Thy Will Be Done

Blind studies and unanswered prayers

Illustration by Sean Kelly

"Okay. Now sit up. That's great. And close your eyes and relax all your muscles, starting with your feet, your calves, your thighs. Loosen up your belt. Shrug your shoulders around. Roll your head and neck around—just loosen up."

Herbert Benson, M.D., the president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute and an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, spoke in a voice of implacable serenity, and I did what I was told. Benson is the author of The Relaxation Response, which has sold some four million copies since it was published, in 1975, and he was demonstrating some of the techniques he uses to help people achieve a more beneficial state of mind. People pay considerable sums to attend seminars at which Benson introduces those techniques, and from my own experience I must admit that there is much to recommend them.

However, I had come to Benson's consulting room to learn not about relaxation but about his most recent research project, which has to do with prayer and healing. Specifically, it involves what is known as "intercessory prayer": prayer offered by one person for another's welfare—in this case, another person's recovery from illness. Benson has mounted a controversial scientific effort to determine what may be indeterminable: whether intercessory prayer "works."

Benson came to this question gradually. His medical training was in cardiology, which led him to an interest in hypertension, and ultimately to the idea that a reduction in mental stress could have positive physical consequences: the "relaxation response." The notion that there is a connection, however hard to define, between state of mind and state of body is by now so widely accepted that it's hard to remember how much resistance ideas like Benson's initially met. Meditation and similar techniques were one way of producing a state of mental well-being, Benson maintained, and he came to believe that meditation's close kin, repetitive personal prayer, might be another. His own religious background is Judaism, and though he is not observant, he is a believer in God. He has speculated in his writings that human beings are "wired for God": for evolutionary purposes, believing in God and an afterlife might have conferred a survival advantage. In 1995 Benson established the first course on spirituality and healing at Harvard Medical School (though interest in the subject there goes back at least to William James). Around the same time he began to think about taking his research on prayer into another dimension.

By now a significant body of research backs up the notion that personal prayer can be a healthful activity, if only because of the placebo effect. Remote intercessory prayer, in behalf of patients who don't know they are being prayed for, is quite another matter. Here the benefits from what may merely be psychic self-delusion are missing, and prayer has to speak for itself.

Herbert Benson is not alone in his inquiries—studies of intercessory prayer have been under way at Duke University and at Temple University. Such investigations have a long history. In the nineteenth century Sir Francis Galton tried by various means to evaluate the efficacy of intercessory prayer. For instance, he looked at the lifespan of members of royal houses, assuming that royalty would be the most prayed-for people in any kingdom, but found, as he reported in The Fortnightly Review in 1872, that royal personages were "literally the shortest-lived of all who have the advantage of affluence," even when deaths by accident or violence were excluded. Galton also examined maritime records to determine whether there was any difference in the rate of misadventure at sea between vessels carrying missionaries to distant lands and vessels plying the same routes but engaged in trade, including the slave trade. Insurance companies, he discovered, "absolutely ignore the slightest difference between them."

The use of double-blind clinical trials to investigate intercessory prayer was pioneered in a 1965 study conducted by C.R.B. Joyce and R.M.C. Welldon at the London Hospital Medical College. They assigned patients afflicted with "stationary or progressively deteriorating psychological or rheumatic disease" to two groups: one was prayed for by volunteers, often in teams, and the other was not. The patients were not told they were participating in a clinical trial, and the examining physicians did not know to which group the patients were assigned. After many months the researchers assessed the conditions of the "treated" and "control" patients and discerned no clear pattern.

In 1988 Randolph C. Byrd, of the San Francisco General Medical Center, reported on a study he had conducted of 393 patients in a coronary-care unit, roughly half of whom unknowingly "received IP" from born-again Christians who prayed for them by first name outside the hospital. Byrd determined that the control patients "required ventilatory assistance, antibiotics, and diuretics more frequently than patients in the IP group," and concluded that "intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God has a beneficial therapeutic effect."

In 1999 the cardiologist William S. Harris and several colleagues published a study similar to Byrd's in the Archives of Internal Medicine. The Harris study involved 990 patients admitted to the coronary-care unit at the Mid America Heart Institute, in Kansas City, Missouri. Once again patients were randomly assigned without their knowledge to a treatment or a control group, with the treatment group being prayed for by a team of outside intercessors. The study found that the treatment group registered better outcomes on a specially devised coronary-health scale. "This result," Harris and his colleagues concluded, "suggests that prayer may be an effective adjunct to standard medical care." The authors skirted the question of the precise causal mechanism, noting that "when James Lind, by clinical trial, determined that lemons and limes cured scurvy aboard the HMS Salisbury in 1753, he not only did not know about ascorbic acid, he did not even understand the concept of a 'nutrient.'"

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Cullen Murphy

Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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