You may recall that a few years ago, there was a certain degree of excitement in some religious circles over the imminent publication of research findings regarding the effect of “intercessory prayer” (prayer at a distance) on health. The God Hypothesis, popular in a number of religious communities, predicts that people praying at a distance from sick patients can trigger a divine intervention that brings those sick patients healing. The hypothesis is amenable to scientific study, since prayer at a distance can be randomized and conducted in double-blind fashion, with neither the researcher nor the patient aware of whether they have been prayed for.
You may have noticed that people haven’t been talking up intercessory prayer research lately. There’s a reason for that: when the studies were released, they showed no support for the God Hypothesis. As a analytical review of ten randomized studies of intercessory prayer found:
Ten studies are included in this updated review (7646 patients). For the comparison of intercessory prayer plus standard care versus standard care alone, overall there was no clear effect of intercessory prayer on death, with the effect not reaching statistical signifcance and data being heterogeneous (6 RCTs, n=6784, random-effects RR 0.77 CI 0.51 to 1.16, I squared 83%). For general clinical state there was also no signifcant difference between groups (5 RCTs, n=2705, RR intermediate or bad outcome 0.98 CI 0.86 to 1.11). Four studies found no effect for re-admission to Coronary Care Unit (4 RCTs, n=2644, RR 1.00 CI 0.77 to 1.30). Two other trials found intercessory prayer had no effect on re-hospitalisation (2 RCTs, n=1155, RR 0.93 CI 0.71 to 1.22).
The authors of the research review conclude, “We are not convinced that further trials of this intervention should be undertaken and would prefer to see any resources available for such a trial used to investigate other questions in health care.”
Since these findings were published, the research community has gone quiet on the subject, although Orrin Hatch is still trying to get government reimbursement for intercessory prayer phone operators.
Research has instead returned to the effect of overt prayer sessions made in direct contact with sick patients, which unsurprisingly has a positive impact on health outcomes. People respond generally well to social attention of all sorts, a pattern described as the Hawthorne Effect for nearly 90 years now.