Does Prayer Work?

Yes and no.

Posted Sep 30, 2019

Research consistently shows that prayer can have numerous benefits. For example, prayer can be a solid source of self-soothing and self-comfort when one is experiencing pain, coping with loss, or dealing with traumatic circumstances. Prayer can also be of benefit as a form of concentrated mental motivation for achieving personal goals. Prayer can also help people focus on the well-being of others. And, of course, when one finds oneself in a hopeless or helpless situation, with no real options, no clear solution, and no actionable form of alleviation, then prayer is something to engage in to—at the very least—make one feel like one is doing at least something in the face of dire circumstances.

Clearly, people pray because it makes them feel better, or makes them feel hope, or makes them feel love, or makes them feel just a welcomed hair shy of being utterly powerless. So, concerning all of the above, it can be said that prayer works.

But when it comes to prayer as a form of asking for something from a divine source and then getting it — there is simply no empirical evidence that such mental messaging to an invisible deity works. All stories of “answered prayers” are merely anecdotal, and nothing more.

The scientific study of the efficacy of prayer has been going on for at least 150 years, starting with the work of British statistician Francis Galton. Back in the 1870s, Galton wondered about the fact that the British Royal Family received far more prayers on its behalf than everyone else, since praying for the royal family was a structured part of Sunday services throughout Great Britain. Shouldn’t they, then, be of better health and live longer than average British citizens who didn’t receive such prayers?

Of course, Galton found that the royal family did not, on average, live longer or enjoy better health than anyone else, despite all the prayers on their behalf. Galton also prayed over randomly selected parcels of land, but found that his prayers had no effect on which sections of land bore more abundant plant life.

Fast forward to 2006, the year the Templeton Foundation funded the most rigorous, empirically sound study of the possible positive effects of prayer ever conducted in the history of science. The study — which received over $2.4 million dollars in funding — was double-blind and involved a control group and an experimental group.

The researchers randomly divided up over 1,800 coronary bypass heart surgery patients, from six different hospitals, into three groups: the first group had Christians praying for them; Christians prayed that the selected heart patients would have “a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications”—and the patients in this group were told that people might or might not be praying for them. The second group of heart patients was not prayed for, but they were also told that they might or might not have people praying for them. The third group was prayed for, and these patients were told that they were definitely being prayed for. The Christians that were doing all the praying were given the first name and last initial of the specific patients they were to pray for.

The result: There was virtually no difference in the recovery trajectories of each group, with all three groups experiencing more or less the same rates and levels of complications. The only minor differences that did arise actually worked against the prayers: 18 percent of the patients who had been prayed for suffered major complications such as strokes or heart attacks, compared to only 13 percent of the patients who did not receive any prayers.

There was also a Duke University study, back in 2003. In this three-year experiment, nearly 750 heart patients in nine different hospitals, all slated for coronary surgery, were prayed for by a variety of religious people, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Jews. The results of this double-blind experiment were similarly conclusive: there were no significant differences in the recoveries or health outcomes of those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. Other studies have all found the same results. 

In sum, no empirical, scientifically rigorous evidence has ever been brought forth proving the power of prayer. And just think about it: if praying produced the prayed-for outcomes, no prayed-for mothers would ever die of breast cancer, no prayed-for teenagers would ever die on the operating table, no prayed-for dogs or cats would ever fail to return home, and tens of millions of praying people would never die from starvation resulting from a lack of rain. Three hundred million people have died from smallpox in the 20th century alone — clearly, all of their prayers, and their parents’ prayers, and their children’s prayers, and their spouses’ prayers, did not have the desired healing effect.

None of the above means, of course, that people don’t experience wondrous, inexplicable things all the time, or that every now and then, someone’s prayers appear to have been answered. Such things happen frequently: a wife is told that her dying husband has a zero chance of recovery. Prayers are prayed. And then—voila—the husband suddenly recovers, astonishing the doctors who are left dumbstruck, unable to explain his recovery. It’s nothing short of a miracle.

While these things do happen, what is far and away more common is that the husband dies—a heap of fervent prayers notwithstanding. And also note that for every person who miraculously recovers, there’s another perfectly healthy person who suddenly, for no apparent reason, drops dead of some minor illness, or strange disease, or undetected aneurism, or stroke, or infection. Such is the precarious randomness of the human body and its functioning—people sometimes recover when all odds are against them, but more often than not, they don't.

Despite all of the evidence showing that prayers don’t work in the way they're intended, prayer is still what most humans do when there’s nothing left for them to do in dire, scary, or painful situations. And if it does provide them with even a modicum of comfort and hope during such times, so be it.