Faith healing

Can prayer do anything more than make you feel better?

Published November 3, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Six weeks after Amanda Chandler gave birth to her daughter, she got a dose of bad news. Doctors performing a routine laparoscopy to explore a cyst on one of her ovaries found more tumors -- lots of them -- and the tumors were so suspicious, so unlike anything her gynecologist had ever seen, they immediately removed one ovary and half of the other.

"They said there was a 50-50 chance that it was cancer," says Amanda, a 32-year-old in Alexandria, Va. She had to wait two days for the biopsy results. During those two days, friends and family rallied around to comfort her -- and to pray. "Numerous people, family and friends, were praying for me," Amanda says. "Everybody said, 'Our prayers are with you.' I was on prayer lists all over the city."

A friend lit candles for Amanda at her church. Two Episcopal priests came to her hospital room to issue formal prayers. One of them laid hands on her as he prayed, and Amanda felt a strange heat passing into her body. Two days later her biopsy report came back. Benign.

So what have we here? Another unlucky victim of fate who lucked out in the end? Did the pendulum on those 50-50 odds just happen to swing her way? Or is the explanation less random, more mysterious -- did faith and prayer have something to do with it?

It's one of the first tenets of spiritual belief: Pray for the sick, they'll get better. Most secular humanist types frown on such supernatural notions, but even your most jaded agnostic will break down and mutter a few words to the sky when some dire malady lays his mother low.

But does it do any good? Everybody's got an opinion but nobody knows for sure, because the faith-health dichotomy has never received much in the way of serious scientific scrutiny.

Until now. A massive study published in the Oct. 25 issue of the Archives of Internal Medicine (a journal of the American Medical Association) showed that heart patients who had someone praying for them suffered fewer complications than other patients.

Researchers at the Mid America Heart Institute of St. Luke's Hospital in Kansas City studied 990 patients admitted to the institute's coronary care unit in a one-year period. The patients were randomly divided into two groups. One group was prayed for daily by community volunteers -- intercessors -- and the other patients had nobody assigned to pray for them. The intercessors were given the patients' first names and were asked to pray daily for "a speedy recovery with no complications." It was a blind trial: None of the patients knew they were involved in a study.

The researchers, led by Dr. William Harris, created an itemized score-sheet to measure what happened to both groups of patients, and after four weeks there was a striking result: The prayed-for patients had suffered 10 percent fewer complications, ranging from chest pain to full-blown cardiac arrest. The study concludes, "This result suggests that prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care."

Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of Duke University's Center for the Study of Religion/Spirituality and Health, has spent his entire professional life looking at how spirituality affects a person's physical well-being. This particular study is significant, he says, "because it's published in an AMA journal, it has a huge sample, and it shows significant results."

Koenig is the author of "The Healing Power of Faith" (Simon & Schuster), a compilation of scientific studies that examine the impact of religious belief on physical and mental health. "These studies are inexplicable within the realm of science," he says. "There's no traditional scientific mechanism in action, and scientists have a problem with that."

Dr. Stephen Barrett has a big, big problem with that. "This study is a well-designed waste of time," says Barrett, board chairman of the health fraud watchdog organization Quackwatch. "You can't generate magical forces with magical thinking. It's absurd."

Dr. Michael Janson takes a more diplomatic view. "It's impossible to explain from a scientific basis, and I'm personally skeptical," says Janson, past president of the American College for the Advancement of Science and columnist for the health Web site "But I don't want to preclude the possibility of things I don't understand. A thousand years ago there were lots of things we said were impossible."

Barrett dismisses the entire study as a roll of the dice. Though the 10 percent difference may seem like divine intervention, he says the study has no clinical significance. "What it reflects is a lucky hit," he says. "A chance phenomenon."

The researchers acknowledge an element of chance in their study -- as well as an element of distortion, since patients in the control group most likely had friends and family praying for them, too. Harris writes, "It is probable that many if not most patients in both groups were already receiving intercessory and/or direct prayer from friends, family, and clergy."

There's no telling, in other words, how much "supplementary prayer" went unaccounted for. Which raises another devilish question from Barrett: What if someone out there was praying for one of the sick patients to get worse? Wouldn't that skew the results?

"What if you pray against somebody?" Barrett says. "Can that do harm? Is health determined by who prays harder?"

Despite the study's limitations, Harris believes that delving into the chasm that separates science and faith is a worthwhile endeavor. "Medicine in America needs more heart, more attention to the whole person," he says. "Anything we can do to bring more healing faster to more people should be pursued and explored rigorously."

Harris says the results of this study are provocative enough to justify more research. Harris concludes his report by suggesting that "further studies are warranted to explore the potential role of prayer as an adjunct to standard medical care."

More fuel for Barrett's fire. "I would be appalled if the government or any research foundation funded this. I wouldn't want my tax dollars going to support it," he says. "You're much better off spending research time and money on activities that might yield practical results."

Since the new study has loopholes large enough for cynics to blow raspberries through, you have to dig deeper to reach a verdict on the faith-health link. There are plenty of studies out there, but the reports are wildly inconsistent -- even contradictory.

In a 1988 study by Dr. Randolph Byrd at San Francisco General Hospital, 393 patients admitted to the coronary care unit over a 10-month period were split into two groups: one receiving intercessory prayer from local volunteers, and a control group. (The patients in this study signed consent forms, so -- unlike the patients in Harris' study -- they knew they were being prayed for, opening the possibility of a placebo effect.) Results from Byrd's study showed that control-group patients "required ventilatory assistance, antibiotics, and diuretics more frequently than patients in the [prayer] group."

A 1998 study examining the effect of "distant healing" on AIDS patients showed that patients who received prayer had fewer new illnesses, fewer physician visits and fewer days of hospitalization. They also had lower illness severity scores and improved mood scores.

But other studies are less conclusive. Two 1997 studies on the effect of intercessory prayer -- one for depression, the other for alcohol abuse -- showed no clinical benefits at all.

Another study, published in the May 1999 issue of Social Science & Medicine, seemed to show that faith can actually make you worse. This study followed the progress of 250 patients after discharge from a London hospital. After reviewing outpatient records and polling the patients about their recovery, researchers found that patients with strong spiritual beliefs were more than twice as likely to be unimproved -- or worse -- after nine months. The authors concluded "that a stronger spiritual belief is an independent predictor of poor outcome."

That's a serious blow to the prayer-power theory, to the surprise of absolutely no one in the doubters' camp. In fact, most critics will say that faith healing is nothing more than an Old World fantasy perpetuated by fringe-group fundamentalists.

But Bible-thumping TV healers aren't the only ones who say that prayer does a body good. A 1996 USA Today poll of 1,000 adults found that 79 percent believed that spiritual faith can help people recover from an illness.

So let's go with conventional wisdom and assume for a moment that spirituality -- prayer, ministrations, a shot of holy water, the laying on of hands -- whatever -- can indeed affect your health, and move on to the next question: How? Beyond the placebo effect, how does faith make you healthy?

Koenig draws a sharp distinction between the mystical healing effects of intercessory prayer -- other people praying for your well-being -- and the practical health benefits of personal faith. He says that having a strong set of religious beliefs of your own can, through organic effects, make you healthier.

Koenig's book takes a scientific look at the impact of a person's faith on physical matters like depression, longevity, cardiovascular disorders and the immune system. "We find in study after study -- through mechanisms known and accepted within science -- that religious people are healthier," he says.

Koenig attributes the believers' hardy health to lower levels of stress and the emotional support that comes from belonging to a community of like-minded, faithful folks. Of course it doesn't hurt that most church-goers generally avoid the noxious vices of their heathen counterparts. "Religious people don't drink," Koenig says, "they don't smoke, they don't have risky sex."

But sometimes faith itself can be risky, even deadly. Some religious groups -- the Christian Science Church primary among them -- believe that intercessory prayer is the only kind of treatment a sick person ever needs, no matter how dire the illness. Over the years Christian Scientists have lobbied, with surprisingly broad success, to create state and federal laws that shield faith healers from prosecution.

But a 1998 study published in the journal Pediatrics showed that four out of five sick children who died after their parents put their trust in faith healing probably could have survived with medical treatment. In one case, a 2-year-old who choked to death on a bite of banana showed signs of life for nearly an hour while her parents phoned members of their religious circle to pray.

"It's appalling," Barrett says. He pooh-poohs the possibility that Christian Science theology possesses any therapeutic properties at all. "The lucky ones have an illness that gets better by itself. That's it."

Even a self-confessed believer like Koenig takes issue with parents who, going on faith alone, dangle their kids over the abyss. "That's tragic," he says. "I have concerns with it ethically and morally. They rely on prayer to treat conditions that need medicine. It neglects a huge part of creation -- the wonders of science."

But will the wonders of science, considerable as they are, ever produce the missing link in the faith-health connection? That is, will scientific inquiry ever yield solid evidence -- or solid refutation -- of the medicinal power of prayer? One thing's for certain, the search will go on.

According to Koenig, an enormous study on intercessory prayer is currently under way at Harvard, a project involving 1,800 patients, designed with multiple checks and balances to -- in Koenig's words -- "ensure that there's no fudging." The new study, led by professor of medicine Dr. Herbert Benson, will be completed sometime in 2000, and Koenig believes the results will put an end to the conjecture once and for all. "This will either close the book on intercessory prayer," he says, "or open a whole new area of medical science."

Amanda Chandler doesn't need a dispatch from the frontiers of science to tell her what she already knows: The faith of friends and family pulled her through the valley of the shadow of death. "If you believe in something strong enough, it can manifest itself into something powerful and unexplainable," she says.

"It may sound hokey, but there was something going on spiritually that made me feel comforted." And comfort gave way to a revelation. The day her biopsy results were due, after two days of teary anxiety and lost sleep, she woke up to a new feeling of peace and assurance. "When I woke up that morning, I just had this feeling that everything was going to be OK."

By Jon Bowen

Jon Bowen is a frequent contributor to Salon.


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