IU researcher examines role of prayer in healing

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Though surveys show that four in five Americans believe in the healing power of prayer and a majority of medical doctors say miraculous healing sometimes occurs, few researchers have subjected such claims to scientific investigation.

Enter Candy Gunther Brown, who used data derived from eight years of studying the prayer healing practices of Pentecostal Christians to write "Testing Prayer: Science and Healing," recently published by Harvard University Press. She chose to study Pentecostal Christians, she said, because claims of healing are common in Pentecostalism.

"Science cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of a suprahuman force or whether such an entity answers prayer," said Brown, an associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University. "But how prayer practices affect health is an empirical question. We can, and should, use empirical methods to answer this question."

Brown traveled across the United States and to Canada, Brazil and Mozambique to study how Pentecostal Christians in different cultures pray for healing. She examined medical records, conducted surveys and performed follow-up interviews to determine if people who claimed to be healed after receiving prayer actually had measurable improvements in their vision, hearing or some other aspect of their health.

"Many people have the idea that science and religion are in conflict with each other and can't be discussed together in a productive way," Brown told The Herald-Times ( ). "I am trying to show in this book that there can be a productive conversation between the fields of science and religion, and that empirically studying the effect of religious practices like prayer for healing can be illuminating for both the fields of science and religion."

Brown said previous studies have attempted to measure the effectiveness of distant, anonymous prayer, but her study focused on "proximal intercessory prayer."

"This type of prayer is typically employed by Christians who gather around a person seeking divine healing for that person," she said. "It involves physical touch, emotional empathizing and appeals to the direct experience of God's presence and love."

Brown said the most daunting aspect of her research was obtaining and examining the medical records of those who said they'd been healed through prayer.

"Medical doctors don't generally feel there is much value in studying claims of healing that way, and many practitioners of prayer feel it's wrong to reduce God's power to something that can be tested in a laboratory," she said. "Nonetheless, I was able to track down many records."

Brown said medical records can't prove that God healed someone through prayer, but can show whether someone exhibited significant improvement in their medical condition after prayer when there was no obvious medical explanation for that improvement.

In her book, Brown writes about a woman named Daisy, who'd been wearing hearing aids for 30 years and had hearing tests done with an audiologist over several years showing she had severe hearing loss and that her hearing was getting progressively worse.

After Daisy received prayer from a group of Christians at a Pentecostal gathering, she said her hearing was so much better that she no longer needed her hearing aids. Daisy went to the same audiologist, who tested her in the same office and with the same equipment that he'd used before.

"The test results showed her hearing was significantly better, so much so that her hearing was normal at the frequencies at which people speak," Brown said. "Several months later, she was tested again by the same audiologist, and her hearing still registered normal at frequencies that people speak at. This doesn't show her improvement came from God through prayer, but it does show she experienced dramatic improvement."

On the other hand, Brown writes about a man named Frank who had been unable to read out of one eye for more than 20 years. He claimed that after receiving prayer from a group of Christians, the vision in that eye significantly improved, so much so that he could now read with that eye.

"When I began to follow up, Frank sent me records from his optometrist showing the sight in his bad eye had gone from 20/200 to 20/40," she said. "But when I visited the optometrist, he told me Frank had altered the records he'd sent me and that Frank's vision in the eye was still 20/200."

So what does Brown conclude?

"What I draw from this is that there is value for practitioners and researchers in checking the medical records, because they provide a way to check on claims of healing," she said. "I found that some of those claims were more credible than others."

Brown worked in Mozambique with medical researchers, who used portable machines and vision charts to examine — before and after — the hearing and vision of subjects who claimed to have been healed through prayer.

"We found statistically significant improvement in both hearing and vision, much greater than would be expected from random recovery or placebo effects," she said.

Brown said the researchers saw one person who could not see her own hand before prayer who could read the 20/80 vision line after receiving prayer. Another person who previously could not hear a noise with the decibel level of a motorcycle was able to hear conversation-level speech after receiving prayer.

"Generally, you would not expect to see the level of improvement we found," she said. "The data did not tell us what mechanism caused the change — only that there were changes."

Brown also conducted long-term follow-up interviews — for several years — of people who claimed healing through prayer.

"Some of them had written narratives of their healing and medical records over several years," she said. "Some continued to believe they'd been healed, and others said their physical ailment had returned."

Brown said many of those who were convinced they'd been healed interpreted the healing as an act of God's love for them.

"They would then pray for others to be healed, and many of those people believed they'd been healed as well, and prayed for others to be healed," she said. "This is clearly one of the things that's fueling Pentecostal Christianity globally."

Brown said it's prudent for doctors, policy makers and medical researchers to learn as much as possible about prayer and healing.

"Once we have a clearer answer to the questions of whether or not prayer affects health, we can look more closely at possible mechanisms," she said. "If prayer is bad for people's health, we need to know about that. But if prayer has a positive effect on people's health, then maybe we can incorporate what we learn into our health-delivery practices and perhaps improve global health as a result."


Information from: The Herald Times,

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