I’ve talked before about the effectiveness of prayer in promoting healing. There have been many studies on the efficacy of “intercessory prayer” in patients with heart disease who have had heart attacks and/or coronary artery bypass surgery. These studies, however, didn’t have large enough numbers to make their results statistically reliable.

Now we have a new study, which is the largest ever done on the healing power of prayer for patients with coronary bypass surgery. The mammoth study cost $2.4 million and enrolled 1802 patients. Scientists from six major U.S. medical centers divided the patients into three groups. Two groups were told they may or may not receive prayers. Unbeknownst to them, one of those groups was prayed for, and the other wasn’t. The third group was patients who knew from the outset that they were being prayed for. The prayers were all non-denominational Christian (only because the researchers could not find non-Christian groups that could work with the study’s scheduling demands).

The study’s results appeared in the April issue of The American Heart Journal, and the surprising result showed that of the three groups, the group with the patients who knew they were being prayed for did the worst. 59% of the group that knew they were being prayed for had problems, the most common of which was heart flutter or atrial fibrillation. There was virtually no difference in complication rates in the first two groups at 52%.

The researchers were quite surprised: they thought having someone praying for them might help patients relax and bring about a state of well-being, since feeling at ease, knowing there are people out there who are pulling for you, can reduce strain on the heart. Instead, those patients who knew they were being prayed for had the most problems. What can one conclude from this?

1. Prayer doesn’t work.
2. Christian prayer doesn’t work.
3. Prayer is actually harmful to patients recovering from coronary artery bypass surgery.
4. Patients who knew they were being prayed for were suffering from performance anxiety which stressed them out.
5. Patients who knew they were being prayed for thought they were chosen because they needed it the most and, therefore, expected the worst, which really stressed them out.

Or maybe science and spirituality don’t play by the same rules. Doing research on the efficacy of prayer is different from other kinds of scientific inquiry, because you can’t control all the variables. Who is doing the prayer, do they do it differently, how are they feeling while doing it, etc?

I think science should get out of the way and let patients engage in spiritual practices that comfort them. For myself, I don’t doubt the healing power of prayer, whether by Christians, Wiccans, Peyotists, drummers, or wellness communities. Prayer is good; it connects you to your truth inside, and it connects you to people and/or things outside of yourself that remind you’re not facing your struggles alone.

Pray for yourself, and pray for others. Prayer is a song of the heart that provides lift to the wings of hope.