When my mom was facing brain surgery, some Christian friends told her they were praying for her. She appreciated that they wanted to perform their magic hocus-pocus, but not because she thought it might help. Mom wisely knew prayers are a crapshoot, just like any other smidgen of desperation flung at the heavens. She just took it as the Christian way of saying “we care.” But according to Malcolm Ritter of the Associated Press, a forthcoming American Heart Journal study suggests that those hopeful and innocent prayers of theirs may have actually contributed to her decline.
In the recent comprehensive study funded by the Templeton Foundation, Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effects of prayer on 1,800 patients in six medical centers.
It should come as no surprise to smart people that within 30 days of surgery, results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery.
You know when prayer works? When you a priori believe it will and then conform the results to fit your superstition. It's like a rabbit's foot keychain. Say you have to make a rabbit soufflé, and you're worried it might not rise. So, while it is in the oven, you rub your lucky rabbit's foot. Presto, the soufflé is tall, fluffy and perfect. Thank God you killed the rabbit yourself! It gave that keychain extra mojo. And so forth.
If you pray for something and it works, credit prayer; if it doesn't work, well, you just didn't pray hard enough-or mail enough money to Pat Robertson.
But here's the shocking aspect of the study's outcome: fifty-nine percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility. That means there is a 7-percent greater chance of prayer having a negative impact on heart surgery recovery when you know you're being prayed for!
The implication? Proselytizing Christians should stop telling us they're praying for us.
Even though up until now we have sometimes sort of appreciated the gesture, we non-Christians have always simultaneously found it somewhat condescending and annoying. When somebody offers a prayer for another, it's almost never at an appropriate time for a theological argument, and that's one of the reasons “I'll be praying for you” is perhaps the least challenged religious trump card.
Consider how unusual it would be to hear a response like, “Thanks for your prayer, but I'm not really in the market for medieval fairy tales today; hey, I know, how about instead of praying for me, you send a letter to your congressperson about the genocide in Darfur for me?” A prayer from a Christian when you're sick is like an ugly sweater from an aunt on your birthday: It's impolite to do anything other than slap a phony grin on your kisser and say thanks.
But the time for tolerance of being prayed for has come to an end. Since science has clearly proven that being prayed for may be hazardous to your health, it is high time the Christian do-gooders cut it out or at least keep it to themselves.
Who knows how the deleteriousness of prayer-awareness works? The Templeton Foundation may have to fork over some more dough to Harvard in order to get to the bottom of that one. Maybe they'll find that knowing you're being prayed for makes you extra freaked out and anxious about whether or not the prayer will work. Or maybe it psyches your immune cells into laying down on the job, since someone else has got it covered.
Whatever the precise mechanism, ignorance of prayer is 7 percent more blissful than knowledge of it-so leave us in the dark, won't you please, Christians? If you really must rub a Jesus foot for us, do it in your pocket or your church, and, for God's sake, don't tell us about it. When you visit our bedsides in our secular hospitals, bring us flowers, dirty magazines, Toblerone and funny stories, and tell us you hope we get better, but leave God out of it. Sure, we used to think, It can't hurt, but now we know what we had previously felt as just a hunch: Not only does prayer not belong in public schools, it also doesn't belong within earshot of a sick person.
I suppose by now you want to hear “the other side.” OK. Critics like Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center, who didn't take part in the study, doesn't think much of it. “Science,” he reminds us, “is not designed to study the supernatural,” and “there is no god... that can be constrained to the point that they can be predicted.”
Right on, Harry, but humans can be predicted, and here's what I predict you'd have said if the study results had been different: “Science is not designed to study the supernatural, but the fact that 7 percent more of the patients who knew they were being prayed for recovered without complications indicates that Jesus participated in this study and walked beside the researchers, leaving his golden footprints all over the pile of money they received from the Templeton Foundation to perform this important study, blah, blah, blah.”
Of course science is not designed to study the supernatural. It's not designed to study Jesus, the Great Pumpkin, leprechauns, Darth Vader or the tiny, tiny ballerina robot fairies that operate the quantum machinations of your brain cells. Science measures what is real. And what it has proven in this case, for what it's worth, has nothing to do with the supernatural but rather something to do with how what we hear and think about can affect us. More specifically, you're probably better off not knowing you're being prayed for, and that means you'll probably want to inform your religious friends now, before you get sick, that in the future, when you're on the road to recovery, you won't be needing a tow. Like research studies, it could cost too much.