Faith & Reason: The power of praying by numbers

Faith & Reason; An experiment to discover if prayer aids the recovery of heart patients may well prove positive
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There is that moment in countless films when our hero is lying on the operating table. The blips from the monitor in the corner begin to falter. "We're losing him, Dr Ferguson, we're losing him!" Beads of perspiration appear on the surgeon's troubled brow. "There's one last thing I can try: but I'll need your help, nurse."

What that last thing is I never know. Since the age of six I have fainted at the very mention of blood, and my eyes will have been closed long before this scene began. So for all I know, the operating theatre staff assume an attitude of prayer, on their knees around the endangered patient. Miraculously, this being the movies, the blip starts up again.

This being real life, though, what happens when a similar technique is attempted? We might soon be able to find out. The Templeton Foundation, an organisation set up by a Wall Street millionaire to fund progress in religion, is sponsoring an experiment to judge the effect of prayer on heart patients in three American hospitals. Two groups of 600 patients will be told that they might be prayed for, though only one group actually will be. A third group will know that they are being prayed for. The medical staff will be kept in the dark, merely keeping a record of all the patients' progress over a two-year period.

There are several methodological problems for the research team to overcome. The first, which I should have thought pretty basic, is the lack of a fourth, control group, made up of 600 people who believe they are not being prayed for and don't particularly want to be. Otherwise the effect of believing that one is possibly being prayed for cannot be gauged.

Second, there is what the researchers call, disparagingly, "background noise", meaning extraneous prayers from the patients and their relatives. This being the case, the experiment will be measuring the effect, not of the presence or absence of prayer, but of different degrees of prayer.

Another, slight, worry for the research team is that their activities might just incur divine displeasure. "Do not put the Lord your God to the test," said Moses, quoted by Jesus in the wilderness, or, as Alexander Pope put it, rather more elegantly, "presume not God to scan". Perhaps they need to make clear that this is a statistical experiment, not a challenge, and no patients will be put at risk in order to goad God into intervening.

Despite all this, my prediction is that the experiment will suggest that prayer does work. Those who know they are being prayed for will score, say, 20 per cent higher on whatever scale is used: survival rate, speed of recovery, etc. Those who have been prayed for without their knowledge will score 15 per cent higher. This is not quite wild speculation. A similar experiment with heart patients in the mid-1980s is reported to have shown that the prayed-for patients did significantly better "on several outcome measures".

But if so, what will be the consequences? The first, this being America, is that the grieving relatives of any of the unprayed-for and by-then- dead patients will sue the researchers for negligence. The second is that researchers will make a fat living attempting to pinpoint which types of prayer were the ones that worked, and then trying them on different diseases. The third is that an eager group will try to "mormonise" the world, collecting the names and biographical details of whole nations in order to heal everybody for Christ.

Finally, another group, with me in it, will ask these interceders just what they intend to do to support the hundreds of thousands of people, in developing countries, for instance, whose lives they have extended by their prayers. For if God invites us to participate in one part of the work of recreating and redeeming the world, he wants us to share in the whole lot. In fact, a bit more effort put into the normal means of keeping people alive - such as providing food and clean water, preventing bloodshed, trading fairly - might be more the sort of healing that God had in mind.

Death and the means of death are part of God's purpose for us all, whether prayed about or not. An experiment that makes this uncomfortable fact more difficult to grasp, by suggesting a miraculous alternative, does nobody any good.

Faith & Reason is edited by Paul Vallely