Prayer works. That’s a “fact”?

hands folded in prayer 799927Anyone who spends any time studying the history of journalism, especially the American model of the press, knows that reporters and editors really, really, really love what they call “facts.” Some historians have even said that journalists worship “facts.”

This is one of the reasons that journalists say they have trouble covering religion news. Obviously, for many scribes, religion is all about emotions and feelings and doctrines and all kinds of things that don’t fit neatly into government reports and Excel spreadsheets. When it comes to religion, people make all kinds of decisions and take all kinds of actions for reasons that journalists simply do not, well, get.

Oh why, oh why can’t religion be more like politics, where all is reason and logic and fact? Yeah, right.

Anyway, the most recent issue of Newsweek contains two stories — it’s a classic, click here in the front of the magazine, then click here in the back — about one of those questions that drive journalists a bit nuts. The question is: Does prayer (or meditation) “work,” in any sense of the word that rational people can respect?

The first is this week’s Belief Watch mini-feature, by Lisa Miller, and offered this nice double-deck headline: “How to Make Sarah Laugh — Does being religious actually help you get pregnant? It’s possible, says a fertility specialist.” Here’s how it ends:

When Eileen Lyon, who is Catholic, was trying to conceive, her ob-gyn pressured her to try IVF but she said no. Her Catholicism, she says, gave her a sense of the sacredness of her marriage and of her own body, which she was not willing to violate. “You feel kind of brutalized by physicians who dismiss your religious views. If you choose against IVF, it’s your fault you will have no baby,” says Lyon, who is a history professor at SUNY Fredonia. Lyon finally sought treatment at the Pope Paul VI Institute, a clinic in Nebraska that seeks to help infertile couples without IVF. After surgery for her endometriosis, Lyon had a baby boy. Even though she tried — and failed — to get pregnant a second time, Lyon says she is glad she made the choices she did. “I feel a real sense of contentment,” she says. “It’s God’s will if you have a baby.”

Now here comes the really interesting part, and kudos to Miller for daring to go there:

Conventional fertility clinics may be dismissive of the Nebraska institute’s approach, but one thing appears to be true: a religious or spiritual mind-set may help infertile women. In a study of nearly 200 women published in 2005, psychologist Alice Domar and her colleagues found a high correlation between women who said they were religious and those with low rates of anxiety and depression during fertility treatment. Here, then, is the million-dollar question: does being religious actually help infertile women get pregnant? Domar says it’s possible. If religious women have less depression and anxiety, and lower rates of depression and anxiety correlate to higher pregnancy rates, “it stands to reason that religious and spiritual women should have higher pregnancy rates.” No wonder Sarah laughed.

So, is it a fact that faith “works”? Well, it appears that this small study points to some facts at the level of psychology and even medicine. But this, to me, seems almost beside the point from a journalistic perspective.

meditation pLook at it this way: Is it a “fact” that prayer works? That can be debated.

But is it a “fact” that millions of people in a wide variety of faiths around the world say that they believe prayer works and that this “fact” helps shape how they spend their time, spend their money and make their decisions?

Yes, that is a fact. Journalists have to accept that fact and, well, try to cover how all of those decisions affect life in the real world around us (even the public square).

Don’t take my word for it. Head to the back of the magazine and connect some dots by reading the feature “No Buddha Required,” which notes:

Recent studies have shown meditation can yield a host of health benefits, from increased concentration to some relief from depression. Hospitals and clinics are including meditation as therapy, and medical schools are including it in their curricula. As the practice becomes more accepted as something that can be both secular and therapeutic, publishers are responding: at least a dozen books on meditation are scheduled for release in the next three months. …

Brain-imaging research has shown that meditation reduces stress and can enhance one’s sense of well-being. Novice practitioners have increased activity in the left prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain that can produce positive feelings and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, says Richard J. Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin and the director of its Lab for Affective Neuroscience.

That sounds pretty official.

My final questions: Should editors at Newsweek have linked these stories? Did anyone see the connections? And why is one a “religion” story and the other a “health” story?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Matt

    “…found a high correlation between women who said they were religious and those with low rates of anxiety and depression during fertility treatment.”

    I’d be interested to know the breakdown of this statistic for just Catholics, rather than broadly those “who said they were religious”. I am inclined to attribute this result not so much to the “power of prayer” as to the Catholic Church’s leadership in promoting Fertility Awareness. When women understand and embrace their reproductive processes, it stands to reason that they would be much less anxious or frustrated than those who follow the “conventional fertility clinic” approach, which generally says “No need to understand what’s going on with your body; just take this pill or undergo this procedure and we’ll have you fixed up.”

    (disclosure: my wife and I are not Catholic, but have been trained in fertility awareness through a Catholic program)


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