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Prayer, Healing, and Scientific Research

Candy Gunther Brown's Testing Prayer: Can Science Prove the Healing Power of Prayer?

Doing research for eight years on a topic can be an exhausting experience, but certainly qualifies one to be heard, as long as the research follows the requirements of testability that science requires. Candy Gunther Brown, associate professor of religious studies at Indiana University with additional appointments in the university’s American Studies program and their Liberal Arts and Management program, has done just that and will be publishing her results in her forthcoming book (April of this year), Testing Prayer (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012). She has also written on the subject in Psychology Today, “How Should Prayer Be Studied?” March, 2012, a useful supplementary article to the one under review here.

This brief article does several things very nicely. First, it asks the question every researcher of the relationship of medical practice to spiritual/religious practice should ask: Is this topic a proper one for scientific research? She answers of course in the affirmative, but in doing so, she lays out the parameters of the question succinctly for the non-specialist. There is much that could be discussed here, as Brown clearly, but barely, scratches the surface of this debate.

Second, Brown recounts four different research methods she has used to work on the problem of scientific research of prayer and healing, “each one suited to answering a particular question about prayer for healing.” She frames this discussion as if each method were a camera, offering its own perspective on how prayer affects health. The four cameras are described under these headings: 1) “Medical Records: Are healing claims documented?”; 2) “Surveys: How do sufferers perceive healing prayer?”; 3) “Clinical Trials: Can health outcomes of prayer be measured?”; 4) Follow-up: “Do healing experiences produce lasting effects?” Each of these titles is followed by a paragraph of densely rich, though easily accessible elaboration.

This article would serve very well as both an introduction to Brown’s book and as the basis for a discussion of the topic among university students and faculty at all levels.

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