How we talk to God
People pray for everything from the divine to the selfish and profane
Another highly publicized study, which appeared in 2001, is representative of the controversy that attends all attempts to study the power of prayer. In that study, researchers claimed that women in South Korea undergoing in vitro fertilization achieved astonishing results when strangers prayed for them. They were twice as likely to conceive, even though they didn't know that they were being prayed for. Questions were immediately raised about the study's methodology, despite the fact that it appeared in a respected journal, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, a distinguished physician was the lead author, and another physician had signed on as coauthor. But this month, the New York Times reported that the lead researcher had withdrawn his name from the study. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and an ardent critic of all the prayer studies, says: "Almost all the studies have such serious methodological flaws as to be inconclusive." He adds: "It's bad enough to be sick, worse to be gravely ill. To add to that the remorse or guilt over some sort of failure is unconscionable. That is what you get when you make health claims about the benefits of religious practice."
Nonetheless, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health is spending $6.2 million over two years to study the link between prayer and health. A recent survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that 43 percent of the adult population had prayed specifically for their own health in the previous year and that more than half of those surveyed had at one point in their lives prayed for their own health. And cardiologists say that 97 percent of patients pray the night before they have heart surgery. In the U.S. News/Beliefnet survey, 40 percent said that they prayed for their health "all the time." And of those who prayed for their health at all, 71.1 percent said they prayed about specific diseases like cancer, or chronic pain, and 65.1 percent said that they prayed because of emotional disorders or mental illness.
There might simply be a basic contradiction inherent in all these studies. "If they could establish that intercessionary prayer works in some objective, measurable way, they would be taking it out of the realm of prayer and into the not-so-well-known realm of some natural phenomenon," says Smith professor Zalesky. "It no longer would have the spiritual meaning people think that it has. Then, would it be prayer at all?" Or as one survey respondent explained, "I pray mostly for things that can't be measured."
High-tech prayer. Prayer can be formal, as with the five-times-a-day Muslim salat. In Judaism, according to Jon Levenson, professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, "prayer is a statutory requirement, a legal requirement of Jewish law, with a threefold structure of praise, petition, and thanksgiving. But when a Jew prays, he or she does it as a member of the Jewish people, so many are phrased in the first person plural." Buddhist meditation is a kind of prayer, as are gospel songs. Then there are the cozy and personal prayers that fill the busy days and sometimes wakeful nights of believers throughout the world. "I pray because it gives me security, hope, helps me express what I am feeling," wrote one survey respondent. "Not because I really believe some specific being will answer."