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In a study that has made a splash this month, an American cardiologist concludes that praying for sick people has no effect one way or the other on their recovery. In fact, if they know they are being prayed for, it makes them worse. Non-believers naturally find the first result predictable and the second quite entertaining. But they are not the only ones to welcome the new report. Some religious leaders have, too, to their credit. It is about time a few of them reminded the world that religious belief does not necessarily entail the suspension of common sense.

How did the researchers, led by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School, go about measuring the effect of prayer on healing? Pretty rigorously, according to the report in the April issue of the American Heart Journal. About 1,800 patients undergoing coronary bypass surgery at six hospitals were divided into three groups: those who were told they were being prayed for; those who were prayed for but told they might or might not be; and those who were not prayed for but, like the second group, told that it was a possibility.

The people doing the praying were all Christians with impeccable qualifications for the job, some from a Catholic monastery in Minnesota, some from a Catholic convent in Massachusetts and some from an evangelical Protestant prayer group in Missouri. They were instructed to pray for “a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications” for specific patients, whom they did not know. Theirs were, in short, the pure, disinterested prayers of strangers. (Presumably, the researchers figured God would accept Christian prayer as a fair representation of other brands as well.

Many people could have told the team for nothing what it cost it $2.4 million to learn — that patients who were prayed for would do no better and no worse after surgery than those who were left to their doctors. But they might not have foreseen the study’s other result: that patients who knew for a fact that they were “prayees” suffered slightly more complications than those who weren’t sure. The team had said they thought patients who knew they were being prayed for might feel comforted by that, and more relaxed, thereby reducing stress on their hearts. Apparently, some felt quite agitated. (Aunt Molly is praying for me? I’m that sick? Oh, dear, I feel those palpitations coming on again.)

It should be noted that the study did not address the kind of thing you see at shrines from Lourdes to Asakusa, where people pray on their own behalf, as well as bathing in water or patting themselves with smoke that they believe has healing properties. Many studies have shown that praying for oneself can have a positive effect on health — but you don’t have to be religious to grasp the restorative power of hope.

The difference with this study was that it removed the element of self-interest, and the result was clear: Prayers for the sick don’t do the sick any good. Not that it matters what the study found. On an issue this personal, people’s minds aren’t easily changed. If one is a believer, it seems counterintuitive not to pray — and besides, praying for the sick is a lot easier than visiting them. Even to many non-believers, such prayer seems so mainstream it feels pointless, even churlish, to disparage it. Allusions to divine intercession are woven into the language, from politicians’ messages to greeting cards: Our prayers go out.

Yet that is exactly why it was so refreshing to read an article published in the New York Times last week in which an Episcopal priest, no less, took a stand against this infantilized idea of prayer. “Responsible religious leaders will breathe a sigh of relief at the news that so-called intercessory prayer is medically ineffective,” wrote the priest, who is also director of pastoral care at a major New York hospital. He asked people to imagine what would happen if it could ever be conclusively shown that such prayers do work: “Our religious institutions and meeting places would be degraded to a kind of commercial enterprise, like Burger King, where one expects to get what one pays for.”

The director of Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health appeared to agree. “There are no real theological grounds to expect a result,” Dr. Harold Koenig said of the study’s neutral findings on prayer. “There is no god in the Christian, Jewish or Muslim scriptures that can be constrained to the point that they can be predicted.” Or, he might have added, in any other religion, either.

The Benson team had no ax to grind about faith. But it would be nice if its report, which seems to deal such a blow to religion, sparked a theological discussion that could correct some misconceptions held about it by believers and non-believers alike.

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