Well, it's official. If you're scheduled for a coronary bypass and the local Ned Flanders is busy organizing the congregation to pray for you, order the bastard to cease and desist immediately. Science has determined that intercessory prayer may significantly increase the risk of post-surgery complications for you.
This month's issue of the American Heart Journal has a paper by Benson e. al., on the effectiveness of intercessory prayer. They begin the paper by saying:
Intercessory prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, but claims of benefits are not supported by well-controlled clinical trials. Prior studies have not addressed whether prayer itself or knowledge/certainty that prayer is being provided may influence outcome. We evaluated whether (1) receiving intercessory prayer or (2) being certain of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with uncomplicated recovery after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery.
And their conclusion?
Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.
In English: Prayer is ineffective at best, and knowing that you're being prayed for can be a risk factor as well.
The doctors are to be commended for three things: (1) for having the cojones to study the supernatural; (2) for giving “intercessory” a slightly sinister connotation; and (3) for making the Universe a slightly funnier place.
The basic idea of the study is quite simple. There are two control variables: prayer and awareness. Either a patient may or may not be prayed for and the patient may or may not be told this fact. That gives four groups of patients, and the figure shows the number of patients assigned to the various groups in the study. Note that a patient was never told that he is not being prayed for; that, of course, would be unethical.