Double Blind Prayer Experiments

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This field is in its infancy, not all experiments are treated equally, but we can take a look at the results and see what we’ve got. These experiments basically take a select bunch of people, usually religiously affiliated, or not (depending on the comparison they want) and assign them to people to pray for and they monitor the results. I’m sure this concept to many Christians sounds terrible! It sounds like putting God to the test, putting Him in a box. We’ll get into that too. 

Before we go ahead, I just wanted to make clear, God answers prayers of believers, God answers prayers of unbelievers also, that’s true of the Christian worldview, the Bible is answering prayers of both. 

When Jesus prayed he didn’t Q&A someone’s belief system before praying, he just did it, he knew what it would be after! That’s why this data is interesting. I’m always reminded of Job and other Old Testament characters who were not Jews, but God heard them. 

So what’s going on with these prayer experiments? Well some of the results are very interesting, they certainly do not contradict Christianity but the one’s presented here, align just fine with or even endorse directly Christianity. There may well be other medical journal prayer studies and we’ll critique the strongest of these negative studies, but it’s hard to deny the results of these. Oh and I’m not advocating for abandoning medicine – God gives us food as he gives us remedies and intelligence, all good things can be used or abused however.

Can science really monitor prayer?

Profesor C G Brown has written books that include Testing Prayer: Science and Healing, published by Harvard University Press, and The Healing Gods: Complementary and Alternative Medicine in Christian America, published by Oxford University Press; and she is the editor of Global Pentecostal and Charismatic Healing, also published by Oxford. Brown has taught a variety of courses at the university, including Religion, Illness, and Healing; Sickness and Health; and Evangelical and Charismatic Christianity in the Americas. She’s a popular online writer for the Huffington Post and Psychology Today, and her peer-reviewed articles have appeared in Academic Medicine and numerous other scholarly journals. So she’s field relevant!

Brown tells us medical records, x-rays, blood tests and other diagnostic methods could determine the before and after of illness or injury. Of course, you can’t prove God healed them, even if their illness disappears. There may have been medical treatment, or the placebo effect may be involved, or a spontaneous remission. But in larger prayer studies you can monitor correlations of say Christian vs non-Christian participation—we’d expect a difference if such Christian prayers could be tested like this. Generally Scienc is better at disproving things than proving, Science can’t declare a miracle, it can show you the before and after, try to assume, but there are some cases where science is left dumbfounded.

Should we do these kind of studies?

Some may think prayer experiments are wrong, that they are done by unbelieving heretics bent on “testing God.”. Does anyone really believe that a die-hard sceptic (which many doctors are) would spend valuable time and scarce research funds investigating a phenomenon which they bitterly opposed in the first place? Researchers choose topics toward which they feel cordial, not those they consider fallacious. In fact, the attitude of most prayer researchers appears to be precisely the opposite of “testing God.” 

One prayer researcher says that when she performs a prayer experiment, she is not setting a trap but opening a window through which the Almighty can manifest. Another prayer experimenter imagines that arranging a prayer experiment is like preparing an elegant meal in his home. When the table is set and the food is served, he opens the door of his house and waits patiently to see if anyone shows up. 

If a guest appears (if the experiment works), the meal was a success; if not, it’s back to the drawing board to design a more inviting situation. 

The biblical injunction against “testing God” may not have referred to the randomized, double-blind, controlled lab experiment, since this procedure did not then exist. Might the Almighty actually want to be tested in this particular way? The British physicist Russell Stannard states, “I know that it says in the Bible that we should not put God to the test, but I can’t think that God would take offence. He will probably be tickled that we are using our God-given sense of curiosity.

The final point here, regardless of these results, God answers prayer. He can bring people to Christ who’ve never heard of him, hear the prayers of those who were not believers at the time (prayer as an agnostic lead me to Christ!) so whatever the results, they are another signal that God is active. For the Christian, it’s a win-win to observe this research. We don’t expect God to answer every prayer, we don’t know fully why, but we know that’s not what he does. But the countless times non-Christians have started a prayer with “God I don’t know if you’re there but…” and has answered some of those times to those people in the simplest or most complex ways. Is this a test? Or a yearning for God? 

There are some valid cautions obviously…

First, these studies don’t take into consideration that healing seems to be clustered in certain geographical areas. J. P. Moreland made the observation that miraculous healings often break out in Third World locales where the gospel is making new inroads. 

Secondly these studies don’t recognize that certain people are reputed to have a special ‘anointing’ or success rate with healing prayer (Which some denominations will argue for, some against). 

Third, these studies obscure the presumed role of faith on the part of those offering and receiving prayer. After all, a person receiving prayer can’t respond with faith if they don’t even know someone is praying for them.

These kind of studies focus on distant intercessory prayer—intercessors are given the first name and condition of someone they don’t know and told to pray for a complication-free surgery. But when Pentecostals for example actually pray for healing, they generally get up close to someone they know; they often come in physical contact with them; and they empathize with their sufferings.That could be called proximal intercessory prayer. Jesus was certainly relational in prayer, we must note that the intention of Jesus praying and the intention of the miracles with it’s connection to the kingdom of God often.

  • Osgerby C. Scientists put intercession to the test. Church Times (England), 18 April, 1997 
  • Candy Guther Brown
  • Lee Strobel: The Case For Miracles


There was a scientific analysis of prayer’s impact on the recovery of cardiac bypass patients. It was Conducted by the founder of Harvard Medical School’s Mind/Body Medical Institute and known as STEP (Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer), the decade-long research certainly seemed to have impressive credentials. Technically, it was a prospective, randomized, double-blind, parallel group controlled trial—a so-called “gold standard” in research. It cost $2.4 million and was published in the peer-reviewed American Heart Journal. The study’s conclusion: prayer recipients fared no better than those who weren’t prayed for.

Still, there are ways that science and medicine can contribute to the investigation of the supernatural. It’s true that miracles can’t be analyzed in a test tube; however, it is also true that test tubes can be used to determine whether a virus has suddenly disappeared from the blood of a hepatitis patient immediately after prayer—important corroboration for a claim of a supernatural healing.

So what can we say in response to this STEP study? Does this study really establish that when scientific analysis is applied, there is no persuasive evidence for the miraculous?

STEP: Response: Why were the results so different?

Wouldn’t it be important who was praying, who they were praying to, and how they were praying? In the Byrd study (we’ll get to that after), the intercessors were ‘born again’ Protestants and Catholics, who were active in daily devotional prayer and in fellowship with a local church. They were praying to the ‘Judeo-Christian God.’” In the Harris study, the intercessors were required to believe in a personal God who hears and answers prayers made on behalf of the sick.” Again, that seems entirely appropriate. 

The only Protestants recruited to participate in the STEP study were from Silent Unity of Lee’s Summit, Missouri. If you don’t know who they are, alarm bells should be going off! Unity isn’t genuinely Christian. They claim to be Christian—the group’s full name is the Unity School of Christianity but many Christian scholars wouldn’t give them that label. They trace themselves back to the New Thought movement of the late nineteenth century. 

Professor Brown says this “I have studied Christian apologetics, or evidence for the faith, for decades, and I am a professor of Christian thought at a university. Never have I encountered any expert on religious movements who would classify Unity as being traditionally Christian in its theology”.

Unity’s attitude towards prayer is important:

  1. Unity leaders have long denied that prayer works miracles and have even called petitionary prayers ‘useless.’
  2. The Cofounder of the sect, Charles Fillmore, once wrote, “God never performs miracles, if by this is meant a departure from universal law.”
  3. The other founder, his wife, Myrtle, said, “We do not promise to say a prayer of words and have the saying work a miracle in another individual. Our work is to call attention to the true way of living and to inspire others to want to live in that true way.”
  4. The group practices what it calls “affirmative prayer,” which involves repeating positive statements, such as, “We are imbued with divinity and are physically healthy.” 
  5. The sect’s website reads, “When most people think of prayer, they think of asking God for something. Not so in Unity. Unity uses ‘affirmative prayer.’ Rather than begging or beseeching God, this method involves connecting with the spirit of God within and asserting positive beliefs about the desired outcome.”
  6. Unity doesn’t believe in miracles the way we talk about them.  
  7. Unity doesn’t believe in a personal God outside of us who intervenes in our lives
  8. Unity doesn’t believe it’s appropriate to ask God for help in our individually lives when it comes to supernatural prayers.

For all these reasons, what did you expect?! Their prayers are no different from an atheist in that regard. This means you can’t draw any conclusions about the effectiveness of traditional Christian prayer from STEP. “That’s right,” she replied. “None.” Dr Brown said, “it is instructive on how not to conduct a study of Christian prayer.”

  • Quoting May Rowland, Silent Unity’s director from 1916 to 1971; see Neal Vahle, The Unity Movement: Its Evolution and Spiritual Teachings (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press, 2002), 246–47. 
  • Charles Fillmore, Christian Healing (Lee’s Summit, MO: Unity School of Christianity, 1954), 162, quoted in Tucker, Another Gospel, 184–85. 
  • Myrtle Fillmore, Myrtle Fillmore’s Healing Letters (Unity Village, MO: Unity Books, 1988), 106. 
  • “What Is Affirmative Prayer?”, emphasis added.

Successful Experiments

The most celebrated twentieth-century prayer study involving humans was published in 1988 by physician Randolph Byrd, a staff cardiologist at UC San Francisco School of Medicine. This has been written up in 2 peer-reviewed secular medical journals. Byrd randomized 393 patients in the coronary care unit at San Francisco General Hospital to either a group receiving intercessory prayer or to a control group. Intercessory prayer was offered by groups outside the hospital; they were not instructed how often to pray, but only to pray as they saw fit. In this double-blind study, in which neither the patients, physicians, nor nurses knew who was receiving prayer, the prayed-for patients did better on several counts.

In the group that prayed it consisted of born-again Christians, both Catholics and Protestants, were given the patient’s first name, condition, and diagnosis. They were instructed to pray to the Judeo-Christian God “for a rapid recovery and for prevention of complications and death, in addition to other areas of prayer they believed to be beneficial to patients. 

They were monitored in 26 categories and those who were prayed for were statistically better, statistically better in 21 out of 26 categories. There were fewer deaths in the prayer group (although this factor was not statistically significant); they were less likely to require endotracheal intubation and ventilator support; they required fewer potent drugs including diuretics and antibiotics; they experienced a lower incidence of pulmonary edema; they required cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) less often. 

Byrd’s study illustrates some of the effects of intercessory prayer in humans. Studies like this professor Brown has stated these are gold standard studies in the scholarly community, thus the medical journal publishing.

The Praxis, which is the little snippet in the medical journal presents upfront says this.

The therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer (IP) to the Judeo-Christian God, one of the oldest forms of therapy, has had little attention in the medical literature. To evaluate the effects of IP in a coronary care unit (CCU) population, a prospective randomized double-blind protocol was followed. Over ten months, 393 patients admitted to the CCU were randomized, after signing informed consent, to an intercessory prayer group (192 patients) or to a control group (201 patients). While hospitalized, the first group received IP by participating Christians praying outside the hospital; the control group did not. At entry, chi-square and stepwise logistic analysis revealed no statistical difference between the groups. 

After entry, all patients had follow-up for the remainder of the admission. The IP group subsequently had a significantly lower severity score based on the hospital course after entry (P less than .01). Multivariant analysis separated the groups on the basis of the outcome variables (P less than .0001). The control patients required ventilatory assistance, antibiotics, and diuretics more frequently than patients in the IP group. These data suggest that intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God has a beneficial therapeutic effect in patients admitted to a CCU….

A decade or so later, a replication study by Dr. William S. Harris and colleagues was published in the Archives of Internal Medicine this also was considered a gold standard study of the effects of intercessory prayer on almost a thousand consecutively admitted coronary patients. Half received prayer; the other half didn’t. And again, the group that received prayer had better outcomes than the control group.”

Another major medical school Professor Gary Habermas talks about from his research on these prayer studies is these experiments and that wanted a socially PC group of prayers. They used medicine men, 3rd world spiritual people, guru’s etc. In this experiment, if you were prayed for you were slightly worse off than those who weren’t prayed for! OH the irony! And the ones who weren’t prayed for got better a little faster. 

Habermas mentions another study with 2000 people in Kansas City. The results were published in another medical journal statistically supporting prayer to the Judeo-Christian God and all the successful prayers were from Orthodox Christians. This caused the Duke university researcher to ask this question “What? What is this? God only answers prayers from Christians?!”. Only Christian prayers were answered in the study. Only three had positive results of prayers and all 3 were evangelical Christians—That’s why the professor from Duke wasn’t happy. 

So there you have it, the prayer studies have been positive for Christianity and the main opposing study STEM turns out to have used bad source material! Now this isn’t to say They couldn’t be better, Christians see a Jesus who was relational, personal, up-close with people in prayer. These studies arn’t globing the whole way, but what is fascinating is when these sceptics try to prove God doesn’t act, there are correlations to say that he does. 

This is a fascinating point in a cumulative case for miracles.

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