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Healing through prayer

Is there a scientific basis for healing prayers, faith healing and miracle cures? Today we know that illnesses can be due to injuries, birth defects, genetic defects inherited from the parents, metabolic diseases from the failure of normal bodily functions, and infectious diseases caused by bacteria, viruses or parasites. Before modern medicine, the causes of disease were attributed to demons, witchcraft, punishment for sin, miasmas and evil spirits. In the ancient cultural and religious traditions, pleas to the deities for health were usually accompanied by animal sacrifices or by performing acts of penance to please the gods and restore the health of a sick person.

Jesus healing
Jesus healing blind Bartimaeus,
by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861.

Some sects of modern Christianity interpret the Bible literally, including the belief that demons and sins cause illness and that prayer and faith can restore health, as illustrated by the following Biblical passages:

John 9:1-7 King James Version (KJV)
And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.
2 And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?
3 Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.
4 I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work.
5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
6 When he had thus spoken, he spat on the ground, and made clay of the spittle, and he anointed the eyes of the blind man with the clay,
7 And said unto him, Go, wash in the pool of Siloam, (which is by interpretation, Sent.) He went his way therefore, and washed, and came seeing.
Luke 11:14 And He was casting out a demon, and it was mute; when the demon had gone out, the mute man spoke; and the crowds were amazed.
James 5:15 King James Version (KJV)
15 And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him.

The belief that illness can be caused by demonic possession persists in the 21st century in many religions[4]. The Catholic church still uses the Rite of Exorcism to cast away evil spirts that may possess a person, but only after a careful medical examination to exclude the possibility of a mental or physical illness. The signs of demonic invasion are believed to depend on the type of demon, and the symptoms may include: 1) Loss or lack of appetite, 2) Cutting, scratching, and biting of skin, 3) A cold feeling in the room, 4) Unnatural bodily postures and facial contortions, 5) Loss of control of the normal personality and entering into a frenzy or rage, and/or attacking others, 6) Change in the person's voice. Critics of exorcism contend that so-called "possession" is undiagnosed mental illness or the result of cerebral strokes, epilepsy or other medical conditions that may go unrecognized.

The germ theory of disease
Bacteria were first observed by the Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek in 1676 using a single-lens microscope, but the role of microorganisms in spoilage and disease was not well understood until Louis Pasteur demonstrated in 1859 that the growth of microorganisms causes the fermentation process. Louis Pasteur, along with his contemporary Robert Koch, were early advocates of the germ theory of disease. Koch's research into tuberculosis finally proved the germ theory, and he received a Nobel Prize in 1905.

Faith Healing religions
While scientists were busy trying to understand the microbial mechanisms that caused disease, Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910), was setting the foundation for a new religion based on the biblical concepts of sickness. In 1875, she published the book Science and Health in which she stated that sickness is an illusion that can be corrected by prayer alone. Eddy and 26 followers were granted a charter in 1879 to found the Church of Christ, Scientist, and in 1894 the Mother Church, The First Church of Christ, Scientist, was built in Boston, Massachusetts. The membership of the church expanded quickly, and currently there are approximately 400,000 followers worldwide.

Practitioners of Christian Science believe that reality is purely spiritual and the material world is an illusion. Also, they believe that disease is a mental error rather than a physical disorder, and that the sick should be treated, not by medicine, but by prayers that correct the beliefs responsible for the illusion of ill health.

Christian Scientists do not use alcohol or tobacco, so they are not affected by the self-inflicted diseases associated with these products. However, the psychological consequence of believing that disease is caused by mental errors causes the practitioners of this philosophy to feel guilty or inadequate when they get sick because they think that they don't have enough faith. They believe that if they had had enough faith they would not have become ill.

Prayers do not extend life.
A study published in 1989[1], compared the longevity of Christian Scientists who received an undergraduate college education at Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, a liberal arts college for Christian Scientists, with a control population that received an undergraduate college education in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The study concluded that the Christian Scientists had a significantly higher death rate than the control population. If healing through prayer worked, the opposite result would have been expected. It is generally known that unless an illness is fatal, people will get well with or without prayers. However, for a serious illness, the attempt to heal through faith sometimes postpones real medical treatment until it is too late.

Many other studies have failed to find a correlation between prayer and healing, regardless of whether the prayers are recited by the sick person or as intercessory prayers by others on behalf of a sick person.[2]  Pope John Paul II died in 2005 following a urinary tract infection that led to septic shock. The millions of prayers said on his behalf by faithful Catholics around the world were of no avail.

If prayer heals, how does it work?
There are many problems associated with trying to apply rigorous scientific methods to the study of prayer and healing. One of the problems is that the mechanism by which prayer heals, if it does, cannot be analyzed.

A study published in 2009[3] considered that there may be several explanations that could account for the reports of healing through prayer. From a scientific perspective, if prayer is indeed considered to work, thought should also be given to the possibility that it may not require a deity. It could be that prayer invokes some hitherto unidentified mental energy that has healing power. Here is a short list of the possible explanations for healing through prayer:

• Prayer is a special form of meditation that may convey all the health benefits that have been associated with meditation.
• Prayer may be supported by varying degrees of faith and may therefore be associated with all the benefits that have been associated with the placebo response.
• Prayer may be associated with improvements that result from spontaneous remission, regression to the mean or nonspecific psychosocial support.
• Prayer may result in benefits that are due to divine intervention, in which case it is necessary to know which god, if there is a god.

The authors of the study go on to present some "unsettling questions" that would have to be asked in a scientific study but which devalue the concept of God for those who pray to a divinity, such as:

• If the number, duration and frequency of prayer are important or if the number of persons praying is important, does God, like a businessman, market boons based on the currency value of the prayers? Or, will God pay attention only if those who pray are sufficiently bothersome?
• If the type of prayer is important, is God a bureaucrat who is more likely to consider petitions that appear in the prescribed forms?
• If the addition of vows and sacrifices is important, is God somebody who can be flattered or bribed into granting a boon?

Our primordial instincts
Many of the beliefs about healing through faith and prayer originated before it was well established that bacteria and viruses cause disease. The persistence of these beliefs in modern times shows that in spite of being rational animals, humans are still greatly influenced by myths that appeal to more primitive instincts. In our attempt to understand the big questions about life and death it may be easier to believe that our lives are controlled by a powerful God, rather than just being the result of a multitude of complex chemical reactions that take place within our body. From this perspective, the large number of deaths caused by disease is discounted as insignificant because it is attributed to the will of God, whereas occasional spontaneous healings without medical intervention are interpreted as miraculous and reinforce the faith-healing myth.

References:

  1. Simpson, WF, Comparative longevity in a college cohort of Christian Scientists, JAMA. 1989 Sep 22-29;262(12):1657-8. [PMID: 2769921]
  2. Carey, B., Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer, The New York Times, March 31, 2006, link
  3. Chittaranjan Andrade, Rajiv Radhakrishnan, Prayer and healing: A medical and scientific perspective on randomized controlled trials, Indian J Psychiatry. 2009 Oct-Dec; 51(4): 247–253. doi: 10.4103/0019-5545.58288
  4. Exorcism


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