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Do Intercessory Prayers Work?

By Mansur Hallaj Sindhi

28 September, 2007

As a child, the author learnt that self help, rather than prayers or dua would help. The result of a recent comprehensive study about intercessory prayers, which is common in Christianity and Islam, showed that it does not work. Similarly, having people pray for rain as often done by our leaders is futile.

Growing up in a religious family meant being encouraged to attend the Friday prayer congregation. The prayer was preceded by a sermon, or khutba, in which the chubby-cheeked, well-fed Pathan maulvi preached to the gathered faithful about the hereafter – for the good men there would be virgins (a term whose meaning I was not too sure about), and for the naughty ones hell's fire. Those were the days of General Ayub Khan, and with the dictator there had descended upon Karachi's mosques hordes of unenlightened clerics.

The prayers always ended with the congregation raising their cupped hands as the Imam entreated the Lord to release the Kashmiris from evil hands, free Palestine , bless our parents and elders, make everyone happy and prosperous, with hum of Ameen from the supplicants at the end of each request.

There was always the chance during the whole ritual for everyone to ask God for a personal favor. That's when I sneaked in a request for high marks in class exams, though much of the dua ritual seemed long-winded to me.

Before long I realized from my report card that the Almighty had better things to attend to than listen to a lad in Karachi. This was about the time that science education, books and film documentaries had raised doubts in my mind about this method of marks-enhancement. Plain hard work turned out to be a surer way to success. This was also the time when I became aware of the importance of prime numbers and began wondering about the magic of '3' and '7': the first was the number of times one washed each limb before prayers; ablution and '3' went together. As for '7' that would be a whole new ball game…

During the service, the maulvi often alluded to what goodies were on offer in heaven. The promise of streams of honey and milk was standard ware. Some days he would enthusiastically describe the garments the virgins would wear as they lolled beside the streams. These lovely beauties were supposedly dressed in 7 layers of garments, which nevertheless, were transparent! At that young age I wasn't too clear why the mullah was so excited about this visual prospect. I was more curious about the appearance of another prime in the religious instruction book.

One day I managed to collar the maulvi on a Sunday morning after he had tutored the young talibs (students) in the mosque. I asked about the significance of '7' and how had it been determined that the virgins wore 7 layers? Also, what would happen if the layers were doubled? His failure to answer coherently made me add this curiosity about transparent garments in the same category as asking for high marks from the Lord: just fanciful thinking.

At university I became aware of the historical battles between science and religion, starting with the case of Galileo, and the continuing lack of acceptance of Darwin's theory of evolution. After considerable amount of reading and thought I could no longer keep the ideas of science and religion in separate compartments .

Science is our way of arriving at empirical truths. Its process of refining truths or turning them around completely are evolutionary, in that when people come up with better ideas and experimental results, old findings are altered or discarded. In contrast, most religious scholars refuse to accept that religious texts need to be interpreted differently for each age to match the findings of science and be in line with rational thinking. This is particularly so for areas where interpretations of religion generally differ from what science offers. But for religion to be relevant to people's lives its interpreted doctrines cannot be in opposition to what is found by science, whose strength is based on the idea that there is no finality in ideas. Therefore for religion to remain alive and relevant to modern believers, its interpreters should exercise flexibility. This means not trying to force science into the straight-jacket of religion.

Some of these contentious issues will become clearer through a discussion of a ten-year rigorous study conducted on intercessory prayers, with results announced in 2006. In Islam and Christianity this is a prayer to God on behalf of another person or situation. The prayer pleads on behalf of the subject, believing that God will answer the prayer.

The study cost $2.4 million and was supported by the Templeton Foundation. It was directed by a Harvard University cardiologist Dr Herbert Benson, who is a believer in the power of personal prayer and meditation. There have been at least 10 studies on the effect of prayers since year 2000 with mixed results, with this one intended to overcome the flaws in earlier investigations. The US government has itself spent $2.3 million on prayer research over this period.

The outcome of the study was that prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery. Patients who knew they were prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications perhaps because of the expectations that prayers created or that their condition was so bad that prayers for them was warranted.

Some have argued that prayer is a deep response to illness and it may relieve suffering by some mechanism as yet unknown. Skeptics contend that studying prayers is a waste of money and it presupposes supernatural involvement, and therefore, by definition, beyond the scope of science.

In the study over 1800 coronary bypass patients at six hospitals were monitored. The patients were divided into three equal groups, with groups A & B both prayed for. While group A was told that they would be definitely prayed for, group B was told that they may or may not be prayed for. This resulted in patients in group B not knowing for sure if they were being prayed for. Group C knew that it was not being prayed for.

Members of three different Christian congregations in different parts of the U.S. were asked to pray for the patients in any manner they liked but were instructed to include the following phrase in their prayers: "for successful surgery with a quick healthy recovery and no complications." Prayers began the night before the surgery and continued daily for two weeks after. List of names of people each congregation was to pray for was given as first names and initials of the last names.

Results showed no statistically significant difference between prayed-for and non-prayed for groups. Results were also computed for two types of complications: (a) not serious and (b) major. Patients who received prayers were marginally more likely to develop complications of category (59 to 51 percent) – this is category (a). There were substantially more likely to develop major complications (18 to 13 percent) than patients who received none.

Needless to say, I as a teenager, with my experience of prayers, could have predicted the main findings of this research. The Americans wasted $4.7 million on it.

The conclusion from this controlled study also applies to prayers and dua that our leaders – generals or imported bankers alike – ask the people to indulge in when there is drought or similar calamity. The Lord is fair. He is as likely to overlook the prayers by a kid asking for high marks, as he is of millions who at the instructions of their leaders ask Him to change natural laws to make their lives easier.

Dr Mansur Hallaj Sindhi

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