by Gary Wenk Ph.D.

Praying Allows People to Believe They Are Doing Something Useful

Key points

  • Prayer is certainly the most common complementary and alternative intervention used by people.
  • Prayers offered by large groups of devout people have no benefit on the health of others.
  • Being religious, praying, or being a religious leader were completely unrelated to all general health outcomes.

Much has been written lately about the need for prayer. Prayer is certainly the most common complementary and alternative intervention used by people of all religions around the world. Individuals who pray regularly are convinced that their efforts will be successful. Unfortunately, no empirical, scientifically rigorous evidence has ever been brought forth proving the power of prayer.

Why do people pray? Praying is a way for people to convince themselves that they are doing something useful. True believers, unlike non-believers, when queried, do not show any interest in confirming that their prayers are effective. Recent studies by psychologists have shown that religious people have less stringent standards of evidence when evaluating nonscientific claims. In spite of a total lack of evidence, they remain convinced that prayers work.

Does Praying Work?

Probably the most important, and frequently referenced, investigation on this topic was published in 2006 by Dr. Herbert Benson. He studied the therapeutic effects of prayer on 1,802 coronary artery bypass surgery patients at six different hospitals. This double-blinded study randomly assigned patients into three separate groups. Groups one and two were told that they may receive prayers; group three was told they were receiving prayers. Only group one received prayers. No one prayed for the members of group two. Three different Christian churches prayed for their assigned patients.

The study demonstrated that the prayers offered by large groups of people have absolutely no benefit on the health of others. This discovery was also important because the results are in direct contrast to other smaller, poorly designed studies that have widely reported the positive benefits of prayer.

Does Being Devout Make You Healthy?

If prayers are beneficial, then we should expect to find a positive association between practicing a religion and health outcomes. Essentially, religious people should be healthier and live longer than atheists. A Canadian study of almost 16,000 people explored health differences in atheists, agnostics, Catholics, and Protestants. The results showed that religious attendance, prayer, and religiosity were completely unrelated to all general health outcomes. Atheists were equally healthy as generally religious people.

What about people who are seriously religious? Another study compared the longevity of three different groups that included 857 Roman Catholic bishops, 500 Catholic priests, and 3,038 male academics from six countries. The data indicated that the bishops and priests did not live longer than male academics, which is really good news for us male academic agnostics. The study also reported that bishops live longer than priests; however, due to the small effect size, this particular result should be treated with caution. Stress did not appear to play a role since no difference was found between the mean length of life of Bishops from large and small dioceses.

The most interesting outcome of one recent investigation was that the people who were aware that others were praying for them became significantly sicker. The authors speculated that the peer pressure to become healthy produced so much stress that the afflicted patient became even less healthy. This study made me wonder whether I should stop sending get-well cards to people while they are in the hospital. Is it too much pressure on them to get well?

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