As newborn children, we are not able, for example, to shoo away even a fly that lands on our nose, or reach out on our own to our mother's delicious milk. And once this milk passes through us, we don't even have the skills to change our own diapers! We don't yet have the motor skills to alleviate the problems facing us. But at least we are not entirely helpless.
Getting started in life
Intuitively, we know we can move the whole world with just one cry, setting up a kind of hotline to our parents. The number of this hotline is stored in our genetic code. Miraculously, we also know how to dial the various functions of this hotline. Cries with different undertones seem to be the only way to solve our problems, from the fly on our nose, to a dirty diaper – or even just being hungry. Once we cry, on the horizon, a friendly, loving face appears. And when it does, we can relax and feel comfortable again. Our parents save us from many difficult situations.
Over time, we mature and notice that the processes in our world are subject to conditions. With our free will we can influence events, albeit within a very limited space, and thus take responsibility for our destiny before it becomes our destiny. If we do not study, for example, for an exam, we must not complain about our failure. If we do not strive for social contacts, we should not be surprised if we are suffering from loneliness. If there are problems to solve and conflicts to eliminate, we can consult our social reference system, the legal system of our country, and perhaps even the internet.
But these worldly ways are quickly exhausted. We do what we can, knock on every door for support and help, but quite often we remain helpless and restricted. Plagued by pain and suffering, these are the situations we seek refuge from in prayer and supplications to God, whether we are searching for a cure or a twist of fate. And not unlike in early childhood, we cry again for help, trying to reach a hotline – but this time a hotline to God. Will He answer our prayers? And if so, what will His answer be?
For thousands of years theologians and philosophers have dealt with the issue of divine activity in our everyday lives. There are hundreds of theories, concepts, and explanations about the origins of the macro and micro universes. Cultures tend to believe that they own exclusive truths and show a willingness to stand up for the dissemination of these truths. And each individual has his own very personal way to ask God for support. For some, God created the universe with perfect laws, which run self-sufficiently without any further intervention. For others, He is omnipresent, ever creating anew. Sometimes, He even intervenes on a microbiological and atomic level. The existing theological literature offers countless exciting texts on this subject. But different religious beliefs are not supposed to be part of this article; we will leave them to the theologians.
Healing through supplications?
Consulting medical databases, it is to be noted that the experimental scientific investigation of the question of whether or not supplications for sick people have a positive effect on their healing has not been explored in depth until recently. For the first time in 1988, Byrd and colleagues examined whether supplications made by religious people had an impact on patients of a hospital's heart unit - without these patients knowing that supplications were being spoken for them and without knowing the people praying for them. The researchers were able to state that in patients who were prayed for, fewer complications occurred and that their stay in the hospital was significantly shorter than in patients for whom no prayers had been made.1 The patients for whom prayers were spoken had been picked at random, and the worshipers in turn only knew the first names of their patients, and no further details.
After 1999, numerous other studies came to the conclusion that supplications to God have positive effects for various patients. For example, there was a doubling of successful egg fertilizations and a doubling of successful pregnancies in assisted reproductive techniques2; there were shortened fevers3; hospital stays were shorter4; and there were overall reduced mortality rates5 and a significantly better well-being in cancer patients.6
Thus, several teams of researchers had dialed an international hotline to God. There was much praying for the patients, mostly without their knowledge and in some cases from a great distance. Some of the researchers involved came to the conclusion that it could be helpful to install prayer teams in hospitals alongside the usual medical care.7 This method was even researched on animals, which showed accelerated healing and better blood values. The positive here was that a placebo effect could be excluded.8
It is not so simple
Apart from these positive results, some researchers didn't find any differences in patients who were suffering from diseases such as pregnancy complications, warts, or other health problems.9
In 2006, Benson even found a higher rate of complications in patients who knew that someone prayed for them. He postulated a so-called performance anxiety, i.e. that the patients were thinking: "Am I really so sick that the hospital needs to engage a private prayer team for me?"10
Gaudia wrote in an article published in 2007 that even back then far too many researchers had dealt with the issue, which he regarded as senseless, and that far too much money had been wasted on it. In his view, these efforts are nothing other than an investigation into miracles or a study on the existence of God.
He began his complaint with the assumption of the existence of an incredible, breathtaking power that created the galaxies and complex molecular biological structures – and then after all this creation, that force is asked whether it could regulate the blood pressure of a randomly selected group of patients. Gaudia compared this approach with asking an incredibly talented composer about writing a melody to "Three Blind Mice." He argued that with already prefabricated opinions and expectations it is possible in every study to state differences and deviations, which are then, however, likely due to chance, a placebo effect, statistical calculation errors, or to the bias of the basic assumption that there is a God at all. For him, prayer was a request asking God to change His mind about the current course of events. He considered the belief in prayer ridiculous and called it a superstition. In addition, he objected to the variables for measuring the differences in the studies, judging them not to be clear and transparent. Instead, he claimed it should be ruled out that these changing variables were exposed to any physical or psychological mechanisms, so that there would be no other explanation other than divine work. The growth of amputated limbs through prayer, for example, would meet this requirement.11
In 2009, Jorgensen advocated for further investigations on this issue, but also concluded that the studies up to that time suffered some questionable deficiencies. He stated that researchers attach too much importance to positive results while tending to hide negative results. In addition, he described the results presented as no more convincing than the results of placebo-controlled trials. He suspected the positive results were affected by the expectations of the investigators. He spoke of an "immunization research hypotheses," which means that the researchers involved in these studies tend to believe in the effectiveness of their intervention; their findings are therefore not in accordance with the experimental results, but with the strength of their faith in God. He identified three basic assumptions: first, that God exists; secondly, that the worshiper can travel around in the cosmos and reach out to God; and thirdly, that God will answer to prayers and thereby act over a long distance. He found it hard to imagine why God should help patient Peter in hospital bed A, just because someone chosen by chance prayed for him, while dropping patient Paul in bed B because nobody prayed for him. This would be in conflict with our ethical understanding of fairness.
Thus, the studies to date leave too much room for interpretation. It is possible to state happiness, bias, or even fraud as the reasons for their results. In Jorgensen's view, however, these studies are neither evidence of God answering supplications, or ignoring them. If the human capacity to understand God is really as limited as the Holy Scriptures emphasize, then God's work should be subtle enough not to be tracked down in a simple experimental design.12
Chittaranjan, in turn, regarded prayer as a special kind of meditation whose positive effects have been proved in many a study. He insisted that religion will always remain a matter of faith, and asked: If research could prove the positive effects of prayer without any doubts left behind, wouldn't that mean that we could manipulate God or statistically predict his behavior? And anyway, why should God participate in a study trying to prove His existence? On the issue, Chittaranjan considered randomized controlled trials neither appropriate nor effective.13
The results of experimental research on our subject until now are - thanks to God - quite sobering. There have certainly been some mistakes, and they didn't yield clear evidence for a positive effect of prayers and supplications. But objectivity can't be accredited to the critics of these studies either, especially as most of the mentioned points of criticism could also be applied to a large number of studies from other fields of medicine.
People still, and repeatedly, deal with this issue, a fact certainly not least due to our personal everyday experience that things have often turned positive after having asked God wholeheartedly and sincerely for help. Millions of people worldwide can report innumerable reactions from God to their supplications.
But the mystery of the existence of God and the question of whether or not he responds to our prayers will always remain a matter of personal faith. Even a visit to the doctor ultimately is a kind of supplication, which can be answered in different ways. Perhaps he prescribes medicine, or he recommends us to entirely do without medication because he deems it detrimental to us.
For everyone, it requires special insight to recognize whether God answers, how to interpret his answer, or else to find out why we wait in vain for an answer. Our experience may speak a different language, but even upcoming new studies most likely won't provide us with a definitive answer to this question. However, we should at least consider the criticisms submitted, so the studies can be designed to ensure objectivity.
Imagine yourself facing a very burdensome problem, and suddenly, out of the blue, a friend or even a complete stranger provides you with the solution to this problem without your having asked him for it. Perhaps then the perspective that we are not alone in the universe will occur to you. And if it already happened to you, you may have subconsciously dialed the code for the hotline to God genetically anchored in our essence - just as we all used to dial the number of the hotline to our mother when we were small, thirsty children.
- Byrd RC, "Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population". South Med J. 1988;81:826-829
- Cha KY et al. "Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo-transfer? Report of a masked randomized trial." J Reprod Med. 2001;46:781-7
- Leonard Leibovici, "Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomized controlled trial", BMJ 2001;323:1450-1
- Olver IN et al. "A randomized, blinded study of the impact of intercessory prayer on spiritual well-being in patients with cancer." Altern Ther Health Med. 2012 Sep-Oct; 18(5):18-27
- William S. Harris et al. "A randomized controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit". Arch Intern Med. 1999;159:2273-2278 Leonard Leibovici, "Effects of remote..."
- Lesniak KT. The effect of intercessory prayer on wound healing in nonhuman primates. Altern Ther Health Med. 2006;12:42-8
- da Rosa MI. "A randomized clinical trial on the effects of remote intercessory prayer in the adverse outcomes of pregnancies." Cien Saude Colet. 2013 Aug; 18(8):2379-84
- Benson J et al. "Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer". Am Heart J. 2006;151:934-942
- Gil Gaudia, "About Intercessory Prayer: The Scientific Study of Miracles", Med Gen Med. 2007;9(1):56
- Jorgensen K. J. et al. "Divine intervention? A Cochrane review on intercessory prayer gone beyond science and reason". Journal of negative Results in BioMedicine 2009,8:77
- Chittaranjan et al. "Prayer and healing: A medical and scientific perspective on randomized controlled trials". Indian J Psychiatry. 2009 Oct-Dec;51(4):247-253