Testing Prayer: Science and Healing

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When sickness strikes, people around the world pray for healing. Many of the faithful claim that prayer has cured them of blindness, deafness, and metastasized cancers, and some believe they have been resurrected from the dead. Can, and should, science test such claims? A number of scientists say no, concerned that empirical studies of prayer will be misused to advance religious agendas. And some religious practitioners agree with this restraint, worrying that scientific testing could undermine faith.

In Candy Gunther Brown’s view, science cannot prove prayer’s healing power, but what scientists can and should do is study prayer’s measurable effects on health. If prayer produces benefits, even indirectly (and findings suggest that it does), then more careful attention to prayer practices could impact global health, particularly in places without access to conventional medicine.

Drawing on data from Pentecostal and Charismatic Christians, Brown reverses a number of stereotypes about believers in faith-healing. Among them is the idea that poorer, less educated people are more likely to believe in the healing power of prayer and therefore less likely to see doctors. Brown finds instead that people across socioeconomic backgrounds use prayer alongside conventional medicine rather than as a substitute. Dissecting medical records from before and after prayer, surveys of prayer recipients, prospective clinical trials, and multiyear follow-up observations and interviews, she shows that the widespread perception of prayer’s healing power has demonstrable social effects, and that in some cases those effects produce improvements in health that can be scientifically verified.

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Editorial Reviews

Martin Moore-Ede
This book is a remarkable synthesis of empirical research and theological insight which opens up important new areas for evidence-based scientific and spiritual exploration. It points out, and then guides the reader around, the multiple pitfalls, biases and emotions that inevitably surround the topic of the scientific investigation of prayer and healing.
Dr. John R. Peteet
Testing Prayer fills a significant gap in the study of the role of healing in contemporary religious movements, and is unusual in doing so through the use of a range of perspectives. The book is clearly written, well referenced, and in a balanced and considered way avoids the temptations to privilege either theology or experience over science, or to reduce observed phenomena to material explanations. The author instead encourages conversation among scientists and religious practitioners with a view toward future collaborative exploration. I found the project original, credible and compelling.
Choice - A. W. Klink
Readers interested in the relationship between religion and medicine will find that this book sets a new standard.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674064676
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 4/30/2012
  • Pages: 384
  • Sales rank: 1,548,970
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Candy Gunther Brown is Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, and Adjunct Associate Professor, American Studies Program, at Indiana University, Bloomington.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 4: How do Sufferers Perceive Healing Prayer?

George first traveled with Global Awakening on an International Ministry Trip to Cuba in 2004. His primary motivation for going was frankly a quest for his own physical healing—from a brain tumor for which no medical treatment was viable and for which the prognosis was grim. George had in the six months since the diagnosis been aggressively seeking intercessory prayer for healing at a series of North American pentecostal conferences located in every region of the United States and Canada. Almost every time ministry teams prayed for him, George perceived a powerful touch from the Holy Spirit—he fell over, cried, laughed, felt heat, and vibrated as if he had grabbed an electrical wire. Every three months he returned to his medical doctor for another MRI, hoping for medical confirmation of his healing—but he was repeatedly disappointed. Instead of giving up, George went to more conferences to seek more prayer. As intercessors prayed for his healing, they also prayed for an impartation of spiritual gifts in order that George might minister healing to others. That sounded good to George, but he was preoccupied with his own need for healing.

Still, when Randy Clark encouraged the 1,500 attendees at GA’s 2003 Voice of the Apostles conference to consider joining the prayer team that would minister in Cuba, something resonated with George and he decided to go. In Cuba, George prayed for a man who could see only two feet in front of him without glasses and four feet with glasses; after fifteen minutes of prayer, he appeared able to see twenty feet without glasses—and in gratitude accepted an invitation to become a Christian. Among several others who attested to experiencing healing through George’s prayers in Cuba was a woman whose doctors had sent her home to die from ovarian cancer following unsuccessful radiation therapy. She had a large, palpable tumor on her ovary, was emaciated from being unable to eat, and was too weak to walk. During prayer, she felt heat, fell over, regained strength to walk—and could no longer find the tumor.

When George returned home, he began to pray for other people’s healing at every opportunity. On a visit to his mother, he met one of her friends—who revealed that he had found a tumor on his stomach and had noticed, with some alarm, that it was growing larger. After ten minutes of prayer, the tumor seemed smaller, and after a few more minutes of prayer, it could scarcely be palpated. When George checked back with this man a month later, he reported that the tumor had completely disappeared. Meanwhile, George’s mother—who had witnessed the effects of her son’s prayers—marveled “It’s all about Jesus,” and decided on the spot to renounce decades of involvement in “New Age” spirituality and return to the Christian faith. George continued to frequent pentecostal conferences—and to travel with GA and other ministry groups to several destinations in Latin America and Africa—at first seeking prayer for his own healing, but increasingly to pray for other people. George also came to devote many of his evenings and weekends to praying for people who sought him out, some of whom had themselves traveled long distances in search of prayer for healing.

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Table of Contents

Abbreviations ix

Introduction: The Magisteria of Science and Religion 1

1 From Toronto Blessing to Global Awakening: Healing and the Spread of Pentecostal-Charismatic Networks 21

2 Why Are Biomedical Tests of Prayer Controversial? 64

3 Are Healing Claims Documented? 99

4 How Do Sufferers Perceive Healing Prayer? 155

5 Can Health Outcomes of Prayer Be Measured? 194

6 Do Healing Experiences Produce Lasting Effects? 234

Conclusion: What Science Can Show about Prayer 275

Appendix: Healing Survey 293

Notes 299

Acknowledgments 351

Index 353

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