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About Intercessory Prayer: The Scientific Study of Miracles. A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit.

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About Intercessory Prayer: The Scientific Study of Miracles

A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit

William S. Harris, PhD; Manohar Gowda, MD; Jerry W. Kolb, MDiv; Christopher P. Strychacz, PhD; James L. Vacek, MD; Philip G. Jones, MS; Alan Forker, MD; James H. O'Keefe, MD; Ben D. McCallister, MD

Arch Intern Med. 1999;159:2273-2278


  • FROM TIME immemorial, prayer for the sick has been a commonresponse to the illness of a loved one.

  • In some societies andamong certain religious groups, prayer is believed to be themost important therapy that can be offered to a sick person,superseding even medical intervention.

Previous research

  • In 1988, Byrd published the results of a blinded,controlled trial of 393 patients who had been admitted to acoronary care unit (CCU) at San Francisco General Hospital,San Francisco, Calif.

  • Patients were randomly assigned to eithera usual care group, which received no organized prayer, or toan experimental, intercessory prayer group, which received remote(from outside of the hospital) prayer from persons unknown tothem.

  • Byrd reported a statistically significant beneficial effectof intercessory prayer as assessed by a summary "hospital course"score.


  • All patients admitted to the CCU at the Mid America Heart Institute(MAHI), Kansas City, Mo, over a 12-month period were eligiblefor the trial

  • New admissions were identified in the chaplain's office on adaily basis via computer. The chaplain's secretary randomlyassigned all new patients to either the usual care or prayergroup based on the last digit of the medical record number;even numbers were assigned to the prayer group and odd numbersto the usual care group.

Fig. 1 Overall distribution of patients.

Intercessory prayer team

  • Once assigned, the secretary called an intercessory prayer teamleader and gave him/her the first name of the patient to beprayed for.

  • No other information (eg, diagnosis, prognosis,age, race, socioeconomic status, or family situation) was availableto the secretary; thus, it was not passed on to the intercessors.

Team activity

  • After receiving the call fromthe secretary, the prayer team leader called the other 4 personson his/her team and directed that the name of the new patientbe entered on a log sheet provided.

  • The intercessors were askedto pray daily for the next 28 days for "a speedy recovery withno complications" and anything else that seemed appropriateto them.


  • The intercessors were recruited by the investigators via contactsin the local community.

  • In order to be an intercessor, an individualdid not need to be of any particular denomination, but he/shedid need to agree with the following statements: "I believein God. I believe that He is personal and is concerned withindividual lives. I further believe that He is responsive toprayers for healing made on behalf of the sick.”

  • Once identified,the intercessors were organized into 15 teams of 5 members (atotal of 75), each with 1 person designated as the team leader.

Effects of Intercessory Prayer on Individual Components of the Mid America Heart Institute–Cardiac Care Unit (MAHI-CCU) Score*


  • The intercessors represented a variety of Christian traditions,with 35% listing their affiliations as nondenominational, 27%as Episcopalian, and the remainder as other Protestant groupsor Roman Catholic.

  • The intercessors were predominantly women(87%), and their mean age was 56 years.

Results - PATIENTS

  • A total of 1019 patients were admitted to the CCU;1013 were randomized 484 (48%) to the prayer group and 529 (52%) to the usualcare group

  • Comorbidconditions upon admission were similar for each group Men and women were equally represented in the usual careand prayer groups (66% vs 61% men, respectively; P=.10), andthe mean age was 66 years for both groups.


  • The primary predefined end point in this trial was the weightedMAHI-CCU score. We found an 11% reduction in scoresin the prayer group (6.35±0.26) compared with the usualcare group (7.13±0.27) (P=.04).

Effects of Intercessory Prayer on Mid America Heart Institute–Cardiac Care Unit (MAHI-CCU) Scores and Length of Stay in the CCU and in the Hospital*


  • Using the unweightedMAHI-CCU score, which simply counted elements in the originalscoring system without assigning point values, the prayer grouphad 10% fewer elements (P=.04) than the usual care group

Other more sceptic reports

  • O'Laoire examined the effects ofintercessory prayer on self-esteem, anxiety, and depressionin 406 subjects (who received either no prayer, directed prayer,or nondirected prayer) and in the 90 intercessors. There wereno specific benefits detected for the prayer groups.

  • A pilotstudy of the effects of intercessory prayer on 40 recoveringalcoholics likewise reported no clinical benefit.

  • 6-month trial of "distant healing" in patients with acquiredimmune deficiency syndrome, Sicher et al found statisticallysignificant benefits for the intervention group (fewer new illnesses,physician visits, hospitalizations, and days of hospitalization;lower illness severity scores; and improved mood scores).

Natural or supernaturalexplanations

  • to "real" but currently unknownphysical forces that are "generated" by the intercessors and"received" by the patients

  • beyond the ken of science

  • By analogy, when James Lind, by clinical trial, determined thatlemons and limes cured scurvy aboard the HMS Salisbury in 1753,he not only did not know about ascorbic acid, he did not evenunderstand the concept of a "nutrient."

  • Faith is aneffective means of stress reduction, which has itself been shownto reduce cardiac morbidity.

  • Some of these benefits may derivefrom favorable hormonal, autonomic, and immunologic responsesto the emotional reassurance that belief can provide.

  • By carrying out research into the effects of “intercessory prayer” medical researchers are, in effect, attempting to study the existence of miracles, defined as an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs.

  • The issue is about prayer to a deity or his representative beings that do not exist within the known physical universe, a qualification acknowledged by most educated religious believers, which should include medical researchers who engage in the scientific investigation of natural phenomena.

  • There is no scientifically discernable effect for Intercessory Prayer (IP) as assessed in controlled studies.

  • Given that the IP literature lacks a theoretical or theological base and has failed to produce significant findings in controlled trials, we recommend that further resources not be allocated to this line of research.

  • American Heart Journal

  • “a significantly higher number of the patients who knew that they were being prayed for (59%) suffered complications, compared with 51% of those who were uncertain.”

  • “being aware of the strangers' prayers also may have caused some of the patients a kind of performance anxiety… It may have made them uncertain, wondering am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?”

  • So not only do some “scientists” seem to believe that intercessory prayer can be helpful, they are also concerned that it could be harmful.

  • But more importantly, if the concept of intercessory prayer has any meaning whatsoever, in the metaphysical sense, would that mean that the deity was not only ignoring the request, but in some instances, also punishing the supplicant as well?

An Experiment

  • To carry out a confirmatory experiment one that would leave no possibility of an alternative explanation the investigators would have to produce evidence of an effect that could only be explainable by a force unknown to science, such as the intervention of a deity or its agent.

  • There are some outcomes that could eliminate most doubt about experimental artifacts and they would have to involve dependent variables that could not occur except by divine intervention.

  • Investigators would have to identify a dependent variable that could withstand the lemon test, one that would yield clearcut results.

Regeneration of an amputated limb

  • Any amputee who wants to be included in the experimental group would be examined beforehand by a panel of physicians to ascertain that he or she is indeed an amputee.

  • DNA samples on the subjects would be taken before and after the study to ascertain that the amputee identified at the beginning would indeed actually be the person who was examined a year later.

  • There would be no limit on the sample size. No need for randomization.

Regeneration of an amputated limb

  • The subjects would present themselves at the end of the year and be examined to see if a single missing limb had been restored.

  • Any priest, minister, rabbi, or lay person would be permitted to recommend subjects for the experiment, and any could observe the examination for the regenerated limbs.

  • There should be no limitation on the number of amputees, people who pray for them, and observers to keep everything organized and uncontaminated


  • Intercessory prayer is a request to God to change his or her mind about the already established plan for the universe and make it go another way.

  • Of course, this implies that a perfect deity's plans, which would (by definition) have to be perfect, should now be altered at the urging of an imperfect being.

  • If we were speaking of magic or sorcery, or any belief systems outside of Western Judeo-Christian tradition, most investigators would agree that these ideas (of intercessory prayer's effectiveness) are ridiculous and consist of superstition at best.

Altern Ther Health Med. 2006 Nov-Dec;12(6):42-8.The effect of intercessory prayer on wound healing in nonhuman primates.Lesniak KT.

  • OBJECTIVES: This study was performed to examine the effects of intercessory prayer (IP) on wound healing and related physiological and behavioral factors in nonhuman primates. DESIGN: Twenty-two bush babies (Otolemur garnettii) with chronic self-injurious behavior (SIB) were stratified by wound severity and matched by total wound area. The animals were then randomized to IP and L-tryptophan or L-tryptophan only for treatment of SIB and related wounds. The IP intervention was conducted in a double-blind, randomized manner. Prayer was conducted daily for 4 weeks. Initiation of prayer was coincident with the first day of L-tryptophan administration. Physiological and behavioral variables were assessed at baseline and end of study. RESULTS: Following IP/L-tryptophan treatment, prayer-group animals had a reduction in wound size compared to non-prayer animals (P=.028). Prayer-group animals had a greater increase in red blood cells (P=.006), hemoglobin (P=.01), and hematocrit (P=.018); a greater reduction in both mean corpuscular hemoglobin (P=.023) and corpuscular volume (P=.008); and a reduction in wound grooming (P=.01) and total grooming behaviors (P=.04) than non-prayer-group animals. CONCLUSIONS: The results of this study are consistent with prior human trials of IP effectiveness, but suggest IP-induced health improvements may be independent of confounds associated with human participants. Findings may provide direction for study of the mechanisms of IP-induced health improvements in both human and animal models.

Perspect Biol Med. 2006 Autumn;49(4):504-14.Science, medicine, and intercessory prayer.Sloan RP, Ramakrishnan R.

  • Among the many recent attempts to demonstrate the medical benefits of religious activity, the methodologically strongest seem to be studies of the effects of distant intercessory prayer (IP). In these studies, patients are randomly assigned to receive standard care or standard care plus the prayers or "healing intentions" of distant intercessors. Most of the scientific community has dismissed such research, but cavalier rejection of studies of IP is unwise, because IP studies appear to conform to the standards of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and, as such, would have a significant advantage over observational investigations of associations between religious variables and health outcomes. As we demonstrate, however, studies of IP fail to meet the standards of RCTs in several critical respects. They fail to adequately measure and control exposure to prayer from others, which is likely to exceed IP and to vary widely from subject to subject, and whose magnitude is unknown. This supplemental prayer so greatly attenuates the differences between the treatment and control groups that sample sizes are too large to justify studies of IP. Further, IP studies generally do not specify the outcome variables, raising problems of multiple comparisons and Type 1 errors. Finally, these studies claim findings incompatible with current views of the physical universe and consciousness. Unless these problems are solved, studies of IP should not be conducted.

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