August 6, 2010 Leave a comment
We’ve all heard it before. A friend has someone close to them injured or sick, and they ask for your thoughts and prayers. Can praying for the sick really help? According to an international study led by religious studies Professor Candy Gunther Brown, it can. In a study titled “Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal Intercessory Prayer (STEPP) on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique,” Brown measured the effect of prayer on vision and hearing. The study found surprising improvements where glasses and hearing aids are not readily available.
“We chose to investigate ‘proximal’ prayer because that is how a lot of prayer for healing is actually practiced by Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians around the world,” Brown said. “These constitute the fastest-growing Christian subgroups globally, with some 500 million adherents, and they are among those most likely to pray expectantly for healing.”
Brown and her colleagues carried out the study as part of a larger research program on the cultural significance and experience of spiritual healing practices.
Brown and her team studied the effect supposed healers has on people who had vision and hearing impairments located in Mozambique and Brazil.
The team used vision charts and audiometers to evaluate subjects in 14 rural Mozambican who had reported having some type hearing deficiency and 11 who had some sort of absence of vision. They carefully evaluated these subjects both before and after they received ‘proximal intercessory prayer’ (PIP). The reason Professor Brown and her team focused on vision and hearing impairments is because these ailments can be measured by mechanical devices such as vision charts and hearing machines. By doing this, the team can see if improvements have really occurred instead of taking the word on the subject.
So according the results of these tests, subjects did have improvements in their vision and hearing after receiving PIP. Three subjects had their tested vision improve from 20/400 or worse to 20/80 or better. Two subjects with impaired hearing reduced the threshold at which they could detect sound by 50 decibels.
Professor Brown recounted that one subject, a woman named Maryam, could not see a person’s hand that was only one foot away. A healer put her hand on Maryam’s eyes, and prayed for less than a minute. After the prayer the person held five fingers in front of Maryam, who was able to count them and even read the 20/125 line on a vision chart.
Professor Brown said that this study will be published in the September issue of the Southern Medical Journal.
These results may sound promising, but many scientists disagree. Terry Sanderson, President of National Secular Society (NSS) said “This study, as it describes itself, is unscientific and therefore of no worth beyond its use as religious propaganda. It exploits the desperation of people living in extreme poverty who are unable to access proper medical care in order to bring them under the influence of these Pentecostal churches.”
Neurologist Dr. Steven Novella (personal hero of mine) had some doubts about this study as well. On his blog NeuroLogica he brought up the fact that “these tests had no blinding or control group.” He explains that “everyone in the study, subjects and experimenters, knew that every subject was getting the treatment.” Dr. Novella goes on to state that “the protocol also calls for multiple interventions if initial treatments are not effective – essentially the subjects receive repeat treatments as long as possible until they report a response.”
Just like Terry Sanderson, Dr. Novella makes a similar statement in his blog- “At this point anyone with any reasonable familiarity with how to assess the quality of medical studies should see that this is a worthless study. This barely qualifies as a pilot study. It really doesn’t matter what the treatment is or how plausible it is – you simply cannot draw any meaningful conclusion from 24 self-selected subjects with no controls and no blinding.”
Dr. Novella writes that vision and hearing is subjective even if proper medical tests are administered and that it is essential to get subjective feedback from the subjects. The problem this test poses is that it allows subjects to exaggerate their limitations before treatment and try hard to perform better after the intervention.
The consensus seems to be the same in most of the medical reviews I have read on this subject matter. Personally I think this study is irresponsible. What it is showing is that it alright to rely on prayer as opposed to medical treatment, which is dangerous and negligent. It has nothing to do with personal belief in a deity, it’s just foolish.