Can prayer heal illness or injury?
For years a bazillion (or so) studies of this question have intrigued people, and yet I continue to believe that this is one area (among many) in which religion gets seduced by science, to borrow the title of Steven Goldberg's excellent book of a few years ago.
That is, when so-called prayer studies are done, they focus just on intercessory prayer and they pretend they can somehow measure medical outcome based on whether people are being prayed for. Even the best of these studies falls victim to the idea that it's possible to measure the results of religious practice in some tangible way. It's goofy, and people of faith should resist the temptation of having their beliefs and practices "verified" by science.
I was thinking about all of this recently for several reasons. First, because of a piece I read in the May issue of Christianity Today, "What Do Prayer Studies Prove?" That piece is not available yet on the Web, but it's about a recent study by Health Care Direct Research that showed most doctors believe miracles are possible and yet fewer than 29 percent believe the outcomes of medical treatments are related to God.
Beyond that, I recently met a man who teaches psychiatry at Columbia University who, based on his own experience as a patient, has come to believe that prayer can be an imporant part of what is required to heal people. He has written a book, When Doctors Become Patients, and wrote this piece about the subject for a New York Times blog. It's worth a read.
As a person of faith, I think prayer is important. But prayer is much more than begging God to fill our wish lists. There are, for starters, many different kinds of prayer with different purposes. To focus just on one kind of prayer and try to prove its worth in a scientific study is, to me, like trying to see if banging on a pan in Boise, Idaho, increases the population of chickens in Streator, Ill. Chickens there respond to way too many variables to be able to tell.
But at the very least, health care providers should understand what prayer means to their patients and try to acknowledge that, even if they themselves don't want to join the patient in prayer.
(As a semi-unrelated aside, as a boy I watched the population of chickens in Streator, Ill., change from time to time as my grandmother, who lived there with my grandfather, offed the head of one to fix for our Sunday dinner. I admit that, thinking of my stomach, I rooted for Grandma Helander and never prayed for the chicken.)
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TAKE THAT, B-16
France's first lady has gone public with criticism of Pope Benedict XVI. Fine. But why is her opinion worth any more than the opinion of any other citizen of France? Yes, yes, I know she's famous and beautiful and her husband is powerful. And she's been active in trying to battle AIDS in Africa. But I tend to be pretty skeptical of the news value of celebrity opinions on almost any subject -- especially theology. Just as I was skeptical of the previous pope's reported opinion about a movie. Just because anyone can be a critic doesn't mean everyone should be.