Is it the prayer that's flawed, or is it the study?

A study says heart surgery patients didn't benefit from being prayed for - but other scientists and clergy say no study could measure such a thing.

Published March 30, 2006

The researchers set out to quantify the effects of faith, calling upon the best logic of science.

They designed a randomized, controlled trial, the gold standard of scientific study.

They sought out patients across the country for the largest such trial ever conducted.

But in the end, the study's results were immediately questioned.

Ultimately, can science really measure the power of God?

The study found that prayers - at least those offered up by strangers - made no difference in helping heart surgery patients heal.

In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher complication rate than those who didn't, according to the study, to be published next week in American Heart Journal.

The study is the largest ever to weigh the effectiveness of third-party prayer, also called intercessory prayer. More than 1,800 patients recovering from coronary artery bypass graft surgery were studied at six hospitals across the country, including St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa.

But clergy questioned not just the study's results, but also whether the power of prayer could be calculated at all - or whether anyone should try.

"We're trying to measure something that really isn't measurable and draw conclusions," said Father Len Plazewski, director of vocations for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg. "Prayer is not magic, some formula that you do and you get some desired result."

But doctors said trying to measure prayer could help find the best way to heal.

"We're always looking for opportunities to improve the outcomes in our patients," said Oklahoma cardiologist Charles Bethea, a study co-author.

Father Dean Marek, director of chaplain services at the Mayo Clinic, said doctors naturally look at prayer differently than chaplains. They're looking for proven methods, and prayer isn't much different than "a pill or therapy that could be prescribed," he said. "We don't see it that way as chaplains."

But Marek, co-principal investigator of Mayo's part of the study, saw no religious objections to doing the study.

"I'm sure God will be very pleased with the results of this and getting people talking about the results of prayer in their lives," he said.

The study divided the patients into three groups and arranged for members of two Catholic groups and one Protestant group to pray for certain patients.

The prayer groups were provided with the first names and last initials of those patients. They were asked to pray for them once a day with a standardized prayer asking for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications."

The first two groups of patients were told they might or might not be prayed for. The first group received prayers; the second didn't. A third group was told that they would receive prayers and did.

The study found almost no difference between those who received prayers and those who didn't. In the first group, 52 percent had complications from surgery; in the second, 51 percent did.

But 59 percent of the patients who were told they would definitely receive prayers had complications, compared to 52 percent of those who got prayers but didn't know whether they would.

Researchers found that the most common complication among those patients was atrial fibrillation, a rapid irregular heartbeat that can be affected by anxiety. They speculated that just knowing about the prayers made many patients nervous.

"Am I so sick they had to call in the prayer team?" those patients may have wondered, Bethea said.

Researchers stressed that the results were narrowly defined. The study looked only at intercessory prayers. It didn't try to measure the power of prayers by patients or their families. In fact, almost all the patients believed friends and families would be praying for them.

The $2.4-million study was paid for by Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis, one of the study sites, and by the John Templeton Foundation.

Religious leaders questioned whether the prayers were appropriately worded and whether those praying were really moved by the spirit.

"Prayer, particularly intercessory prayer, is asking God for something," Plazewski said. "The reality is, "No' is also an answer."

The Rev. Abe Brown, pastor of the First Baptist Church of College Hill in Tampa, cited James 5:16. The Bible verse suggests that God only answers the prayers of the righteous.

Brown also said God answers prayers based upon believers' faith.

"The one that's sending up the prayer has to believe that God is going to answer," Brown said.

Paul Kurtz, chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, had a blunt response when asked why he thought the study found no effect of prayer.

"Because there is none," he said. "That would be one answer."

Monsignor Laurence E. Higgins, pastor of St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Tampa, believes in the power of intercessory prayer.

"Maybe the people weren't praying very hard," Higgins said of the study. "I have no doubts that intercessory prayer works, (just) not all the time."

Even Christ's prayers in the garden of Gethsemane weren't answered, Higgins said.

"At the end, it's God's will be done. ... I don't know how you can measure those things."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.