The leader of the experiments, Professor Russell Stannard of the Open University, is keeping an open mind on what might result. "God's got a will of His own and might decide not to co-operate."
The tests - funded by the John Templeton Foundation, a charitable organisation aimed at the progress of religion - will involve three groups of 600 patients. Two groups will be told they may be prayed for by a special praying team; one actually will be prayed for, the other will not, but neither will know for certain who is in the team's thoughts.
A third group will know they are being prayed for and will be monitored to determine if that knowledge has a psychosomatic effect on their symptoms.
Prof Stannard, who has given the financial go-ahead for the project to be conducted at three American hospitals over two years, said its purpose was merely "to find out what happens".
"The foundation is not going into the experiment hoping that there will be a positive effect. We are genuinely interested in any experimentation which has a bearing on religion," said Prof Stannard.
"Obviously, if it turns out that there is a positive result, that will be extremely interesting.
"It would open up whole areas of research, such as different methods of prayer, and prayer for different illnesses."
Prof Stannard, who sees no contradiction in being a Christian and a scientist, said a result showing no significant difference between the groups would not necessarily prove prayer did not help. He said people might pray for themselves and receive prayers from close friends and family unaccounted- for prayer known scientifically as "unwanted background noise".Reuse content