Friday, March 31, 2006

A hope and a prayer, but no help

"Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery." That was the much anticipated conclusion of a decade long study into the effects of intercessory prayer.

The study, which concentrated on prayers offered for patients recovering from coronary bypass surgery, further suggested that prayer, rather than benefiting post-operative patients, might actually harm them. Researchers in the study hypothesized that the adverse results associated with intercessory prayer might be due to increased expectations on the part of the patients.

To which some members of the prayer community offered a predictable, and consistent, response: "A person of faith would say that this study is interesting," said Bob Barth, the spiritual directory of Silent Unity, a Missouri prayer ministry. "But we've been praying a long time and we've seen prayer work, we know it works, and the research on prayer and spirituality is just getting started."

This is, of course, a perfectly reasonable response for someone whose beliefs or opinions are premised on faith. By definition, a faith-base belief is one that does not require evidence or proof to justify its own existence. Which begs the question: why try to provide scientific justification for a belief that is rooted in faith?

In studying intercessory prayer it strikes me that, for many people who already engage in the practice, only two outcomes were possible: 1) the disclosure of a positive correlation between intercessory prayer and improved health status, which would encourage further prayer, or 2) no correlation (or a negative correlation), which would be dismissed as incomplete or as irrelevant.

Beliefs premised on faith are, typically, not averse to receiving scientific or empirical support. But they do not require it for, as faith-based beliefs, they can and will be maintained even in the face of contrary evidence, for it is faith, and not evidence, by which they are supported.

All of this leads me to wonder what purpose this study truly served? When scientific research dollars are scarce, is there really full value in pursuing a question whose results will only be acknowledged if favorable? More broadly, what role can and should scientific research take on in the investigation of beliefs that are fundamentally rooted in a supernatural faith that exceeds the boundaries of scientific investigation?

If this is to be the response by the faith-based community to studies of faith, then why commission the study at all?

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