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Arizona Professor Analyzes Research on Whether Prayer “Works”

David R. Hodge, a professor in the social work program at Arizona State University, West Campus, in Phoenix, has analyzed seventeen major studies of whether intercessory prayer actually helps patients and clients. His conclusion is that it has a “small, but significant, effect.”

Yet “intercessory prayer must be classified as an experimental intervention” instead of standard practice, he wrote. Until additional “research is conducted, the use of intercessory prayer should generally be avoided in practice settings.” These “findings are unlikely to satisfy either the proponents or opponents of intercessory prayer,” he stated. He published his findings in Research on Social Work Practice.

Hodge, who is also affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania’s Program for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society, initiated his analysis because so many social workers use intercessory prayer in their work.

In one survey of those who are affiliated with National Association of Social Workers, 28 percent report praying with their clients and another 57 percent pray for their clients on their own. In another study of those who specialize in caring for elderly people, 43 percent pray with their patients and 67 percent pray “sometimes” or “often”for them. He wrote that “The extant data suggest that most social workers use intercessory prayer as a professional intervention.”

Hodge began his research by conducting “a key word search of Social Work Abstracts, PsychInfo, and Medline” for the term prayer. He then set aside all but seventeen of the studies, either because they were on topics other than intercessory prayer or because they were not well enough designed or implemented.

He assessed the seventeen studies in three steps. He began by evaluating them in harmony with the way those in medicine do such reviews. As is frequently done in social work research, his next move was to study them in light of standards developed by the American Psychological Association. He then subjected the studies to an established procedure many know as “Compressive Meta-Analysis.”

Hodge skirted questions about the existence of God. Recognizing that “it is possible that prayer taps into presently undiscovered natural mechanisms,” he wrote that “prayer may effect change supernaturally, naturally or none at all.” He was interested in what prayer does in the lives of those who pray without regard to whether the one(s) to whom they pray are “really there.”

In eleven of the studies, intercessory prayer exhibited no or only marginally statistically significant effects. Although they were less than statistically significant, six of these eleven studies showed trends in the direction of effectiveness. Six studies in addition to the eleven exhibited statistically significant indicators of intercessory prayer’s value for helping sick or needy people.

The earliest of the studies was reported in 1988, the most recent in 2002. Virtually all of the studies were prospective double-blind randomized control trials. They put people by chance into either an experimental group for whom intercessory prayer was offered and a control group that went without. Neither the participants nor those actually conducting the experiments knew which of the participants was being prayed for.

K. Y. Cha and D. P. Worth probably conducted the most controversial study. They reported that in in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer procedures women “were significantly more likely to become pregnant” when those in “Tier 1” prayed that they would become pregnant and those in “Tier 2” prayed for greater efficiency in the process. This difference occurred among women who were thirty or more years old. Intercessory prayer made no statistically significant difference among younger women. These findings were published in The Journal of Reproductive Medicine.

J. M. Aviles and colleagues conducted one of the studies that had results that exhibited possibly positive trends even though they were not statistically significant. In their study, five Christian prayer groups who prayed at least once a week for twenty-six weeks for each of four hundred men “wrestling with heart disease” appeared to have some positive effect. These results were published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings.

Funded primarily by the Templeton Foundation, Herbert Benson and his colleagues at the Mind/Body Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital conducted the “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Prayer, also known as “STEP.” It is the most extensive and reliable study to date.

STEP found that after receiving coronary artery bypass grafts, intercessory prayer had no effect on those who did not know they were being prayed for. Those who knew this did somewhat worse, not better. These outcomes were published in the American Heart Journal.

We can anticipate several reactions to Hodge’s analysis. On one extreme, there will be those who see it as further evidence that those of us who pray are deluded. On the other extreme, there will be those who will see it as precisely the kind of outcomes that we should expect from secular institutions like Arizona State University, the University of Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts General Hospital, which is affiliated with Harvard University.

Most people will probably take more moderate positions. Some will hold that no matter what such statistical studies show people will continue to pray, as they have since human history began, because enough of them receive sufficient benefits as they judge them to continue the practice. A second moderate position will be that all the studies were flawed in one way or another. Controlling all variables other than prayer is exceedingly difficult. Many would say that it is impossible. Those who conducted STEP wrote that its results “may be due to the study limitations.” This is not entirely surprising. A third response is likely to be that these studies proceeded on assumptions about the nature and practice of prayer that are questionable. This is the likely reaction that interests me the most.

Those who did the research in STEP, the most generously funded and highly regarded of the studies, wrote that “The strict study instructions for providing intercessory prayer do not permit us to explore relationships between presence or absence of complications and the amount, duration and timing of intercessory prayer [emphasis supplied]. But when we are thinking about prayer, these are among the most significant considerations.

For Christians and many others, prayer is intense communion with God as with a very close and highly respected friend. In any intense relationship, the amount, duration, and timing of the time spent together are decisive. Genuine prayer takes time, not minutes, hours, days or weeks but months, years, decades, and lifetimes.

STEP seems blissfully unaware that prayer is often agonizingly difficult, as in the prayers of Jesus to be spared his cruel death and Paul’s reminder that we know so little about how to pray that the Spirit intercedes for us with unutterable groans.

Jesus taught us to pray in private, not conduct highly publicized studies of what happens when we commune with God. Often when Jesus healed people he asked them not to noise it about. James tells us that our faith is of no value if we ourselves do not actually help those in need. Most Christians know that God very rarely performs miracles as they are often defined and that this has always been the case. Worst of all, intercession is a very small part of prayer as it is in most human relationships.

The seventeen studies that Hodge analyzed display what happens when prayer devolves into a crass and almost commercial exchange: “When I pray, I want results!”

There is one thing worse than not praying at all and it is to pray as did those in these research endeavors. This kind of prayer is neither therapeutically effective nor theologically viable. It is next to worthless.

Those of us who are Christians cannot have it both ways. We cannot dismiss as fatally flowed those studies that demonstrate the ineffectiveness of this kind of prayer but trumpet “our success” when similar studies show that it has some therapeutic value. We should dismiss both the positive and the negative findings whenever prayer is understood as it is in these studies. Either way, these outcomes tell us nothing other than that we have no idea what prayer is all about.

“What are you going to do?” I asked one of my colleagues in another state who holds doctorates in both law and philosophy not long before he retired. “My wife and I are moving to Oregon to be closer to our families, we are going to spend even more time riding our bicycles in Europe, especially in the Netherlands, and I am going to pray,” he responded.

“You’re going to pray?” I asked, inwardly alarmed that something had gone dreadfully wrong. “Yes, he said with the eagerness of those going on a first date. “It takes a long time to pray, doesn’t it Dave?”

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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