, presumably). There are also people who dedicate themselves to praying for those who have no one to pray for them. I’m no scientist, but does this not affect the validity of the control group? No one will exclude people from prayer just so they can constitute a control group. (Silly to subject prayer to a scientific study, anyway . . .)

  • DH Conway`

    The disengenuous derision of this study is that the detractors of its conclusions are usually the first the quote numerous poorly contrived studies (and likely hoaxes) that have purported to demonstrate the positive impact of prayer on just this type of patient.

    This study did not develop out of thin air.

  • pml

    Well, I would like to note an observation regarding the “illustration’s” artist, Alex Grey …. friend of ex-R.C. Matt Fox and founder of a chapel of mirrors …. go to:
    Left column – Archives, click, go right column to Tools, click; Photo #20

    Just trying to figure out (no pun intended) if this was an excellent illustration to use or not …. bye bye

  • Jim

    “…please carefully read the history of Soviet Russia, as well that of Red China..”
    Todd, you commit the fallacy of unjustified inference. The regimes you use as examples were as they were not because of atheism but because of their political ideology. To illustrate, it would be like using Nazi Germany as an example of a catholic state – clearly absurd, even though Hitler was a catholic.

    “From an evolutionary point of view that sees humans as products of the impersonal + time + chance, this translates as “let the weak die.” ”
    Looking out for number one, you commit the fallacy of thinking “is” dictates “ought”. Just because something is, doesn’t mean we use that as a guide of how things should be.
    Christianity isn’t the clear moral yardstick you would like it to be – otherwise we would not have Christians on both sides of the abortion debate, for example.

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  • revcwirla

    Ah, the ever wondrous interaction between science and religion. First, the scientists scream, “Get religion out of my classroom,” and then they go and stick prayer in their laboratory.