New Prayer Study: Need Glasses or Hearing Aid? Ask God!

August 4, 2010

A new study of healing prayer claims to find evidence that, if specifically requested, God might improve impaired hearing and vision. Candy Gunther Brown led a study to be published in the September 2010 issue of the Southern Medical Journal titled "Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Proximal Intercessory Prayer (STEPP) on Auditory and Visual Impairments in Rural Mozambique.” The team evaluated 14 rural patients who reported impaired hearing and 11 who reported impaired vision, both before and after members of a local church prayed for their healing. Subjects reported statistically significant improved hearing and vision following the prayers.

According to a press release, “Brown recounted that one subject, an elderly Mozambican woman named Maryam, initially reported that she could not see a person's hand, with two upraised fingers, from a distance of one foot. A healing practitioner put her hand on Maryam's eyes, hugged her and prayed for less than a minute; then 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.” From this brief description, it seems like old-fashioned, disproven faith healing.

At few caveats. First, the sample size is very, very small; with only 24 participants the results are very difficult to generalize to a larger population with any degree of confidence. Second, the measures studied by Brown and her colleagues were subjective, and could have easily been influenced by what scientists call “demand characteristics,” or the patients telling the researchers what they think the researchers want to hear. A double-blind control (that is, one in which neither the researchers nor the patients knew who was prayed for) would have been better. This would help control for the well-known placebo effect; it is not only possible but likely that those who receive personal, special attention from prayer groups and researchers might genuinely believe that they can see or hear better, at least temporarily.

Furthermore, the study apparently did not control for the pre-existing beliefs of the patients. According to the study, “subjects were recruited at Charismatic Protestant meetings.” It would be interesting (and important) to know whether or not maladies inatheists, agnostics, and others who lack a pre-existing belief in the power of prayer would be improved.

Brown and her colleagues did not address the supposed mechanism by which the prayer was effective, nor why a benevolent God would only help those who He is specifically asked to help.