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Testing Prayer

April 27, 2012

When sickness strikes, people around the world pray for healing. Many claim prayer has cured them of blindness, deafness, metastasized cancers. Some believe they have been resurrected from the dead.

Can science test such claims? Should it?

Science cannot prove prayer’s healing power, but according to Candy Gunther Brown, associate professor of religious studies in the College of Arts and Sciences at Indiana University Bloomington, what scientists can and should do is study prayer’s measurable effects on health. If prayer produces benefits, even indirectly (and findings suggest that it does), then more careful attention to prayer practices could improve global health, particularly in places without access to conventional medicine.

Brown delves into the healing power of prayer in her recently published book Testing Prayer: Science and Healing (Harvard University Press). She says four “cameras” provide useful, complementary perspectives on healing prayer:

  • Medical records: Examining individual records from before and after prayer can provide a check on whether patients experience an objective change in condition.
  • Surveys: Subjects can, through responses to survey questions, provide insight into how they experience healing. For example, evidence shows that most people who seek healing through prayer also pursue conventional treatment from medical providers.
  • Clinical trials: Brown worked in Mozambique with medical researchers to examine the hearing and vision of subjects before and after prayer. They found improvements that were greater than would be expected from random recovery or placebo effects.
  • Follow-up: Long-term observation and interviews can shed light on whether the experience of healing is long-lasting and whether the subjects’ perceptions of healing change over time.

Testing Prayer traces the controversy over whether prayer should be tested back to the Protestant Reformation, when reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin insisted that miracles were no longer important as a means of revealing God’s power. In the late 1800s, scientific naturalists argued that claims of divine healing should be judged on empirical grounds, but believers typically resisted. A hundred years later, some advocates of divine healing claimed to welcome scrutiny; but researchers often rejected the idea that science should be put to the test in evaluating superstitions.

Brown finds that the widespread perception of prayer’s healing power has demonstrable social effects, and that in some cases those effects produce improvements in health that can be scientifically verified.

“Pain is the principal complaint of those seeking prayer, accounting for 37 percent of all prayer requests by those surveyed,” says Brown, “and pain relief is the principal claim of those who reported experiencing healing. When people are sick or in pain, many look for healing wherever they can find it. They really don’t care about philosophical or theological consistency.

“If prayer practices can affect health — for better or for worse,” she adds, “it seems to me that doctors, patients and policymakers should all want to know. Once we have a clearer answer to the questions of whether and in what direction prayer affects health, we can look more closely at possible mechanisms.”

Brown is a historian and ethnographer of religion and culture. Her previous books include Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing as editor (Oxford University Press, 2011) and The Word in the World: Evangelical Writing, Publishing, and Reading in America, 1789-1880″ (University of North Carolina Press, 2004). She currently has two more books-in-progress: The Healing Gods of Christian America: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in the Mainstream and Miracle Cures? Divine Healing and Deliverance in America.


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