Praying for the sick – can science prove it helps?

October 1, 2008
Taeed Quddusi, a resident physician in Winnipeg, Canada, says it will be difficult – probably impossible – to scientifically prove the effectiveness of prayers said for healing.

SAN DIEGO, United States — Proving scientifically that it helps to pray for a sick person is an elusive proposition, says Dr. Taeed Quddusi, one of the speakers at the 32nd annual conference of the North American Association for Baha’i Studies.

The first problem, he said, is designing an experiment, given that we are not sure of the desired result of a prayer.

“Is the point of prayer to prolong life?” he said during an interview after the conference.

He proceeded to answer, based on his understanding of the Baha’i teachings: “The point of our existence on this planet isn’t simply a longer life. The point of our existence is to know God, to worship God, to serve God.”

What about cases in which prolonging life would mean condemning a person to additional suffering, he asked. Then what is the desired result of the prayer?

And if we are not sure what effect we are seeking when we pray, how can a scientist assess the success of a prayer?

“We don’t really know what we are measuring,” Dr. Quddusi said.

“The Effects of Prayer on Healing and Recovery: A Review of the Literature” was the title of his presentation at one of the break-out sessions of the four-day Association for Baha’i Studies conference, which wound up on 1 September in San Diego. (See article.)

Dr. Quddusi, in his third year as a resident surgeon in otolaryngology at the University of Manitoba in Canada, says his review of the literature showed that studies of the efficacy of prayer have come up with mixed results.

But “meta-analysis” – where results are aggregated – shows no measurable effect, he states.

Does this mean prayer doesn’t work?

No, he says, because, in addition to the problem of determining what to measure, there are many factors that confuse the issue – factors that don’t necessarily lend themselves to scientific analysis. For example:

-- Does the fervency of the prayer matter? If so, how do you measure it?

-- Does the number of people praying for a sick person make a difference?

-- What about the worthiness of the “recipient” of the prayers? And what role does divine forgiveness play?

-- Should you take into account the seriousness of the illness?

-- Does the professed religion of the people involved, or absence of religion, influence the outcome?

-- Is it possible to have a true control group, given that people are always praying for other people, and the grace of God is constant and limitless?

In his presentation, Dr. Quddusi quoted a number of passages from the Baha’i writings indicating that prayer is essential but also that the effects of prayer are not always obvious.

Baha’i teachings about prayer

He said the Baha’i writings include the following: “Worship thou God in such wise that if thy worship lead thee to the fire, no alteration in thine adoration would be produced, and so likewise if thy recompense should be paradise.”

Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith who is considered by His followers to be a Messenger of God, instructs people to resort to “competent physicians” in times of sickness, but He also reveals prayers containing supplications for healing.

Some of the prayers for healing were described in the following way by ‘Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah and appointed interpreter of His teachings: “The prayers which were revealed to ask for healing apply both to physical and spiritual healing. Recite them, then, to heal both the soul and the body. If healing is right for the patient, it will certainly be granted; but for some ailing persons, healing would only be the cause of other ills, and therefore wisdom doth not permit an affirmative answer to the prayer.”

Dr. Quddusi also read this quotation from ‘Abdu’l-Baha: “Ask whatsoever thou wishest of Him alone…. With a look He granteth a hundred thousand hopes, with a glance He healeth a hundred thousand incurable ills, with a nod He layeth balm on every wound.”

‘Abdu’l-Baha talks specifically about prayer and healing in this passage read by Dr. Quddusi: “Disease is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Take for instance, a cut hand; if you pray for the cut to be healed and do not stop its bleeding, you will not do much good; a material remedy is needed.”

And more: “Illness caused by physical accident should be treated with medical remedies; those which are due to spiritual causes disappear through spiritual means…. Both kinds of remedies should be considered. Moreover, they are not contradictory, and thou shouldst accept the physical remedies as coming from the mercy and favor of God, who hath revealed and made manifest medical science so that His servants may profit from this kind of treatment also. Thou shouldst give equal attention to spiritual treatments, for they produce marvelous effects.”

In another quotation read by Dr. Quddusi, ‘Abdu’l-Baha describes specifically how a prayer for the sick might work:

“(Spiritual healing) results from the entire concentration of the mind of a strong person upon a sick person, when the latter expects with all his concentrated faith that a cure will be effected from the spiritual power of the strong person, to such an extent that there will be a cordial connection between the strong person and the invalid. The strong person makes every effort to cure the sick patient, and the sick patient is then sure of receiving a cure….

“But all this has effect only to a certain extent, and that not always. For if someone is afflicted with a very violent disease, or is wounded, these means will not remove the disease nor close and heal the wound.”

Scientific research

Dr. Quddusi said he would be eager to see a study based on the description from ‘Abdu’l-Baha about how prayer can work. But the doctor pointed out that even in the unlikely event one could design an appropriate experiment (“How do you find someone who is ‘spiritually strong’?” he asked), it would be difficult to prove anything, given that ‘Abdu’l-Baha himself said the prayers would have an effect “only to a certain extent, and that not always.”

So far, Dr. Quddusi said, scientific research on the efficacy of prayers for healing has been in situations completely different from that described by ‘Abdu’l-Baha.

For example, in some studies, patients in a specific coronary care unit in the United States were assessed for how well they fared after heart surgery. In each study, half the patients were randomly selected to have a person or persons unknown to them say prayers for their recovery. The patients were not told if they were among those being prayed for.

Dr. Quddusi said that in general, no measurable effects of prayer were found, a result he does not find surprising given the circumstances.

In fact, at one point in his presentation, he posed the question of whether God would turn away from His intended purpose because of a human’s expressing their desires.

He quoted from a study by Dr. Edward C. Halperin, a researcher at Duke University: “One would have difficulty accepting the concept of a God who preferentially heals people who, in a clinical trial, are selected to be prayed for by strangers rather than healing those randomly assigned to receive no prayer. God should not be conceived of as so capricious.”

And from a study by L. Roberts et al: “An omnipotent God may be noncompliant with the limitations of a randomized controlled trial, (resulting in) contamination of both control and intervention group….”

Dr. Quddusi also posed whether intercessory prayers were a form of “testing God,” and quoted from the Bible: “It is said, Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God”; Luke 4:12. (Earlier in the presentation, he had quoted another verse: “Ask and ye shall receive”; John 16:24.)

In his talk, he even offered two quotations from scientists about whether prayers for healing could be harmful:

-- “Religious people who become upset by the belief that God has abandoned them or who become dependent on their faith, rather than their medical treatment, for recovery may inadvertently subvert the success of their recovery.” – Lynda Powell et al, in American Psychologist.

-- “Are the prayers reaching a Higher Power that might, upon having Its attention called to a nonbeliever, actually respond to the request unfavorably?” – Dr. Julie Goldstein.

Dr. Quddusi concluded his presentation by stating that he did not believe scientific research into the efficacy of prayer was blasphemous, as some people have suggested.

But he acknowledged later that he was doubtful that science will ever be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of prayer in promoting healing.

Does that matter?

“No, I guess not,” he admits. “But it would be cool to prove it.”