Religious skeptics often point to the results from the Templeton prayer study (Dusek et al., 2002; Benson et al., 2004), which is the largest study of intercessory prayer to be conducted to date, to claim prayer doesn’t work. In fact, they point to the results, which suggest prayers made things worse for those to whom prayers were directed. Below I have summarized the study methodology and results before offering the limitations that should be considered before making such assertions.
The authors of the study collected data from 1,802 patients in six hospitals in the United States and randomly assigned them to 1 of 3 groups: 604 were told they may or may not receive prayers and they received intercessory prayers; 597 were told they may or may not receive prayers and they did not receive prayers; and 601 received prayers after being told they would receive prayers.
Christians prayed for 14 days from afar, starting the night before patients were going to coronary artery bypass surgery. They were asked to give a very specific prayer “for a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications” to a person they had never met who was identified only by a first name and last initial. They were not given pictures or any other identifying information about the patients.
“In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.” (Benson et al., 2004, p. 934).
Several major limitations should be acknowledged. Firstly, the prayers were given to strangers from a distance to whom the people prayers had no emotional or personal attachment. One could assert such prayers would not have the power as those people give to their loved ones undergoing surgery.
“Although the intercessors were motivated to participate in the trial, they received limited information without feedback on the patient’s condition, did not know or have any communication with patients or their families, used a standard study intention during their prayers, and prayed for patients in groups 1 and 3 for study-specific 14 days (anticipated maximum duration of inpatient stay for at least 95% of subjects). Before the start of this study, intercessors reported that they usually receive information about the patient’s age, sex, and progress reports on their medical condition, converse with family members or the patient (not by fax from a third party), use individualized prayers of their own choosing, and pray for a variable period based on patient or family request. Our rationale for altering the way in which intercessory prayer is routinely provided was to enable us to standardize the initiation and duration of intercessory prayer, to assess compliance with provision of study prayer, and to direct the intercessors away from praying for everyone in the trial (by focusing on praying for those assigned to groups 1 and 3).” (Benson et al., 2004, p. 941).
A second limitation is that the people praying were told to use a specific canned phrase with which they may or may not have been comfortable. Thirdly, the patients had varying opinions on the efficacy of prayer, which may have impacted results.
“Similar proportions in group 1 (68.2% [412/604]), group 2 (63.0% [376/597]), and group 3 (64.4% [387/601]) strongly agreed with the statement, ‘I believe in spiritual healing.’” (Benson et al., 2004, p. 937).
A fourth limitation Christians may note relates to the specific religious sects chosen for the study. Though we were not given any other information about the beliefs of those praying for the patients, we were given the names of their sects: St. Paul’s Monastery in St. Paul (Catholic), Minnesota, Silent Unity in Lee’s Summit, Missouri (Universalist), and the Community of Teresian Carmelites in Worcester, Massachusetts (Catholic). Silent Unity is a sect of “New Thought,” which focuses on spirituality, transcendentalism and pantheism. They call themselves Christians but do not affirm all of Jesus’ teachings, such as “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one gets to the Father except through the Son.” The organization’s website states: “Unity is a positive, practical, progressive approach to Christianity based on the teachings of Jesus and the power of prayer. Unity honors the universal truths in all religions and respects each individual’s right to choose a spiritual path.” (https://www.unityworldwideministries.org/about). They also “offer inspiration and support to millions of people who consider themselves to be spiritual but not religious.” ( https://www.unity.org/about-us/mission-vision). The website further states: “We create our life experiences through our way of thinking. One way to align ourselves with Spirit is through meditations.” (https://www.unity.org/prayer/silent-unity-meditations).
The final limitation is the most significant. “Almost all subjects believed that friends, relatives, and/or members of their religious institution would be praying for them—group 1 (95.0% [574/604]), group 2 (96.8% [579/597]), and group 3 (96.0% [577/601]).”
In other words, the study authors did not nor could not control for the prayers from patients’ loved ones for reasons of ethicality and practicality. The study authors further acknowledged this limitation, along with the limitation that the patients may have prayed for themselves. This limitation alone is enough to question the validity and reliability of the results.
“The finding that intercessory prayer, as provided in this study, had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG may be due to the study limitations. Understanding why certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications will require additional study. Private or family prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, and the results of this study do not challenge this belief.” (Benson et al.,2004, p. 942).
Benson, H., Dusek, J.A., Sherwood, J.B., Lam, P., Bethea, C.F., Carpenter, W., Levitsky, S., Hill, P.C., Clem, D.W., Jain, M.K., Drumel, D. Kopecky, S.L., Mueller, P.S., Marek, D., Rollins, S. & Hibberd, P.L. (2004). Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: A multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. American Heart Journal, 151(4), 934-942.
Dusek, J.A., Sherwood, J.B., Friedman, R., Myers, P., Bethea, C.F., Levitsky, S., Hill, P.C., Jain, M.K., Kopecky, S.L., Mueller, P.S. Lam, P., Benson, H. & Hibberd, P.L. (2002). Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP): Study design and research methods. American Heart Journal, April, 577-584.