Does Prayer Work?,Nicole Scott,Free Inquiry

Even though about 84 percent of the world population is religiously affiliated, the question of whether praying for someone can give that person some health benefits is still relatively understudied.

This likely is because the topic is controversial: for religious people, applying quantified measures to the effects of prayer sounds blasphemous. Similarly, for secular ones, it appears to be legitimizing superstition and a largely moot effort.

The situation is in no way made easier when academic publications are considered. The results of existing experimental studies of the efficacy of intercessory prayer (praying on behalf of others) in medicine are often criticized for their design from all positions: see, for instance, the famous 2006 study of cardiac bypass patients by celebrity cardiologist Herbert Benson and others and its critique by M. W. Krucoff, et al. (See also Brian Bolton, “Have Christians Accepted the Scientific Conclusion That God Does Not Answer Intercessory Prayer?” Free Inquiry, December 2018/January 2019.)An interesting, solid review of literature about prayer and medicine can be also found in a recent book by Jeff Levin.

It is really difficult to design experiments in such a way that would completely eliminate the experimenter’s bias, and the results are also mixed. Additionally, most experimental studies focus on people who already suffer from some medical condition. There are virtually no studies of intercessory prayer on behalf of healthy individuals, especially over a longer period of time.

It would be fascinating to be able to study the long-term effects of intercessory prayer on longevity, for people who are not ill already. But where to find them?

By mere chance, I was attending a Roman Catholic wedding of a family member, and one element of the Holy Mass struck me: there is a part when the whole congregation was praying for the well-being of the local bishop, who was also mentioned by name. I started to wonder if this is a more structured phenomenon. As I investigated the issue, I found that the whole Roman Catholic Mass is highly regulated by the Roman Missal and that, in fact, the part where all participants pray for their bishop specifically is a fixed part of any Mass.

This finding got me thinking, and I started calculating. Jointly with my two coinvestigators, Natalia Banasik-Jemielniak and Wojciech Pędzich, I studied the official Church statistics for Mass attendance in six different countries. We discovered that a typical bishop receives over one million prayers per annum, and in Mexico as many as twelve million!

If prayers can be cumulated and if they have some effect on longevity, in such an exorbitant number they should provide a clearly noticeable effect. To check if they do, we downloaded data from Wikidata, an open-source repository of structured data, on the lifespan of 857 Roman Catholic bishops who died over the past thirty years from the studied countries. We also collected similar data about 500 notable priests and 3,038 male academics.

We measured the covariance of the mean length of life, controlled for nationality. We discovered that bishops live longer than priests. However, due to a marginal effect size, this result should be treated with caution. Additionally, there are several good reasons priests live shorter lives than bishops that are not related to the number of prayers received. First, priests have much lower dispositional incomes (salaries and perks), and the income-mortality gradient is higher at low-income levels. Second, they often come from a lower social class and have lower social capital accumulated, which is known to translate to lower longevity. Third, bishops are somewhat preselected for longer life in such a comparison, because to become a bishop one has to have been a priest for many years (the minimum age to become a bishop is thirty-five, but the average is much higher). Some priests simply die before they can even be seriously considered for the role.

In our study, recently published in the top-tier academic Journal of Religion and Health, we found that the studied bishops did not live longer than male academics. Additionally, no difference was found between the mean length of life of bishops from the largest and smallest dioceses. If the number of intercessory prayers affected longevity, it should manifest there. It appears that the effect of rote intercessory prayers, even in massive numbers, is not observable.

It is worth noting that our study, by design, cannot tell anything about all kinds of prayer. It is studying only Roman Catholic prayers, of a very specific kind: rote intercessory prayers, repeated mechanically as a part of a Mass ritual, and most likely without any major emotional involvement, attachment to the person prayed for, or spatial proximity.

Because it is an observational cohort study rather than an experiment, it also cannot account for many variables that may affect the outcome. For instance, we do not have the exact data on bishops’ overall funding, including ample perks or health benefits, and these factors likely affect longevity. While the given two are not a problem for our study because they would further contribute to rather than negate the possible effect of prayer, there are other factors, such as obesity or alcohol consumption, that could nullify any positive results of prayers—even if there were some.

However, given the enormous numbers of rote intercessory prayers that bishops receive both every year and in total in their lifetime—several orders of magnitude higher than is in the case of most other people—we believe it is relatively safe to assume that if there were any effect, it should clearly stand out. Moreover, because we compared bishops from the largest and smallest dioceses and found no difference in their longevity, we can conclude that the effect of millions of intercessory prayers on longevity is not observable.

We hope that our study will pave the way for a new academic field of computational theology, and we welcome other similar analyses as well as further research.

References

Banasik-Jemielniak, N., D. Jemielniak, and W. Pędzich. “Intercessory Rote Prayer, Life Longevity and the Mortality of Roman Catholic Bishops: An Exploratory Study.” Journal of Religion and Health (2021) DOI:10.1007/s10943-021-01214-9.

Benson, H., A. Dusek, J. B. Sherwood, et al. “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in Cardiac Bypass Patients: A Multicenter Randomized Trial of Uncertainty and Certainty of Receiving Intercessory Prayer.” American Heart Journal 151 (2006)  (4), 934–942. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ahj.2005.05.028.

Krucoff, M. W., S. W. Crater, and K. L. Lee. “From Efficacy to Safety Concerns: A Step Forward or a Step Back for Clinical Research and Intercessory Prayer?: The Study of Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP).” American Heart Journal 151 (2006)  (4), 762–764. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ahj.2005.06.031.

Levin, J. Religion and Medicine. A History of the Encounter between Humanity’s Two Greatest Institutions. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Even though about 84 percent of the world population is religiously affiliated, the question of whether praying for someone can give that person some health benefits is still relatively understudied. This likely is because the topic is controversial: for religious people, applying quantified measures to the effects of prayer sounds blasphemous. Similarly, for secular ones, …