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Effective Prayer

Stephen Black sblack at UBISHOPS.CA
Thu Oct 16 14:23:20 EST 1997


On Thu, 16 Oct 1997 uhs0403 at ohsu.edu wrote:

> I remember a study some time back in which prayer and religious faith was 
> compared with non-religious (scientific) treatments. Prayer and religious 
> affiliation was associated with slightly worse outcomes. I wish I had the 
> ref. 
> And in research on shipwrecks and accidents, the presence of clergy was 
> associated with a higher probability of the plane crashing, train wrecking or 
> the ship sinking.
> 

Did you pray for the reference? If so, your prayer has been answered. 
Rabinowitz (1984) described seminal research by Francis Galton in his 1883
work _Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development_. According to
Rabinowitz: 

"Galton...collected mortuary tables of preachers and kings. Preachers, 
who presumably prayed a great deal, did not live longer than other men. 
Kings tended to live about five years less than other rich men. Since 
everybody prayed for kings, Galton decided that prayer wasn't 
efficacious in producing results". 

Heilig (1997) also gives an interesting summary of Galton's work, citing 
Haldane in _Possible Worlds and Other Papers_ (1928):

"[Galton] considered that of all classes of society in England those most 
prayed for were the sovereigns and the children of the clergy. If prayer 
is effective they should live appreciably longer than other persons 
exposed to similar risks of death. So kings were compared with lords, and 
the children of the clergy with those of other professional men. The 
conclusion to which his numbers led was these much-prayed-for persons had 
slightly shorter lives than those with whom he compared them." 

Heilig further notes "Galton also determined the frequency with which 
ships carrying missionaries experienced disaster at sea and compared 
this with the frequency of disaster experienced by other ships. He found 
that missionary ships sank with a frequency and loss of life only slightly 
greater than that of less-blessed ships. The conclusion...is that in 
neither analysis were the differences great enough to make it probable 
that prayers have any harmful effect". [ ! ]

Somewhat more recently than 1883 is a research news item in Science this 
April (Roush, 1997). It provides a profile of Herbert Benson, who has 
recently (1996) published a book with the title _Timeless Healing: The Power 
and Biology of Belief_, which says it all. In the profile, a 
"controversial" study in the Southern Medical Journal (July, 1988) is 
mentioned. Apparently this study claims that "coronary intensive-care 
patients prayed for by born-again Christians had better outcomes than 
did..controls." However, this study is apparently flawed, and Benson now 
has the definitive study on the efficacy of prayer in progress, which is
claimed to be controlled, randomized, and double-blind. 

Finally, there was a letter-to-the-editor (Cox, 1997) commenting on this 
business which noted that Joyce and Welldon published a double-blind 
clinical trial of the effect of prayer on chronic psychological or 
rheumatic disease at the London Hospital (Journal of Chronic Diseases, 
18, 1965, 367.) They found no significant difference between the prayed-for 
and the control groups.

-Stephen

References not given above

Cox, B. (1997). Testing the power of prayer. Science, 276, after May 9
  [sorry about the inexact reference]

Rabinowitz, F. (1984). The heredity-environment controversy: A Victorian
  legacy. Canadian Psychology, 25, 159--

Rousch, W. (1997). Herbert Benson: Mind-body maverick pushes the envelope.
   Science, 276, 357--

Heilig, J. (1997). Testing the power of belief. Science, May 9, p. 891.

------------------------------------------------------------------------
Stephen Black, Ph.D.                      tel: (819) 822-9600 ext 2470
Department of Psychology                  fax: (819) 822-9661
Bishop's University                    e-mail: sblack at ubishops.ca
Lennoxville, Quebec               
J1M 1Z7                    Bishop's Department of Psychology web page at:                                                      
Canada                        http://www.ubishops.ca/ccc/div/soc/psy
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