The federal government has spent $2.3 million for intercessory prayer research since 1990. That's our tax money.
When I asked my friend, Lois, what she thought of that, she said, "That money would be better spent on funding the "No Child Left Behind" act."
We were waiting for other members of our book club to arrive. Lois squinted at her program notes through her bifocals. Then she looked up and asked, "Do you think prayer helps sick people get well?"
Without a moments hesitation I answered, "Sure. If people believe it will help, and they believe it strongly enough it will work for them."
"But I thought you didn't believe in God and prayer."
"That's why it wouldn't work for me." I thought for a moment before adding, "Praying gives some people hope. It's pretty common knowledge that attitude is a very important variable in healing. Whatever works, that's my motto." I smiled.
Lois had a very serious look on her face. "What about intercessory prayer. Does it work?"
"Intercessory prayer? That's a whole different bag. That's when people pray for sick people they don't know. And, the sick people don't know they're being prayed for. I guess our government wants to prove that kind of thing works. They sure are spending a lot of money to fund the research. The studies try to measure whether the people who've been prayed for get better, and better faster than the ones in the control group, the ones who haven't been prayed for."
"How do they know the ones in the control group aren't being prayed for anyway?"
"Good question. That's part of the problem with the research designs. Then there's the question of what kind of prayer is supposed to work. Do the prayers pray to God the Father, Jesus Christ, Buddha, Allah, YHVH, or Mother Earth to name a few. Some Catholics pray to their saints." I hesitated for a moment before adding, "They spend a lot of time in their research designs to control for these many different perceptions of God. It must be one of those 'God's on our side things."
"I guess it's quite the muddle."
"Sure is. Bruce Flamm, Skeptical Inquirer, Septemberr/October 2004 says the studies are not scientific. He says, 'In the entire history of modern science, no claim of any type of supernatural phenomena has ever been replicated under strictly controlled conditions.' He was referring to the recent scandal at Columbia University and the Journal of Reproductive Medicine."
"Oh, I didn't hear anything about any kind of scandal." Lois put her notes down and gave me her full attention.
"Three years ago, they announced to the world that infertile women who were prayed for by Christian prayer groups became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have people praying for them. In other words, a prestigious medical journal reported a miracle. It got a lot of attention back then. The editors were informed of several of the study's flaws within weeks of its publication but it remained on their web site until a couple of weeks ago. Now a number of scientists are shouting fraud as well flawed. Some have suggested that the study may not even have been done."
"Stuff like that could do a lot of harm, Marilyn. People are so gullible. Think what a study like that could do in the hands of charlatan faith healers looking to part their customers from their fortunes." She took a deep breath. "And their pennies."
"That's exactly how the study has been used. But, there are a lot of very sincere Christians who question the whole thing too. Rev. Raymond J. Lawrence Jr., director of pastoral care at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia University Medical Center says, 'This whole exercise cheapens religion, and promotes an infantile theology that God is out there ready to miraculously defy the laws of nature in answer to prayer.'"
"I must admit that if intercessory prayer worked, it would be a boon to the poor, the one's who can't afford real medical care. They could get prayers for free. There are lots of people willing to donate their prayers if praying doesn't affect their pocketbooks. It would put the poor on an equal footing with the wealthy who pay actual greenbacks for medical assistance, mucho greenbacks at that. Then we wouldn't have to feel so guilty about the inequities in our health care system. Maybe that's why our government funds these projects."
"I don't think your logic is correct, Lois. The poor would get the prayers and the wealthy could get both prayers and real medicine."