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MedGenMed. 2007; 9(1): 56.
Published online Mar 20, 2007.
PMCID: PMC1924985

About Intercessory Prayer: The Scientific Study of Miracles

Gil Gaudia, PhD, Professor Emeritus

Introduction

In 1748 the great Scottish philosopher, David Hume, first published his “lemon test” concerning miracles. It goes like this: “No testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be even more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish… ” Hume concludes his point by saying: “When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself, whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact, which he relates, should really have happened. I weigh the one miracle against the other; and according to the superiority, which I discover, I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates; then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion.”[1]

By carrying out research into the effects of “intercessory prayer” medical researchers are, in effect, attempting to study the existence of miracles, defined as an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.[2]

Let me emphatically state at the outset, that I do not criticize anyone for praying for themselves or anyone else if they choose to. Nor do I deny that there may be benefits to some individuals that stem from prayer. These activities might stimulate subtle mechanisms of psychology and physiology which, when understood more fully, may add to the established benefits of medication and surgery, as they obviously do in psychiatric illnesses. Along with placebo effects, the alleged benefits of prayer may be the result of feelings of well-being, optimism and confidence that result from praying and similar practices like meditation or relaxation. I agree, all of this may exist, and could, perhaps should, be a subject of legitimate scientific inquiry.[3,4]

But the interaction of psychology and physiology is not the subject of my commentary. My comments are addressed only to what most people mean when they say, “I'll pray for you;” The meaning that implies a request for intercession from a “higher power.” What this reference to prayer means, is that the wishes of the supplicants will be heard by some agent and if the agent is convinced to act – the course of events will be changed for the better, in accordance with the prayer. Thus, the meaning of “intercessory prayer,” which this commentary attempts to address is the study of the existence of miracles, which implies the study of the existence of God.

There is incredible irony in all of the previous “experiments” involving intercessory prayer. Every one of them has been seeking evidence of a most trivial kind that could even be mistaken for a placebo effect, or a statistical artifact, from an alleged Power of the most unimaginable magnitude. Power that presumably was the source of the astounding creation of hundreds of billions of galaxies, which are composed of hundreds of trillions of stars, dotted with singularities and “black holes” possessing immense gravity and crushing annihilatory densities; all of which are dancing with exquisite accuracy in spectacular elliptical orbits over a time- and distance-span of 14 billion light years; Power that has designed astonishingly complex molecular systems, composed of amazingly intricate atomic foundations; all operating according to the mechanics of gravity and other little-understood forces that bind atomic nuclei together while swarms of electrons maintain their balance around their stupendously dense centers in microscopic imitation of the grander galaxies; Power that orchestrated the rules of light propagation and spectrums of colors all arranged in fantastically diverse, visible, as well as invisible, wavelengths and patterns.

Meanwhile, experimenters seek evidence of this breathtaking immensity by searching for a barely measurable difference between the arterial blood flow of a few cardiovascular patients who were prayed for and a few other unfortunates who were not … a difference in blood pressure between 1 group of hypertensives who were prayed for and another group that was not prayed for. It is as if one were asking a composer with a quadrillion times the musical capacity and comprehension of a Ludwig Von Beethoven to demonstrate his musicianship by writing out the notes to “Three Blind Mice.”

How petty and insulting to whatever deity these investigators claim to be investigating, when the most they can ask of that which has created biologic systems from algae to sequoia giganticus and amoebas to human brains “Let me see if you can fertilize this ovum in a Petri dish with one of your hands tied behind your back.”

The issue is about prayer to a deity or his representative beings that do not exist within the known physical universe, a qualification acknowledged by most educated religious believers, which should include medical researchers who engage in the scientific investigation of natural phenomena. What I am trying to make clear is that those who believe in God and the power of intercessory prayer are speaking of concepts that are not material and therefore not part of the physical world. Yet they want to connect these phantasms with the scientifically demonstrated forces and structures of the physical world … and moreover, to have these influences measured in physical experiments.

Many of these studies claim to have demonstrated the effectiveness of intercessory prayer.[5] Of course, many do not, and one meta-analysis of 14 such studies concluded, “There is no scientifically discernable effect for Intercessory Prayer (IP) as assessed in controlled studies. Given that the IP literature lacks a theoretical or theological base and has failed to produce significant findings in controlled trials, we recommend that further resources not be allocated to this line of research.”[6] I hasten to point out, that some studies indicate that there may also be certain disadvantages that accrue from similar psychological and physiological mechanisms. In a most notable example, in the April issue of the American Heart Journal, one of the study's findings was that “a significantly higher number of the patients who knew that they were being prayed for (59%) suffered complications, compared with 51% of those who were uncertain.” One of the investigators, Dr. W. Bethea, said it is possible, “that being aware of the strangers' prayers also may have caused some of the patients a kind of performance anxiety… It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?”[7]

So not only do some “scientists” seem to believe that intercessory prayer can be helpful, they are also concerned that it could be harmful. This is suspicious, to say the least, because it should be apparent that, most of these “results,” both positive and negative as well as neutral, are explainable either as psychosomatic effects, or even more likely, as statistical artifacts. But more importantly, if the concept of intercessory prayer has any meaning whatsoever, in the metaphysical sense, would that mean that the deity was not only ignoring the request, but in some instances, also punishing the supplicant as well?

Whatever the competing explanations may be, a major reason for the indeterminacy is that the dependent variables that are chosen in all of these studies, by their very nature, were not unambiguous enough to produce an unequivocal outcome. There is and always has been in these studies, the likelihood that the null hypothesis or alternative hypotheses prevail.

Finding differences between groups, especially differences brought about by a “treatment,” is the sine qua non of experimentation. However, when 2 groups are compared on any criterion measure, there will always be some difference. The important task is to distinguish between a “measured difference,” a “statistically significant difference,” and an “actual or real difference.” The first 2 are separate and unequal approximations of the third, which is unattainable reality, although the first 2 are often mistaken for the third. Neither of the first 2 can ever hope to be estimates of that which is outside of reality.[8]

An Experiment

To carry out a confirmatory experiment one that would leave no possibility of an alternative explanation the investigators would have to produce evidence of an effect that could only be explainable by a force unknown to science, such as the intervention of a deity or its agent. There are some outcomes that could eliminate most doubt about experimental artifacts and they would have to involve dependent variables that could not occur except by divine intervention. Investigators would have to identify a dependent variable that could withstand the lemon test, one that would yield clearcut results. There are such variables.

For example, one very simple experiment, the results of which would leave little or no doubt about the effectiveness of intercessory prayer, could involve the regeneration of an amputated limb.[9] All that would be required is an adequate sample of amputees as subjects and a sizeable number of believers who will earnestly pray over them. These should not be hard to locate. The investigators could use as many universities and people as possible – all the willing believers in the country if necessary to pray every day for a year that at least one amputee would have a limb re-grown, and then, at the end of that year, examine all the thousands of amputees for signs of regenerating limbs.

Any amputee who wants to be included in the experimental group would be examined beforehand by a panel of physicians to ascertain that he or she is indeed an amputee. DNA samples on the subjects would be taken before and after the study to ascertain that the amputee identified at the beginning would indeed actually be the person who was examined a year later. There would be no limit on the sample size. No need for randomization, t tests, analyses of variance, factor analyses, significance levels, or confidence intervals. The subjects would present themselves at the end of the year and be examined to see if a single missing limb had been restored. Any priest, minister, rabbi, or lay person would be permitted to recommend subjects for the experiment, and any could observe the examination for the regenerated limbs. There should be no limitation on the number of amputees, people who pray for them, and observers to keep everything organized and uncontaminated.

When a single limb has thus been observed to have been regenerated, then we will have seen unequivocal evidence for the power of prayer. This would be a real test to put before the immovable object; the irresistible force; the ultimate omniscience, the omnipotent, omnipresent supremacy of all that the believers in a supernatural being endow that Master Architect with. The creator of the entire universe should have no problem re-creating a limb.

Perhaps this study could be carried out at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, under the aegis of the study currently being conducted there, known as the MANTRA II (Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic TRAinings) Project. “Noetic” interventions such as prayer and music imagery and touch studies called (MIT) therapies are defined as “an intangible healing influence brought about without the use of a drug, device or surgical procedure,” according to the researchers. The word noetic generally has to do with intellectual matters, which under the circumstances seem to be the dubious use of a perfectly good English word. They have already published the results of the phase I feasibility pilot, known as the MANTRA I.[10,11]

Prominent in the field, Duke University has a long history of interest in arcane practices, going back to the work of J. B. Rhine as early as 1927. Rhine was interested in mediums, the afterlife, telepathy, and clairvoyance and as the originator of the terms “extrasensory perception” (ESP) and “psychokinesis” (PK), he provided “legitimacy” and material for prestidigitators, psychics, and entertainers like Uri Geller (of spoon-bending fame), while maintaining that he was advancing a new field of science he called “parapsychology.” Incidentally, he had been accused of fraudulently juggling his data by, among others (including his wife), Martin Gardner.[12] His legacy has undoubtedly most likely influenced the studies on intercessory payer now known as the MANTRA I and MANTRA II.[13]

Opinion

Intercessory prayer is a request to God to change his or her mind about the already established plan for the universe and make it go another way. Of course, this implies that a perfect deity's plans, which would (by definition) have to be perfect, should now be altered at the urging of an imperfect being. This is logical reason enough to refute the possibility of intercessory prayer's effect, because perfect beings cannot be outguessed by fallible mortals. Nevertheless, believers in the power of gods, saints, and angels claim that these agents are able to alter or suspend the well-established laws of the universe at their whim or at the request of the believer, through prayer.

If we were speaking of magic or sorcery, or any belief systems outside of Western Judeo-Christian tradition, most investigators would agree that these ideas (of intercessory prayer's effectiveness) are ridiculous and consist of superstition at best. In only one area, the field of Judeo-Christian theology, are the very same phantasms accorded the status of legitimate entity, and amenable to scientific scrutiny. Why? Why are Judeo-Christian superstitions by any accepted taxonomy of logic allowed to maintain a grip on, not only political, social and economic values in our society, but on scientific ones as well? How can we explain the avalanche of articles that are now apparently available about this current preoccupation of American medicine with the miraculous?[1416]

In March of 2005, my article “Searching in the Darkness: About Prayer and Medical Cures” was published as a commentary in Medscape General Medicine.[17] I was motivated to write it after seeing that there were 15 articles listed in Medscape on the subject of “intercessory prayer,” and at that time, I found it hard to believe that so many researchers would spend their time expend their resources on such an endeavor. Many of these studies were aimed at investigating the possibility that prayer could influence the outcome of a variety of medical conditions, ranging from infertility to cardiac surgery. This occurred shortly after the exposure of “the Columbia University prayer fiasco,”[18,19] and I believed that, in its aftermath, we would begin to see a diminution of interest in this alleged scientific area of research.

Last week, I put the word “prayer” into Medscape's search engine, and to my astonishment, it provided me with a list of 136 articles. In disbelief, I went to Google, and entered the search words, “intercessory,” “prayer,” “cure,” and “medicine,” and it yielded 206,000 “hits.”

I believe that this focus on “intercessory prayer” is but one manifestation of a larger movement, begun when the National Institutes for Health (NIH) formed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). The goal of this organization is ostensibly an attempt to bring more diverse tools into the healing professions' armamentarium, and it provides the funding for many of the studies that deal with alternative medicine.[20]

The NCCAM at the National Institutes of Health released a survey in May of 2004 that showed that, “36% of US adults use some form of alternative remedies.” They defined complementary and alternative medicine as “a group of diverse medical and health care systems, practices and products that are not currently considered to be part of conventional medicine. Those practices include acupuncture, meditation, the use of herbal supplements and prayer. When prayer, used specifically for health reasons, is included in the definition of complementary and alternative medicine, the number of US adults using complementary and alternative medicine rises to 62 percent.”[21]

It is disheartening to see the number of supposedly educated and intelligent professionals who are involved in the futile process of attempting to investigate that which cannot be part of the physical universe, and hence, not open to scientific examination. As quoted in my earlier article on this same subject, Desiderius Erasmus described these people as “looking in utter darkness for that which has no existence whatsoever.”[22] Scientists have no business wasting their time and money (and certainly not the taxpayers' money where it is NCCAM-funded research) investigating “that which has no existence whatsoever.” In fact, in my opinion, those who do, should be labeled “pseudo scientists.”[2325]

Let's re-examine, once more, the notion of supplication to a deity, or one of his agents, in which a request is made for a suspension of the known laws of nature. We don't know all the laws but they do exist, and science is their investigating agent instrument. For any scientist to engage in a study that attempts to understand how something that does not exist in the material world (God or his agents), employs a mechanism that does not exist in the material world (miraculous cure, or prayer-related amelioration of symptoms) is simply working in the wrong field. He or she does not belong in science or one of its main applied areas, which is medicine; theology would be an acceptable alternative.

Have the tentacles of politico-religious, anti-scientific zealotry ensnared medical researchers? It seems to me, that political, financial, and ideological forces are behind the rise in so-called alternative medicine, and intercessory prayer is riding the wave. For a description of this issue and articles that deal with the many complications surrounding an investment in alternative medicine and its implications for traditional western medicine and all of science, see the Web site of Dr. Clark Bartram, a pediatrician with a sense of humor.[26]

Because of the situation I have described, in my opinion, it represents we are witnessing a serious degeneration of the meaning of the terms, “medical research,” and/or “scientific research.” As a result, accepted standards of scientific research inquiry are falling by the wayside.

The Tangled Web

For reasons that go way beyond the scope of this commentary, there is an interesting conglomeration of characters, locales, organizations, traditions, and so on, that cluster around studies into the arcane. For example, is it an accident that Dr. Krucoff is the principal investigator of the Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) Study Project at Duke University Medical Center; and is also on the board of directors of The Rhine Research Center, which was established by J. B. Rhine, the preeminent investigator into the paranormal?

In addition to the political complexity surrounding NCCAM, including why it has funded over a half-billion dollars worth of research into Reiki, herbal remedies, chiropractic, and “distance healing,” it would take an inordinate amount of time to investigate the backgrounds of all the private funding organizations behind the prayer studies and behind “faith-based initiatives.” But public or private, think of the potential that such funding could provide if it were directed into legitimate research.

Some of the funds for studies mentioned in this commentary were provided by grants from the RAMA Foundation, Bakken Family Foundation, George Family Foundation, FACT Foundation, Duke University Heart Center, Duke Clinical Research Institute, Columbia University Medical Center, Geisinger Medical Center, Scripps Clinic, and the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and the Templeton Foundation. Perhaps someone would be willing to study the relationship and motivations of granting agencies that support these studies.

This would be a gigantic investigation in and of itself, and beyond the scope of this commentary, in which I intended to focus exclusively on intercessory prayer. However, it is important to note that some of the “Complementary and Alternative” procedures, for example, acupuncture and herbal supplements are, at least, based on something physical, a substance and/or a process, and as strange as many of these procedures may seem to be, they are still within the testable universe of physical science. Intercessory Prayer is another matter entirely, and should not command the attention and resources of science.

Footnotes

Readers are encouraged to respond to the author at ten.aihpleda@aiduagjg or to Paul Blumenthal, MD, Deputy Editor of MedGenMed, for the editor's eyes only or for possible publication via email: ude.drofnats@nemulbp

References

1. Selby L. In: From David Hume. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Bigge, editor. Oxford: Clarendon Press; 1902. pp. 114–116.
2. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Tenth ed. Springfield, Mass: Merriam-Webster, Inc.; 1997.
3. Lundberg GD. Evidence-based medicine or faith-based medicine? Medscape Gen Med. 2004;6 Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/494069 Accessed March 7, 2007.
4. Arias DC. Alternative medicines' popularity prompts concern: use of alternative and complementary remedies on the rise. Medscape Gen Med. 2004;8 Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/484309 Accessed March 7, 2007.
5. Krucoff MW, Crater SW, Green CL, et al. Integrative noetic therapies as adjuncts to percutaneous intervention during unstable coronary syndromes: Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Training (MANTRA) feasibility pilot. Am Heart J. 2001;142:760–769. [PubMed]
6. Masters KS, Spielmans GI, Goodson ST. Are there demonstrable effects of distant intercessory prayer? A meta-analytic review. Ann Behav Med. 2006;32:21–26. [PubMed]
7. Benson J, Dusek J, Sherwood P, et al. Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. Am Heart J. 2006;151:934–942. [PubMed]
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9. Why won't God heal amputees? Available at: www.whydoesgodhateamputees.com Accessed March 7, 2007.
10. Krucoff M, Crater S, Gallup D, et al. Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study. Lancet. 2005;366:211–217. [PubMed]
11. Krucoff MW, Crater SW, Green CL, et al. Integrative noetic therapies as adjuncts to percutaneous intervention during unstable coronary syndromes: Monitoring and Actualization of Noetic Training (MANTRA) feasibility pilot. Am Heart J. 2001;142:760–769. [PubMed]
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16. Lundberg G. Evidence-based medicine or faith-based medicine? Medscape Gen Med. 2004:6. Available at: http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/549067 Accessed March 7, 2007.
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21. Alternative remedies. Available at: http://nccam.nih.gov/research/ Accessed March 7, 2007.
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26. Unintelligent design. Available at: www.theclayexperience.blogspot.com. Accessed March 7, 2007.

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