Why Prayer “Studies” are Meaningless

Many years ago I heard more than once how science had supposedly proven the power of prayer.  It was alleged that sick patients who had prayer offered up for them generally fared better than those who had none.  Many viewed this as a victory for religion, but skeptics, true to form, begged to differ.  Fast forward several years to 2006, and a new study came to the conclusion that prayer does nothing in the healing department.

What do we make of such prayer research?  Has science finally proven that prayer – and thus all religious faith – is invalid?  Can prayer even be quantified? 

First we must discuss how prayer is understood in these studies.  Most religious folks still seem to view prayer as a way of asking and receiving from God.  For others it is thought of as a way of drawing power from some mysterious force that connects us all.  Others view the benefits of prayer as merely psychological. To the scientist, the benefits of prayer are seen as more self-actualized than anything else, though some are open to the possibility that there could be some mystical power present – within a naturalistic framework, of course. 

In considering these studies, we must understand what is assumed and how the study is carried out.  I’ve listed a few of the typical understandings, underlying assumptions, and methods used by researchers:

  1. Prayer is treated more as a mysterious force yet to be scientifically verified, or as a psychological phenomenon, affecting the recipients in positive ways by some power of positive thought.
  2. God is given little mention, possibly because doing so might indicate favoritism toward a particular view of religion and, thus, prayer.  To simplify: prayer is prayer is prayer.
  3. In order for the study to work properly, it is implicit that the healing of someone must always  be right.  This must be assumed or the whole study is a non-starter.
  4. The subjects praying are often given specific instructions about what to pray.  Consider the instructions given in the latest study.  Though they could pray according to their conscience, any prayers toward the sick in the study had to include the following words: “for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications,” (see reference below) spoken along with the person’s first name and last initial.

Given this information, we must now examine it in light of the Bible.  Here are some relevant truths from Scripture that have significant bearing on the issue:

  1. There is only one way to God, through his Son, Jesus Christ.  Therefore, all other religions are necessarily false.
  2. God is a distinguishing God, and he only hears the prayers of his people.  Christ acts as intercessor only for those he came to save.
  3. Sometimes it is not God’s will to heal every person of an illness.
  4. Although Christians can pray for anybody, prayer for non-Christians is generally focused on two things: a) peace, and b) their eventually conversion to Christ.  Therefore, prayer for a non-believer’s healing is given with the understanding that that person’s potential healing should lead him/her into fellowship with God.
  5. It is the Holy Spirit of God who instructs believers what to pray for.
  6. Prayer can be hindered by sin.

If Scripture is taken as God’s only true revelation to mankind, the fallacy of such studies is obvious.  According to the Bible, God is the only one who can answer prayer; he has a very specific people he listens to; he instructs them as to what and how to pray; the Holy Spirit gives further guidance as to direction of prayer, in what is said, and to whom it’s directed; God sometimes does not intend to heal for reasons known only to himself.  In light of these biblical truths about prayer it’s little wonder that many prayer studies show no difference between the “prayed fors” and the “not prayed fors.”  Prayer cannot be quantified.

Even if such a study were carried out by Christians, the results would be no better.  Assuming that the study was only conducted with true believers praying according to biblical commands, it would still fail since nobody knows if it’s God’s perfect will to heal every person in the study.  And then there are those pesky Christians outside of the study who mess up the whole multi-million dollar program by adding their own prayers to the mix.  Perhaps someone should sue them for interference with a scientific research endeavor!

So to everyone looking forward to the day when scientific inquiry leads nonbelievers to realize the true power of prayer . . . it will simply never happen.


Benedict Carey, “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer,”  located at: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/03/31/health/31pray.html.  Retrieved 19 June 2010.


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Filed under In the News, Theology

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