Little surprise in new Duke prayer study
It's another slow news day, so here's another story that probably wouldn't otherwise make many headlines, if only because it sounds so familiar.

Duke University researchers are touting a new study as "the first time rigorous scientific protocols have been applied on a large scale to some of the world's most ancient healing traditions," including prayer. "The trends they observed may yield important clues to understanding the role of the human spirit in modern, technology-laden cardiovascular healthcare," says a press release.

The Washington Post has a different take on the study. Its story begins, "Praying for sick strangers does not improve their prospects of recovering, according to a large, carefully designed study that casts doubt on the widely held belief that being prayed for can help a person heal."

The study of 748 patients with coronary artery disease investigated the effects of distant intercessory prayer and of a therapy called MIT (bedside music, imagery, and touch). These were divided up roughly into quarters: One group got prayer and MIT therapy; one only got prayer; another only got MIT therapy; and a fourth got neither. Those getting prayer didn't know what group they were in, since the people praying were off-site strangers. Given the nature of MIT therapy, those receiving it knew it.

The headline-grabbing finding is that heart patients in the prayer group prayer were just as likely to have complications from their heart treatments, end up back in the hospital, or die within six months.

The details, however, are important.

"The prayer groups for the study were located throughout the world and included Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, and multiple Christianity-based denominations," says the press release. "The researchers noted 89 percent of the patients in this study also knew of someone praying for them outside of the study protocol altogether."

That latter part is a problem, the study itself notes, but hardly a surmountable one for now: "Many would have considered a request to patients or families not to pray for loved ones with heart disease unethical."

Indeed. But that means it's hardly a study of whether prayer keeps heart patients from problems, but rather a study of whether remote interfaith prayer has any additional effect than the prayer of loved ones.

Telling patients they are being prayed for has problems, too. "If the sick person believes the prayer will help, it may, just as a sugar pill may help if a doctor tells a patient it contains powerful medicine," as the Straight Dope explained in a 2000 column.

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An editorial in The Lancet, where the study appears this week, notes that the matter is far from settled:

Could a more restricted denominational approach have influenced the outcome? Does the number of those praying matter? Or the timing and duration of prayer? Would it have been more fruitful to have used a battery of subtler qualitative endpoints? These questions—and the secondary endpoint of six-month mortality benefit in those assigned music, imagery, and touch [translation: those who got MIT therapy were less likely to die]—provide a basis for further inquiry.

Studies will almost certainly continue, as will the debates over whether prayer "works." For Christians, though, this study doesn't change anything.

First, as theologian N.T. (Tom) Wright told the BBC in 2003, when Duke University's earlier study on the subject similarly found prayer ineffective, "Prayer is not a penny in the slot machine. You can't just put in a coin and get out a chocolate bar."

In fact, such tests seem to violate the biblical prohibitions in both Old and New Testaments not to "put God to the test." Paul's admonition to "test all things" and God's command in Malachi to test his response to tithing, so often quoted by Word-Faith folks, can be the subject of a separate Weblog, but as Wright notes, these prayer studies are "like setting an exam for God to see if God will pass it or not." In other words, these kinds of studies may themselves be sinful.

But there's another biblical issue with these studies, too. Praying for strangers from a distance is hardly unbiblical, but James gives pretty specific instructions for how to pray for the sick:

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.

That's a radically different methodology than Duke University's.

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Life ethics:

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Church & state:

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Santorum's remarks on liberals, abuse in Boston:

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Catholic bishop murdered in Kenya:

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Launched in 1999, Christianity Today’s Weblog was not just one of the first religion-oriented weblogs, but one of the first published by a media organization. (Hence its rather bland title.) Mostly compiled by then-online editor Ted Olsen, Weblog rounded up religion news and opinion pieces from publications around the world. As Christianity Today’s website grew, it launched other blogs. Olsen took on management responsibilities, and the Weblog feature as such was mothballed. But CT’s efforts to round up important news and opinion from around the web continues, especially on our Gleanings feature.
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