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Proof in the Prayer

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As I started driving down Pacific Coast Highway toward San Diego and points beyond recently, I looked westward to the Pacific Ocean, which was just yards off the freeway. In the ocean I could see a few red markers in the water indicating unsafe swimming conditions because of contamination. Twelve miles further on I passed San Onofre Nuclear Power Station with two off-line generators that have been shut down because of unknown dangers, and then in a few more miles I passed Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, where active maneuvers take place on both sides of our famed Highway 101.

These sights led me to think about how our environment needs continuous, thoughtful protection. As an example, I can remember discussions about the environment with respect to the effects of smog in the Los Angeles basin. Some of the early solutions to the smog problems were just off the wall – such as drilling a hole through the mountains and setting up big fans to blow the air out of the basin into the desert areas. But today that problem is under control because of the ideas that were implemented – and because it was important to the public’s health, the economy, and the region’s welfare.

 


photo by the trial’s photostream

But we still have air and groundwater pollution, this time stemming from different sources. Driving through one of the most desirable parts of California, I couldn’t help but think about how the environment is negatively affected and how this may affect the health of its residents.

But the reason for today’s journey is to talk about health from the perspective of those who are looking for ideas to solve a different challenge. Similar to the various attempts to solve pollution, which led to some success, there are new ideas about how to approach bodily health. Are they worthy of consideration or just today’s version of “blowing air out of the basin into the desert?”

I’ve been seeing a trend in health: that what was previously acceptable in health care is no longer meeting the needs of many people today. Although the federal health care law, which goes into effect in 2014, is modeled on traditional western medicine as the basis for the public’s health care, many are using complementary medicine, including prayer. Why this discrepancy between the health care law and what people are using?

I think it comes down to what many feel is scientifically proven as effective. That is why I was very interested in the perspective of Candice Brown, Ph. D. in her book, Testing Prayer: Science and Healing. She says that part of the confusion is with the way that prayer is being studied, and that the procedures used in studying prayer must be corrected. This caught my attention because it talked about a sense of fairness in determining what heals and doesn’t heal through the use of empirical methods.

Her book led me to an article she wrote, “What Counts as Legitimate Scientific Research on Prayer?” She states, “Could a placebo effect be responsible for at least some of the outcomes observed after prayer? Absolutely. But a more interesting question is how far do placebo effects extend, and relatedly where do prayer effects fall relative to known placebos? To say it is all placebo and then dismiss further inquiry is about as useful as saying physics is all quantum mechanics anyway, and we know it exists so why bother studying it? Some would argue that if prayer doesn’t work for everyone all the time, then it must not yield valid effects. But many medicines are not 100 percent effective, and effectiveness may even vary across genetic groups, but that doesn’t mean the medicines are useless.”

An early writer on the value of prayer and health was Mary Baker Eddy, who after years of study and testing authored Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. As Candy Brown suggests, “if prayer affects health – for better or for worse – then patients, doctors, and policymakers should all want to know.”

I like that reasoning. If I pray and get well, I give prayer the credit. If I take this medicine and I get well, I give medicine the credit. Candy Brown is advocating that we not only need to know if we got better with a certain treatment but we need to know why we got better…or worse.

As people think about health and the value of prayer, they may be having similar thoughts to mine as I was taking my trip along Highway 101. I’m going to look for good indications that the ocean is free from contamination and safe for swimming, that San Onofre will conduct reliable studies before bringing those two generators back on line, and that the Marine maneuvers at Camp Pendleton are not destroying the environment. I hope they will look for the solid rationale that prayer is of value as a form of health care, and not write it off prematurely as “blowing air into the desert”.

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About Don Ingwerson

Previously in the education sector as Superintendent of Schools, Don Ingwerson now serves as the media and legislative liaison for Christian Science in Southern California and corrects misconceptions about Christian Science. Don is a frequent blogger about health and spirituality.