The "Power" Of Prayer

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

Alongside the various reasons to protest the pope’s visit to these shores (the child abuse scandal; the papal edict on condom use leading to the spread of AIDS in Africa and arguably worsening poverty around the world; plusd his Holiness’ less than progressive views on homosexuality and the like) another interesting tale has emerged.

It centres around Jack Sullivan:

Jack Sullivan was in agony. Bedridden after complicated surgery on his spine, the pain was so intense he was unable to sleep and had trouble breathing.

An earlier scan had revealed the vertebrae in his lower back had turned inwards and were squeezing his spinal cord, severing the protective layer around the spine. His doctor said the case was one of the worst he had ever seen and that he was lucky not to have been paralysed.

Sullivan had just completed the second year of a four-year course to become a deacon when his affliction struck. He believes that it was a prayer to Cardinal John Henry Newman that lead to his “miraculous” healing:

“I certainly needed a divine favour at that moment so I prayed: ‘Please Cardinal Newman help me to walk so that I can return to classes and be ordained’,” said Mr Sullivan.

As a result of this Benedict XVI is to oversee the beatification, the penultimate step on the path to full sainthood, of Cardinal John Henry Newman at an open-air Mass in Birmingham’s Cofton Park.

Testaments to faith healing and the power of prayer are reasonably common, but trusting to faith rather than evidence based treatments can be dangerous, and may result in death. Now, I have no doubt that prayer can provide comfort to those facing a great deal of pain or suffering from their medical conditions. Indeed, a study showed that believers who saw a picture of the Virgin Mary experienced less pain than those who did not (Hail Mary full of Placebo?). As the study’s authors noted:

“The Roman Catholics engaged a brain mechanism that is well known from research into the placebo effect, analgesia and emotional disengagement, it helps people to reinterpret pain, and make it less threatening. These people felt safe by looking at the Virgin Mary, they felt looked after, so the whole context of the test changed for them.”

But does being prayed for help or hinder someone on the road to recovery?

This is a subject that has attracted a fair bit of research – enough, in fact, for a 2007 meta-analysis “Prayer and Health, Meta-Analysis, and Research Agenda” by Kevin Masters of Syracuse University and Glen Spielmans of the Metropolitan State University, St Paul to explore the issue at length. They analysed the results from 15 studies on the healing power, or lack thereof, of intercessory distant prayer (one of which included nearly 2,000 participants).

They concluded that there was no discernible effect of prayer on the health of those people participating in the studies. Praying for people at a distance, perhaps unsurprisingly, just didn’t work.

But what if you were aware that there were people praying for you to have a speedy recovery?

Researchers at Harvard University explored just such a possibility with some interesting results. They told 1,111 patients they might be prayed for (604 were and 507 weren’t) and told a further 601 patients that they would be prayed for. One might theorise that when religious people know they are being prayed for, this provides them some comfort, and might lend itself to some sort of placebo effect reducing per-operative stress and lending itself to a speedy recovery. However, complications occurred in 52 percent of those who received prayer (Group 1) versus 51 percent of those who did not receive prayer (Group 2). Complications occurred in 59 percent of patients who were told they would receive prayer (Group 3) versus 52 percent, who also received prayer, but were uncertain of receiving it (Group 1). Major complications and thirty-day mortality were similar across the three groups. In this study, at least, it looks like knowing you were being prayed for could actually have had a nocebo effect! Could this perhaps be because telling someone who’s in hospital that you are praying for them could increase their anxiety, making them believe that their condition is so bad there is nothing left to do but pray?

Whatever the reasons, it seems that when faced with ill health, “better start praying” is perhaps the worst course of action you can suggest!