Thursday, July 1, 2010

Praying for the Sick

DairyStateMom's church has an interesting summer discussion group that meets every Wednesday evening for an hour to reflect on chapters in the book Einstein's God, taken from various programs on Speaking of Faith, by Krista Tippett. Last night we discussed her program on Dr. Mehmet Oz.

There's a little bit in the program about research on whether intercessory prayer helps speed recovery for people, and there was very clear acknowledgment on the part of the discussion group that the evidence is contradictory at best and, more likely, doesn't support a scientifically objective claim that prayer "works." (Interestingly, the topic of the medical efficacy of prayer was also the subject of discussion among members of a prayer group at my own church a month or two ago. )

What's always struck me about the research is the way it typically examines what I'll call "distant" prayer -- that is, the patients participating in the research are being prayed for by others who are not there with them, and who don't even know them. (And to avoid the placebo effect, they're not even supposed to know if they are being prayed for or not.)

I think I understand why that is; the argument seems to be that it's an approach least likely to be subjected to a variety of interfering variables that could taint any findings. Yet I'm still troubled by the attempts to quantify the effects through scientific research. I haven't really been able to articulate this point well for myself, but this morning I achieved a small sort of epiphany.

However well-meaning this research might be, in the end it strikes me as mindlessly reductive. If the final, definitive conclusion seems to be that prayer has "no effect," is everyone simply going to abandon the practice?*

I rather doubt that they will. And I think to simply counsel them to do so would be regrettable at best. I've been witness to great comfort experienced by people who have been prayed for, and if that helps some, I think that's enough, whether it's by placebo effect or by some naturalistic mechanisms we don't understand, or thanks to a supernatural intervention (a possibility that I doubt). I also don't think that prayer is only for the person being prayed for. It is for the person doing the praying.

I'm a very strong believer in science. And in truth, I don't pray much at all (although I'm changing that a bit). But I also think there are some subjects and questions that are beyond the means of science, and simply remain in the realm of mystery. And I think this is probably one of them.

* I acknowledge that there are already millions of people who have no interest in it, as is their right.

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