Heart-felt prayers

April 25, 1997

Coronary patients are to be the subject of an experiment to find out if there really is power in prayer. Russell Stannard asks should God be put to the test?

Do prayers for sick people work? We might have an answer to this question in a couple of years' time.

The John Templeton Foundation, a United States charitable organisation devoted to promoting progress in religion, has agreed to finance a prayer experiment. Patients about to undergo coronary artery bypass graft surgery at three big US hospitals will be divided into groups. One group of 600 will be prayed for by teams from religious groups. Another 600 will not be prayed for.

Their case histories will be followed over two years to see if there are any differences between the groups as regards the rate and degree of recovery.

The project has been designed as a rigorously controlled scientific experiment. All patients will be told that they might or might not be prayed for, but none will know to which group he or she has been assigned. Neither will the medical staff have access to this information. Those saying the prayers will know only the first names of the people assigned to them and some details of their condition - not sufficient to reveal their identity. The data will all be collated only at the very end of the experiment.

This is not the first time an experiment of this sort has been done. Results published in 1988 of a study performed by R. C. Byrd appeared to show that those patients who received intercessory prayer had a less complicated hospital course and required fewer medications and procedures than a control group of patients who did not receive prayer. However, the results have not been widely accepted, partly because of concerns over the methodology.

The present proposal is an improvement. The sample sizes have been increased from 200 to 600. Whereas the Byrd study included anyone admitted to the coronary care unit, the patients involved this time all undergo the same surgery (facilitating tighter medical definitions of end points of treatment). The follow-up period has been extended from one year to two. Three sites are involved instead of one. More sophisticated statistical techniques will be employed.

In addition, the study is to include a third group of 600 patients. They will be prayed for, but will be told that they are to be the subject of prayer. The intention is to examine whether there is any additional benefit to be gained (of a psychosomatic or placebo nature) from knowing that one is the subject of prayer.

A statistically significant positive correlation between prayer and good recovery from the operation would, of course, be fascinating but such a result would not amount to proof of God's existence. The investigators and the funding agency make it clear that the project is not to be thought of as an attempt to prove the existence of God. An alternative explanation of a positive result might invoke some form of transference of thought between the mind of the person praying and that of the patient - a sort of telepathy. Nevertheless, a positive correlation would lead to a series of further experiments, checking that the original result was not a statistical freak, and trying out different prayer techniques on other ailments.

But what if there is no measurable difference between the groups? One conclusion to explain such a result might be that intercessory prayer does not work - perhaps because there is no God. There are alternative explanations. For instance, when it is said that one of the groups will not be prayed for, that simply means there will be no special team at work on their behalf. That will not stop the patients praying for themselves, nor their loved ones and friends from praying. The investigators refer to this as "unwanted background noise". The experiment is trying to measure whether there is any additional benefit coming from the prayers of the special team. It could well be that the efforts of these strangers will be swamped by the prayers of those directly involved with the patients.

When scientists investigate the physical world, provided they ask the right questions and adopt sound scientific methodology, nature has no alternative but to yield up its secrets. But applying that methodology to God (or to anyone else with a will of their own) is not a guarantee of success. God might simply decide not to cooperate. It could be argued that a loving God might be reluctant to penalise patients merely because some strangers deliberately decide not to include them in their prayers.

Not only that, God might well appreciate better than ourselves some of the drawbacks of allowing us to uncover his work in this manner. By the very nature of the clearcut way in which the experiment has been designed, the result will be a quantitative one. That means it becomes possible to put a price on whatever benefit might be gained from this type of prayer exercise. Do we really want some Treasury official to use a positive result as an excuse to close down hospital wards - because vicars can be hired to pray more cheaply? It would not altogether be surprising if God, in his wisdom, decided to frustrate the best efforts of the investigators - for our own good. We should recall that it says in the Bible: "Thou shalt not put the Lord thy God to the test.'' Russell Stannard, professor of physics at the Open University, is a trustee of the John Templeton Foundation.

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