Searching in the Darkness: About Prayer and Medical Cures

Gil Gaudia, PhD


"It must be emphasized that, in the entire history of modern science, no claim of any type of supernatural phenomena has ever been replicated under strictly controlled conditions. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated. One would think that all medical journal editors would be keenly aware of this fact and therefore be highly skeptical of paranormal or supernatural claims. One must therefore wonder if the Columbia researchers and the JRM editors were blinded by religious beliefs. Everything else being equal, if the claimed supernatural intervention had been Ms. Cleo manipulating Tarot cards rather than Christians praying, would the reviewers and editors have taken this study seriously? In any case, the damage has been done. The fact that a 'miracle cure' study was deemed to be suitable for publication in a scientific journal automatically enhanced the study's credibility. Not surprisingly, the news media quickly disseminated the 'miraculous' results" (Flamm B. Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. September 2004).

We scientists make a great mistake when we agree that there may be value in investigating the potential of prayer as a cure. By so doing, we agree that there is something to be investigated, something to be considered, and this agreement plays into the hands of aggressive theism. Theists claim knowledge of and access to a supernatural world outside of the legitimate domain of science -- which is the natural world. They claim that the forces and materials of the natural world are subordinate to and cannot affect this "other world"; that science cannot understand this unnatural or supernatural world; and yet they maintain that their world's processes should be allowed to cross the barrier, in both directions (eg, prayer and its consequence) to influence and change the material phenomena of our natural world. They cannot have it both ways. Empirical methods either apply or they don't. If they do, then they are subject to the criteria of science and the materialism upon which it is founded; and if they do not, then why are empiricists trying to investigate nonempirical matters? The answer to that question was posited half a millennium ago by Desiderius Erasmus: "They are looking in utter darkness for that which has no existence whatsoever.[1]"

At best, we must be content with 2 different views of the universe -- the natural, scientific one and the supernatural one. But even some prominent scientists are tempted to combine the 2 as, for example, when biologist Stephen Jay Gould created NOMA (nonoverlapping magisteria), by which he avoided and blurred the entire issue, claiming that there were 2 separate domains -- the domain of science and the domain of religion -- and neither had the right to enter the other, but that they both exist within this 1 universe.[2]

World-famous cosmologist Stephen Hawking confounded the 2 views when, in his best-selling book A Brief History of Time ,[3] he made numerous references to God, and in one curious sentence, he said that if we could unravel the mystery of the Big Bang, "then we would know the mind of God" (page 175). In that same work, he describes a meeting of scientists, including himself, at the Vatican, in which the Pope told them that it was all right for astronomers and cosmologists to study the origins of the universe back as far as the Big Bang, but not to attempt to understand what went on at that moment, or before it, because that was the domain of religion and not science. Instead of criticizing the Pope's admonition, Hawking jokingly demurs something about not wanting the Pope to get God mad at him (page 116).[3] When I asked him via email why he makes constant references to God, his graduate assistant responded (after repeated proddings by me for over a month), "When Professor Hawking uses the word 'God' he refers to the natural laws of the universe." Why not call a natural law a natural law?

A recent article in Medscape entitled "Evidence-Based Medicine or Faith-Based Medicine " again entered this arena discussing an upcoming debate between 2 physicians over the efficacy of prayer in medicine.[4] The author of the article, Dr. George D. Lundberg, Editor-in-Chief, Medscape General Medicine , while expressing incredulity over the position of the faith-based medicine (FBM) doctor, nevertheless indicated that, like it or not, there was a "growing body of scientific evidence about the effect of prayer of various kinds on disease and treatment" (personal communication, December 16, 2004).

This article on evidence-based medicine (EBM) vs FBM and the acknowledgment quoted above demonstrate the extent to which religious zeal is overwhelming this country and putting the brakes on 2 centuries of scientific enlightenment. In fact, the light is already beginning to dim. It is astonishing that anyone (ie, the FBM debater), with the education required to become a doctor of medicine (MD), would still cling to the superstitions concocted by ignorant desert nomads over 2 millennia ago, and I wondered whether it was possible that someone was pulling Dr. Lundberg's leg. Had he investigated the credentials of the "doctors" involved in the so-called debate?

With regard to the medical claims of the "power of prayer" to heal, to which Dr. Lundberg was probably referring, it must be assumed that God hears the prayer and then responds to the request by influencing the cells, the bacteria, or the body's immune system; the potency of the medications; or other factors that are involved and are necessary for the restoration of function to the systems in question -- cells, tissues, organs, etc. Would these phenomena be subject to scientific measurement, identification, or verification? What would the subjects, patients, witnesses, and investigators observe?

As you, the reader, may already gather, I'm a skeptic -- an atheist, in fact -- and I jump to the bait whenever claims of the supernatural are made by people holding scientific credentials (MDs included).

The most recent and widely discussed example of the power of prayer was the extraordinary study at Columbia University Medical Center (New York, NY) that claimed to have demonstrated that infertile women who were prayed for by Christian prayer groups became pregnant twice as often as those who did not have people praying for them.[5] The study was published in The Journal of Reproductive Medicine and later commented on by Dr. Timothy Johnson, ABC News medical editor and Good Morning America commentator (among others), who stated, "A new study on the power of prayer over pregnancy reports surprising results....[6]"

When it was discovered that this study (and its 3 lead investigators and writers) were not what they claimed to be, this fraudulent claim of the efficacy of intercessory prayer had already been reported on by the print media, including The New York Times[7] and newspapers worldwide.[8] I am not aware of any retractions or corrections by the aforementioned "scientific reporters," although there may well have been. This is an example of the subtly ferocious power of fanaticism, and the problem posed by its invasion of the domain of science.

Even if this study had not been fabricated, its legitimacy would be questionable. The researchers would eventually have had to connect their results in theory with other known and accepted biological, chemical, and physical laws.[9] Otherwise, even if replicated many times, it would still have to be considered "miraculous" and thereby be subject to the test of David Hume: "That no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous, than the fact, which it endeavours to establish....[10]" This is why the Columbia study is relegated to the trash bin of science. For an extensive and exhaustive discussion and analysis of this medical fiasco, I refer the reader to the article in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine ( SRAM )[11] (by Bruce L. Flamm, MD, Clinical Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of California, Irvine).

As for the alleged benefits of prayer on the ill, we may accept the calming, placebo, meditative, or "other effects" that in all likelihood do exist and focus our discussion instead on the metaphysical claims of the proponents -- that the prayer was answered by God or one of God's intermediaries. These intermediaries include (but are not limited to) the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ, as well as other angels and saints, who, in answering the prayer, apparently are able to intervene into the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology that are essentially about "stuff" operating or behaving according to certain rules or laws in our universe (ie, gravitation, electromagnetism, and "the strong force" and "the weak force"), which have thus far been shown to be predictable.

Let us try to imagine what must occur in order for a medical prayer to be answered. In the case under consideration, the supplicant must transmit words or thoughts into the ether, which are then received by the agent -- be it God, the Virgin Mary, or other supernatural figure. The agent must then, in the midst of all the myriad other concerns at hand (medical and otherwise), ignore these concerns, which include thousands of dying babies in Sudan, soldiers praying on battlefields for bullets and shrapnel to be directed away from themselves, prisoners (wrongly convicted) on death row praying for the governor to have his/her mind changed and announce a pardon, probably billions of the Earth's 6,000,000,000 inhabitants who are also praying for something, and proceed to the task at hand, ie, the alteration of the ovum or sperm or both, of the person being prayed for. This alteration would have to include either a transformation of the cell wall or nucleus or a change in the composition or motility of the sperm or, in general, an alteration of whatever was the cause of the infertility to begin with (the "stuff" or rules of operation). It would have to accomplish this feat even in cases in which there was no atom, molecule, cell, or tissue to be altered, but rather an absence of the required particle(s).

And all this is to assume that prayer is to be limited to cases of infertility. But that's only where the fraudulent investigators found it most practical to pull off their deception; why stop there?

Why wouldn't prayer, if effective regarding the reproductive system, not also be effective in changing a pancreatic cancer cell into a healthy pancreatic cell, or a nonfunctioning synapse in the cerebral cortex to either regain function or be replaced by a normal one? Or why wouldn't prayer even cause cells in the stumps of a thalidomide baby's arms to replicate and grow into the fully formed arm, with the hand and fingers it was programmed (but thwarted) to become? If prayer can change the course of a reproductive cell's development, then why not any cell? In fact, if prayer really works, then why is it necessary for there even to be ova, sperm, Petri dishes, and other accoutrements of in vitro fertilization or pregnancy? There is already a powerful precedent (recently celebrated) for it to be otherwise. For that matter, why do not celibate women pray to become pregnant?

Any cell indeed. Why not a dead cell? According to traditional religion, prayer is not limited to the curing of disease; it is also useful in the "curing" of death. That is to say, a body that has ceased functioning even for as long as 3 days[12,13,14] can be caused to function again, despite the decomposition that would ordinarily occur. How would these dead and decomposed cells be restored to function?

The medical issues discussed above are but a microcosm of a broader crisis of religious zealotry in America, politics as well as other areas. But should science allow itself to become part of the restricting and threatening aspects of that crisis? Science is the only hope of continuing the enlightenment of the last few centuries and preventing it from being extinguished by the fear-possessed theists, who rather than attempt to understand nature, prefer instead to deny it, and in so doing, deny it to the rest of us.

Science and its most important applied profession, medicine, seem to be succumbing to a tidal wave of irrational thinking that is threatening to drown the country. The triggers seem to have been the destruction of the World Trade Center's towers and the fear, grief, and need for comfort that accompanied it, but whenever it began, supernatural zeal, in all of its manifestations, is reaching tidal wave proportions.

Fear may well be the explanation for the increased current preoccupation with the supernatural; it is fear that triggers many behaviors (including Galileo's recantation), and fear (and its correlate, anxiety), of course, is an omnipresent factor in the medical profession.

Recent Gallup polls (Gallup Poll/Gallup Tuesday Briefing May 24, 2004) indicate that as many as 70% of Americans believe in "The Devil"; 85% believe in God; huge majorities believe in UFOs (unidentified flying objects), psychic forensics, and assorted other supernatural phenomena. In general, Americans are becoming obsessed with otherworldly and/or spiritual events.[15] Politicians led by the commander-in-chief have either been caught up in the frenzy or are fueling it for personal gain, but the end result is that the logical, skeptical, rigorous thinking processes that undergird science and medicine are in jeopardy.

Until recently, science and medicine have represented the remaining coherent link between the material universe and the minds that interpret it, but, sadly now, even here there has begun the encroachment upon this elegant domain of The Enlightenment -- the 18th century's island of rationalism in the sea of darkness. More and more frequently the media, especially television, are devoting countless hours to programming that reflects this abandonment of reason, including talk show hosts, such as Larry King, who interview shamans, seers, mind readers, those who speak to the dead, and, of course, healers. Amidst all of this are some scientists, or those who call themselves scientists (but who are really theists with an agenda), who proclaim with increasing determination that the evidence supports (1) the existence of God, (2) the truths of the Bible , (3) the effectiveness of prayer, and (4) the fallacy of the intellect.

Various sciences, it is claimed (most notably archeology), have found proof for the location of Noah's Ark; the physiognomy of Jesus Christ; the appearance of the Star of Bethlehem; and of course, the failure of Darwinism. Now, even medicine, they claim, is demonstrating the superiority of the religious over the profane -- that faith and prayer can succeed where professionals, potions, and procedures cannot -- with reports of studies that show the effectiveness of supplications to The Almighty or The Almighty's representatives, all of whom are adept at intervening in or suspending or altering the known laws of physics, chemistry, and biology.

One of the frequent laments of the Christian Right is that we are not praying enough. Prayer is being touted as the great cure-all, now sadly even by some scientists and "medical experts," including psychologists, who in deference to the pressures from the Religious Right, proclaim that prayer aids in healing or longevity, aside from its probable benefit as a meditative or relaxative function, anxiety reducer, or placebo. Because many intelligent and rational people pray, perhaps it is possible for them to explain how it works to skeptics like me.

The scientific community, perhaps because of the inherent openness of the discipline (after all, anything is possible), should become a more active and vocal advocate of rationality. There is altogether too much wild speculation from theistic extremists who believe that the systematic universe of Newton-Galileo-Einstein is controlled by a God or gods who operate on whimsy. It's time to start a scientific movement against superstition in all forms, and that includes religion, especially in medicine.


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