Mon | Nov 12, 2018

Does prayer really work?

Published:Monday | January 25, 2016 | 12:05 AMDr Michael Abrahams

Another National Prayer Breakfast has come and gone, and I doubt that any of the praying that took place will have any effect on the condition of our country.

After all, the event has been staged 36 times and Jamaica is still mired in corruption, poverty and crime. Which begs the question, “Does prayer work?” I find that the answer to this is not a simple “yes” or “no”. People pray for different reasons and have varying expectations.

It can be argued that prayer works by having beneficial effects on those who engage in the activity. In addition to helping persons to possess self-control, various studies have shown reduction in high blood pressure risk, reduced asthma symptoms, less depression and stress, increased longevity and other health benefits in persons who pray regularly. There is no evidence, however, that the benefits of prayer are orchestrated by a deity, as the effects can be scientifically explained.

During prayer and meditation, a relaxation response occurs. The body's metabolism decreases, the heart rate slows, blood pressure goes down, and breathing becomes calmer and more regular. This state is associated with slower brain waves, and feelings of control, tranquility, alertness and peace of mind. During this time, levels of dopamine are increased, associated with states of well-being and joy. Not surprisingly, the decrease in stress brought about by prayer boosts the immune system and helps to lessen the severity and frequency of a wide range of illnesses.

So, it has been established that prayer helps those who pray. It is an excellent coping mechanism that can significantly improve one’s quality of life. The big question is if intercessory prayer works. That is, praying for others or praying for specific outcomes, with the mechanism being intervention by a deity. The truth is that there is no convincing evidence that this type of prayer is effective.

Reports about such prayer being successful are anecdotal. As a matter of fact, the largest study on intercessory prayer, the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP), performed in 2006 and involving 1,802 coronary artery bypass patients at six hospitals, found complication rates to be higher in patients who knew that they were being prayed for than in patients who were not prayed for by the congregations in the three Christian churches involved in the study.

In the Christian faith, the Lord’s Prayer, given by Jesus Christ, is one of the most recited. In the prayer, there is a line that states “thy will be done”. If one really subscribes to this, then it would be rather pointless to ask God for specific outcomes, when you have already surrendered to Him that He is to do what He wishes. It is His will, not ours.  Some memes that I have come across in social media ask some very pertinent questions. One goes, “How can a slave and master both worship the same god, then both of them expect their prayers to be answered, by the very same god?” Another asks, “Why would you pray after a tragedy to a god who did nothing to prevent the tragedy?” Much food for thought.

I have heard some persons of faith say that God always answers prayers, and that the answer is “yes”, “no” or “wait”. In my opinion, this is a cop-out to find comfort when they do not get what they pray for. The results are the same if we pray to a croaking lizard. If we get what we ask for, we can say that the lizard granted us our request, and if we do not, we can say that the reptile said “no” or would like us to wait until he sheds his skin, eats a fly, mates or whatever.

Many of the stories I hear of prayer working can be explained scientifically, or are mere coincidence.  A Christian friend of mine once told me a story about having a legal issue, and that after she prayed about it, her lawyer opened a book with about a thousand pages and landed on the exact page that yielded the solution to her problem, proving the power of prayer.

This proves nothing. The odds of opening the book at that page are approximately one in one thousand. The odds of winning the lottery are often less than one in a million, and many heathen win the jackpot without prayer.

And some persons are dishonest or ignorant when reporting the positive effects of intercessory prayer.

A colleague of mine reported a story of a patient of his who had an abnormal Pap smear. There was no evidence of cancer, just abnormal cells. When the biopsy was taken, no cancer was found, a common occurrence. However, the patient was later heard on a religious radio programme claiming that she and her church friends fasted and prayed and that God miraculously healed her, when that was not the case. As a matter of fact, not only does intercessory prayer frequently fail, but many persons have been brutally murdered or have died gruesome deaths while praying or being prayed for.

According to outspoken atheist Don Baker, "Prayer is like masturbation. It feels good to the person doing it, and does nothing for the person they're thinking about". To be honest, research backs him up.

-Michael Abrahams is an obstetrician and gynaecologist, comedian and poet. Email feedback to and, or tweet @mikeyabrahams.