Praying for the Sick does NOT work

dont pray for sickEpiphenom posted a great review of a 2009 meta-analysis that firmly shows that prayer for the sick does not work. So don’t waste your time. Instead, visit them, send them money, write them letters, help their families.  Practical compassion helps people while kneeling, squinting and talking in your head to an imaginary spirit is a waste of time.

Source: Roberts L, Ahmed I, Hall S, & Davison A (2009). Intercessory prayer for the alleviation of ill health. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2)

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Filed under Philosophy & Religion

15 responses to “Praying for the Sick does NOT work

  1. Renee

    Can you pray for the healthy then?

    Maybe those who are healthy can reach those who are sick.

  2. Did the study take into account that maybe people feel emotionally better when someone in the room is praying for them? Why not just include all your ideas AND let people pray. No harm, no foul.

  3. @T4T
    It was a meta-analysis and thus looked at many studies. But the sort of studies looked at were only testing magic prayer — so they controlled for the effect of the patient knowing that other people are praying for them.

    You could ask Epiphenom if “I will pray for you” has been tested. I could imagine a study where you tell people you will pray for them but don’t and compare it to folks who are never told someone is praying for them. You wouldn’t have to worry about people actually praying for them secretly, because we know that magic prayer does NOT work.

  4. Why pray at all, it’s just talking to yourself anyhow. At best, it might be slightly beneficial, only to yourself, if it helps you sort out your problems, but expecting some imaginary man in the sky to come and solve them for you is ludicrous.

    There are no miracles forthcoming, if someone heals a sick person, thank a doctor, not a figment of your imagination in the sky.

  5. Im sure prayer works in a similar way a placebo does for some people. They just believe it and thats good enough to do some change to their physiology. The thing is, its not the same for all people. No sense in trying to get rid of it totally. I have a sneaky suspicion it may be one part evolution, one part hocus pocus. 🙂

  6. Jason

    Thought I’d cut ‘n paste this from the reply I left on Epiphenom’s article, since it seems like it fits here as well. Sorry if this is common knowledge to most of you all but I come back to this line of thought time and again when someone declares they’ll pray for me:

    …We can expand on this as well. A while back I read a blog post in which the poster wondered how prayer can ever work. Let’s assume (as most religions do) that a god is omnipotent: all knowing, all encompassing. When we encounter a situation which requires prayer, we pray and pray for God to intervene and throw his/her benevolence our way. We deserve it–we’re good religious folks, really. Why shouldn’t God create a miracle (or change his mind about this) just this once? The only thing is, our omnipotent God knows exactly what the outcome of this situation will be. In fact, he’s known for eons. He knows whether the outcome will go well for you, or not… We even pray that he “change his mind” when it looks as if he’s given the ominous “NO” or “MAYBE” answer, when it is implicit that an omnipotent god cannot “change his mind”. God will have known what he will do at any particular instant in time from day 1! Changing of one’s mind requires a mortal limitation of not knowing at one point exactly what your decision may be at another point. Omnipotence forbids this.

    This is independent of any psychological implications which some claim may help say, a terminally ill patient live a month longer due to “the healing power of prayer”. A god will have always known when and how said patient will live or die…and no amount of praying will have any effect on it.


  7. Pseudonym

    I think it’s also important to take two distinct scenarios into account: the case where the people praying for you are people you know and the case where they are people you don’t know.

    It may be possible (and I have no way of knowing, obviously) that knowing that you’re being prayed for by people you don’t know may have an adverse outcome, because it might give you a kind of performance anxiety. Being prayed for by people you do know, on the other hand, might improve your outcome because you have something to live for.

    How you could persuade a religious community NOT to pray for someone they care about is an open question.

  8. In these cases, they control for “Knowing someone is praying for you” — they are simply testing whether prayer is magic.
    They are not testing the nice warm fuzzy effect of know people care. But I wonder what that effect turns out to be.

  9. I’m glad I got prayer when I was really sick. I had this terrible upper respiratory infection. It kept me up at night. Lots of nasty mucus and I was coughing continually with my asthma flaring.

    I was out of town at a conference and I was so miserable my husband wanted to cut our trip short and take me home to the doctor. I am one who doesn’t go to doctors unless I really must, and I was at the point of agreement that we ought to head home.

    We decided to ask for prayer from one of the leaders of this conference, someone who prays and sees miracles happen. A few leaders took us into an office room and prayed for me. First they told me that they felt God was saying I had inhaled something like mold that caused the respiratory infection. (they didn’t know I was working in a very moldy environment just before I got so sick)

    They prayed for me and I felt power flow through me and my lungs began to feel light and free of congestion. My sinuses cleared up. My coughing stopped. I could breath without coughing, the pressure from the asthma was gone. They prayed also the the cycle of colds and allergies would end. Not only did I walk out of there feeling like a new person with no sickness left in me and enjoy the rest of the conference but I have not had but two colds since then in almost 4 years. Before that I usually got 4 or 5 a year.

    Moreover I have prayed for people and seen hearing restored to a deaf ear, back pain healed, headaches healed, and other pains disappear instantly not to return.

    Also I saw my mother in law’s arm grow out an inch and a half when my husband prayed for her. All three of us saw it lengthen. The story is over on my blog. I’ve seen way to much to every believe prayer doesn’t work.

    God is healing today, I know it.

  10. Karla, I could almost let other Christian believers respond — I am surprised none did. So I will.
    In science we understand how many confounding factors can makes something appear true which is not. To weed this out, they do controlled experiments. Lots have been done with prayer and show it does not work. Now that does not mean that you will not have your amazing anecdotal stories. Every religion has their anecdotal miracle stories. All religions has great numbers of people apparently seeing the same miracle. They can’t all be right, Karla. In fact, the most probable explanation is that they are all wrong.
    This is called “level of evidence” — and your anecdotal evidence is the lowest level. Yet it is the evidence most of us use for our daily lives.

  11. Karla,

    I would agree with you that prayer works, however, I understand where Sabio comes from in the post in the sense that prayer does not work when people use it as an excuse not to live. In other words, if I spend all my time praying for other people and not really practically living; “visit them, send them money, write them letters, help their families. Practical compassion helps people…” then what is the point in praying.

    Besides prayer is suppose to be something between you and the Creator – personal. And to say that “I will pray for you” almost adulterates that relationship between you and God and no longer makes it personal.

  12. @ Sabio, opposing truth claims cannot all be right. But the evidence of the supernatural world is not necessarily opposing. Evidence can show that there is something beyond nature, but the various religions can have different takes on what exactly that something is.

    I told of my instant healing. I am either lying or delusional. Some have told me, I’m mistaken, but if I was mistaken and was still coughing my lungs out while believing I was not then that falls into delusional.

    Same with the arm I saw grow out an inch and a half before my very eyes. It grew. I saw it. Medical science would see spontaneous instant growth of an inch and a half as an impossibility and yet I saw it. So again, I am either lying to you or delusional. My husband would also be delusional because he saw it– he was the one praying for it. And my mother in law who was incredibly amazed as it was her arm must be delusional too. How is it that we all three attest to something that didn’t happen, unless we collaborated on a lie?

    @ Renee

    I am speaking of a different sort of prayer. There is prayer that is personal communion between a person and God, there is corporate prayer which is between multiple people and God, and then their is prayer that is the sort I am speaking of where the deaf hear and the lame walk.

    I am not speaking of the “I’ll be praying for you” sort of prayer to comfort those in ill health or need, but the prayer of authority speaking to the problem. . . Telling the blind eyes to open in Jesus name, and seeing the person see for the first time. Or telling the deaf ears to open. Or the arm to grow in Jesus name.

    Certainly I have prayed these sort of prayers and seen nothing change. But I have also prayed and seen miracles.

  13. jhgharineh


    The problem with your anecdotal evidence, being the lowest level of evidence, is that it goes both ways. You argue you have seen arms grow out and felt coughs dissappear. You see these as proof that such phenomenon exist. Furthermore, you deduce that because you were praying when these things happened, then the two must be directly correlated. Here is the rub though. Having been a practicing evangelical Christian for most of my life I have had plenty of opportunities to see the “power” of prayer. The problem is I haven’t. I have prayed for the sick and myself and not seen any change. I have been prayed for by friends, strangers, and superstar evangelists and not seen healing take place. Now I don’t pretend that this is proof that healing doesn’t happen because it is only anecdotal evidence. There are many factors that could be unaccounted for. In order to prove or disprove prayer one would have to do experiments which accounted for every variable. Now I feel the need to qualify my post. I am in no way saying that healing doesn’t or can’t happen. All I am saying is that connecting healing to prayer requires more proof than anecdotal evidence.

    ps: I am also not challenging your experiences. I am simply arguing that your proposed dichotomy is in fact false. There is a third option beyond proof and delusion. The thrid option is that healing took place, but you were unaware as to the actual factors involved. In fact, this would be the case even if god were involved in the healing. After all, how do you know that god healed because you prayed instead of some other reason?

  14. jhgharineh,

    I understand that my experience doesn’t negate another person’s experience. I can have instances of seeing miracles in response to prayer and you have countered that you have prayed and received prayer and seen no miracles.

    I don’t have some great reason as to why they don’t happen in response to every prayer. All I know is what I’ve seen and the hundreds of testimonies I have read or heard in the last few years of miracles happening.

    I think my point in sharing about my experiences, is to say that we can’t be so quick to say prayer doesn’t work. A science experiment might show no difference (although I have read studies that had positive results) but that doesn’t mean that we can conclusively say they don’t happen and prayer doesn’t work.

    For every story of it not working, people can tell another of where it did work. Also, prayer isn’t a formula. There is a lot more involved then petitioning God to do something. When I’ve seen healings, it wasn’t because someone was praying the way most would describe praying, but it was when someone spoke to the problem in Jesus name to heal or grow and a healing took place.

    I have sat and learned under people who do have big healing ministries and they will be the first to tell you of all the people who did not get healed and they don’t know why. They told many testimonies of success, but they also told many stories where the person did not receive healing. They didn’t make any excuses, they didn’t say it was the person’s fault, a lack of faith, the will of God, or any such platitude. They simply said in sorrow that they did not see the healing take place, but it wasn’t going to stop them from continuing to minister healing.

    I have prayed for people and seen them not get healed, many times. I’ve been a Christian my whole life, and it’s only been in the last two to three years that I have started encountering things with God I would call miraculous and supernatural. It’s been an incredible few years. While I believed God healed before this, I had never had the experience to back it up.

    The bottom line is, I want to give hope that there is still a reason to seek God and He is there to be found.

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