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Prescribed Prayer Lacks Punch

The Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer, also known as STEP, is the latest controlled study examining prayer with cardiac patients. The researchers designed a study using all the best research, statistical and ethical procedures of high-quality research. They went beyond the limitations of previous studies.STEP claimed to be the largest prayer study ever conducted. It used a sample of 1,802 cardiac bypass patients from six hospitals to measure the effects of intercessory, or third-party, prayer.

Two earlier studies found some better outcomes in the groups prayed for, but they also had significant limitations. Two more recent studies had found that cardiac patients in the prayer group did no better than those in the no-prayer group. A similar pattern of small or no benefit was found in 25 controlled studies of varying quality involving prayer.

One STEP backward.Research like the STEP study attempts to determine whether something works or not. Various controls are put in place to eliminate the role of chance or placebo effects. Such research has been developed primarily with pharmaceuticals where everything except the substance taken can be kept the same.

It becomes much harder when the intervention is not a pill. More control can make the intervention less like what people actually use in real life.This points to a significant problem with the STEP study.

To make sure everyone received the same sort of prayer, a standardized prayer was used, people were told when to pray, and they were given only the first name and last initial. The groups who prayed told the researchers ahead of time that they were completely changing the way these groups normally pray for patients. If researchers asked a drug company to change what its tablets normally contain, would the research tell us anything about the tablets normally used? Probably not.

Prayer is a spiritual exercise involving theological beliefs. Prayer research has been fundamentally influenced by theological views, and not always to the benefit of the research. Some studies have combined prayer from Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and other groups, assuming this makes no difference.Some prayer studies have used prayer to a personal God, while others pray to direct an impersonal energy. In one study the researchers admitted they did not know what the prayer intervention involved. Belief that totally different forms of prayer can be viewed as the same thing leads to interventions that do not match what people do when they pray.

This can undermine the credibility of any results.The STEP researchers, and most of the others, claim they are not trying to say anything about whether God exists or not. They do not want to evaluate whether one form of prayer is better than another. Yet if they find that prayer works, would it not be ethically important to tell people how to pray? Or whether praying this way or that works better? The STEP study shows that praying a standardized prayer in a rote fashion is not beneficial.A fundamental problem with prayer research.This gets at a fundamental problem with prayer research.

The science behind the studies is that the intervention must be controlled as much as possible. The theology behind some forms of prayer is that there is an uncontrollable aspect.Prayer can also be viewed magically, where the divine being is manipulated. Prayer can be viewed as an impersonal energy, something that can be controlled.

Some of the prayer studies have used this type of prayer. In these traditions, if praying must lead to a certain outcome, it can be measured. Negative results could be interpreted as evidence that impersonal prayer is not effective ? if that is what prayer is.

The prayer involved in the STEP study involved Christian groups. Their prayer would be an appeal to a personal being who decides how to respond to the request. But a prayer study cannot be controlled if a personal being of any sort is determining the outcome. Negative results do not indicate that such a personal being doesn't exist ? they indicate that the researchers have not figured out how to control him. Given that many people are praying to such a personal being, it seems questionable to continue with the sorts of prayer studies exemplified by STEP. They are not addressing prayer as practiced by many people.

The right way to study prayer.So should any research with prayer continue? Surveys of complementary and alternative medicine usage have been carried out by David Eisenberg, professor of medicine, and colleagues at Harvard Medical School. They asked people about their use of prayer for healing, though these results have received little attention. Prayer has consistently been the most frequently used approach to healing, used by 25, 35, and 45 percent of respondents in 1990, 1997, and 2002, respectively. When prayer was divided up by category, it ranked first, second, third and sixth in popularity (prayer in general, praying for one's own health, others praying for one's health, and participated in a prayer group).Such popularity invites research.

Why do people turn to prayer? Do people who pray for their own health have better outcomes or cope better? Much remains that we don't understand in this area.Research should move away from trying to test prayer as a "therapy" that can be packaged into a controlled intervention. Such an approach is demeaning to the spiritual traditions that cherish prayer, especially the personal aspects of prayer.

Prayer is not a therapy to be used just when needed. It is an intimate expression of a personal relationship between a person and God, a God who loves and cares for them.

.Dónal P.

O'Mathúna is Lecturer in Health Care Ethics at the School of Nursing at Dublin City University in Dublin, Ireland. He is the coauthor of Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, to be released by Zondervan in a revised and expanded edition in late 2006. This article was written for Science & Theology News.

By: Donal P. O'Mathuna

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