Thursday, June 20, 2019

Can Science Connect Healing and Prayer?

Spiritual and material healing have often been at odds with one another. There are those on the medical side who do not recognize mixing both as a practical option and there are those on the spiritual side, Christian Scientists come to mind, who believe that mixing material medicine with spiritual medicine dilutes or negates the power of spiritual medicine; that power is prayer. It is interesting to note that while relying on prayer hasn't always provided a solution for many, material medicine hasn’t always provided one either. 

In 2005, two researchers in India published a study in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry that examined several triple-blind, randomized controlled trials concerning prayer and healing. The outcomes of these studies were organized into four different categories: improved outcomes associated with prayer, absence of benefits with prayer, worse outcomes associated with prayer, and retrospective benefits with prayer. They concluded that research on the power of prayer was essentially worthless as it was plagued by contradictions, assumptions, and theological quandaries which could never be resolved within the constraints of scientific enquiry. Both researchers were quick to point out, however, that meditation with or without spiritual components had been clinically proven to provide physical, mental, and emotional benefits to patients dealing with conditions like stress, pain, and anxiety. They also suggested that the benefits of the placebo response might be influenced by therapeutic rituals like prayer.1

A 2008 study published in the British Journal of Nursing confirmed that fact that empirical studies have provided no conclusive results, even though prayer has been widely used for centuries as a method of healing and promoting wellness. Mind-body mechanisms involved in healing seem to be activated by prayer. These include physiological responses such as decreased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as decreased episodes of angina in heart patients.2 Still, many of these findings continue to elude scientific research and present many of the same contradictions as the 2005 study.

There are legal ramifications to consider when choosing prayer as the sole method of healing. Stephen L. Carter, a professor of law at Yale University who penned a book in 1994 entitled, The Culture of Disbelief, concludes that religious freedom is indeed a right for people to possess; American citizens should not be forced to pay ruinous damages as has been the case in lawsuits involving devout families who would rather pray than seek a physician’s care. While many believe that the states should be able to intervene when the life of a child is at stake, they do not believe that it should be done in a way that discourages parents from following the teachings of their faith. The courts in some states disagree, however, and in 1996 Christian Science practitioners were held liable in a Minnesota court for the death of their child even though they meant no harm. Despite the results of an ABC News/Gallup poll several months prior to this verdict which found that four out of five Americans believe prayer can cure disease, many medical doctors find this to be a ridiculous notion.3

To this day, several states have prosecuted at least 50 Christian Science parents on manslaughter, murder, or child abuse charges for refusing medical care to their dying children. However, there is still no judicial consensus over whether practitioners and parents are criminally negligent, or if they are free to deny medical care to children due to freedom of religion. As a result, many of these cases have ended in acquittal.4

Prayer and faith are intangible in that they cannot be measured using scientific means. However, since they are concepts claiming to have physiological effects, many feel that they should therefore be subject to scientific measurement.5 This presents us with a dilemma; while prayer may indeed heal, randomized controlled studies cannot be applied to the study of its efficacy in healing. There is no present form of scientific enquiry that can adequately address the subject at all,1 so it is likely that it will continue to present legal and social challenges for those who wish to practice it as a sole method of care, whether it be for themselves or for their children. 


1. Andrade, C., & Radhakrishnan, R. (2009). Prayer and healing: A medical and scientific perspective on randomized controlled trials. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 51(4), 247–253. 

 2. Narayanasamy, A., & Narayanasamy, M. (2008). The healing power of prayer and its implications for nursing. British Journal of Nursing, 17(6), 394-398. doi:10.12968/bjon.2008.17.6.28907

3. Carter, S. (1996, January 31). The power of prayer, denied. The New York Times, 17. Retrieved from

4. Harvard Divinity School. (2018). Christianity case study – Minority in America. Retrieved from

5. Smith, P. W. (2002). The effects of prayer: Scientific study. Archives of Internal Medicine, 162(12). doi:10.1001/archinte.162.12.1420-a

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