Numerous "scientific" studies have purported to show a causal link between prayer and physical health - for example, a widely reported study done by Columbia University researchers which appeared in the Journal of Reproductive Medicine in 2001 claimed that women undergoing in-vitro fertilization and receiving prayers for their fertility achieved a pregnancy rate twice that of the group who did not receive prayer. However, this month's issue of Skeptic magazine (vol.12 no.3) points out the scientific flaws in those studies and reports on an exhaustive $2.4 million controlled study done by Harvard University cardiologist Dr. Robert Benson and published in The American Heart Journal.
Dr. Benson's study examined the effects of prayer on 1802 patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery in six different hospitals. The patients were divided into three groups: two groups were prayed for by members of three church congregations in Minnesota, Massachusetts and Missouri. One of the two groups was told that they were being prayed for, and the other was not told whether or not they were being prayed for. The third group acted as a control and received no prayers. The study was carefully designed to control for other variables (eg. age, sex, etc).
The results? There was no statistically significant difference between the three groups; in fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher (but not statistically significant) rate of complications (59%) than the patients who were not sure whether they were being prayed for or not (51%). The group in the uninformed prayer group suffered an 18% rate of major complications, compared to 13% in the control group.
The conclusion? Intercessory prayer had no statistical effect on the health or recovery of the patients in the study group, and so-called scientific studies in the past used seriously flawed methodology.