Does Healing Prayer Work?
Also known as intercessory prayer, the most definitive, rigorous, recent clinical scientific studies failed to find any significant effects of being prayed for by others.
Growing up in a Southern Baptist land, Texas, and then my 32 or so years in the Episcopal church, I can remember well people being requested to be put on prayer lists or to be prayed for. Even now, Buddhist and secular as I am, in this heavily Christian fundamentalist South Carolina culture, I often will tells others I’ll ‘pray’ for them or remember them in my prayers, etc. For many years I’d say something like, “I’ll remember you in my thoughts,” or, “meditation,” which would usually bring puzzled looks. It just didn’t translate culturally. To make things easier for myself and less socially awkward, I have gone back to using the word ‘prayers’, as opposed to ‘thoughts’ or ‘meditations.’ Certainly, I wouldn’t say I would do a healing shamanic journey for them. Heaven forbid!
Do intercessory prayers by third parties help to heal others? And similarly by extension, do healing spells/rituals by Wiccans,neo-Pagans, or Shamans help? Do these really cause or facilitate healing? The short answer from the science appears to be, no. There is no real evidence that they do. In science-speak, both of these large studies failed to reject the null hypothesis of ‘no effect.’ Both of these recent studies were of the premier experimental design: double blind, randomized, and with large sample sizes, 750 in the Duke (2005) study, and ~1500 in the 2006 Harvard University study. The Harvard study used distance prayer in that the prayers were done from a distance; i.e., not in near proximity or location of the prayee. The Duke study in addition used healing touch and music. No significant effect was seen in all cases.
This is not to say there are positive benefits to prayers. They can be soothing, connecting us to something bigger than ourselves, and that we are not alone, etc. Just that there is no rigorous scientific evidence that intersessional prayer helps in healing others. For example, my own experience using of hypnosis and visualization even if it didn’t directly interceed, gave the patient a sense of self-control, a tool, something they could use in their own behalf. Plus, I have seen the powerful effects with hypnosis for pain relief with cancer and other maladies.
Which brings me to back to Paganism, including shamanism.:Although not part of these studies (or any I’ve seen), by extension my guess is that these too have no significant effect. Boo.