Should your doctor prescribe prayer as part of your treatment? According to a study of 1,134 physicians this past December by Health Care Direct Research, the majority of doctors (70 percent) believe miracles are possible today. Yet fewer than 29 percent believe that the outcomes of medical treatments are related to "supernatural forces" or "acts of God."
Studies on prayer in medicine have a way of demarcating the battle lines between saints and skeptics: Christians long for scientific proof of the efficacy of prayer. Critics, waiting for the opposite, hope to undermine religious faith. For better or worse, we have seen many attempts to measure the healing effects of intercessory prayer. The first known studies were published in 1873 by English polymath Francis Galton. He found no statistical evidence that prayer prolonged life or reduced stillbirths (though his findings would not meet today's criteria for a controlled prospective study).
More recently, various prayer experiments have caught the attention of evangelicals who are eager to show a positive connection between faith and science. One that generated particular excitement was Randolph Byrd's 1988 study, which observed 393 patients admitted to the coronary care unit of San Francisco General Hospital. About half of the patients were prayed for by "born-again Christians with daily devotional prayer and active Christian fellowship in a local church." The other half served as a control group (they received no prayer). In this study, the prayer group significantly outscored the control group.
Byrd's published report received criticism on a number of fronts, however, including possible unintentional unblinding (for example, the research assistant who knew which patients received ...