Could prayers be harmful?

An American study has suggested prayer could sometimes do more harm than good.

Herbert Benson and colleagues followed the fortunes of nearly 2000 heart surgery patients between 1998 and 2000, some of whom they arranged to be prayed for by three Christian groups.

Among those patients who didn’t know whether or not they were being prayed for, 52 per cent of those prayed for suffered medical complications after their surgery, compared with 51 per cent of the patients who weren’t prayed for. Some of the patients were told they were definitely being prayed for by the Christian groups – they fared worse than the others, with 59 per cent experiencing post-operative complications. There was no difference between the groups on measures of survival.

“Our findings are not consistent with prior studies showing that intercessory prayer had a beneficial effect on outcomes in cardiac patients”, the researchers said.

However, like other studies in this area, the current project was fraught with methodological limitations. For example, the researchers could not rule out that any of the patients may have prayed for themselves or have been prayed for by their families. Moreover, the Christian groups were only sent the first name and last initial of the to-be-prayed-for patients, and were not allowed any communication with patients or their families, nor were they given any feedback on their condition. They were also given the specific wording to pray with, rather than being allowed to choose their own prayers.

“Private or family prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, and the results of this study do not challenge this belief”, the researchers concluded.

Benson, H., Dusek, J.A., Sherwood, J.B., Lam, P., Bethea, C.F., Carpenter, W., Levitsky, S., Hill, P.C., Clem Jr, D.W., Jain, M.K., Drumel, D., Kopecky, S.L., Mueller, P.S, Marek, D., Rollins, S. & Hibberd, P.L. (2006). Study of the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicentre randomised trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal, 151, 934-942.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

Link to earlier, related Digest item.
Link to related Cochrane review.
Link to commentary on studies of prayer by social psychologist David G Myers.