Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and other scientists tested the effect of having three Christian groups pray for particular patients, starting the night before surgery and continuing for two weeks. The volunteers prayed for "a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications" for specific patients, for whom they were given the first name and first initial of the last name.
The patients, meanwhile, were split into three groups of about 600 apiece: those who knew they were being prayed for, those who were prayed for but only knew it was a possibility, and those who weren't prayed for but were told it was a possibility.
The researchers didn't ask patients or their families and friends to alter any plans they had for prayer, saying such a step would have been unethical and impractical. The study looked for any complications within 30 days of the surgery. Results showed no effect of prayer on complication-free recovery. But 59 percent of the patients who knew they were being prayed for developed a complication, versus 52 percent of those who were told it was just a possibility.
Dr. Harold G. Koenig, director of the Center for Spirituality, Theology and Health at the Duke University Medical Center, who didn't take part in the study, said the results didn't surprise him. "There are no scientific grounds to expect a result and there are no real theological grounds to expect a result either," he said. "There is no god in either the Christian, Jewish or Moslem scriptures that can be constrained to the point that they can be predicted." ...Science, he said, "is not designed to study the supernatural."
These results won't be the least bit surprising for any atheist ó indeed, I can imagine that most atheists might regard this entire study as a waste of money. Given how every other such study has come to negative results, couldn't the money have been better spent on measures for improving the health or treating sick people? I have to wonder, though, about religious theists who are surprised and/or disappointed in these results. Why are they surprised? Why are they disappointed? What did they really expect and why?
I must also comment on the last statement by Harold G. Koenig. It says something positive about him that he's unsurprised at the results, but his comment that science "is not designed to study the supernatural" is radically out of place here. Technically he is correct because the supernatural is typically defined in ways that would make it immune to scientific study. Practically speaking, though, we are dealing here with precisely the sort of situation where supernatural claims are scientifically testable.
Take a step back and note carefully what the study is looking at: whether heart surgery patients recover faster under particular conditions. It would be difficult to come up with a situation which is more amenable to scientific study, wouldn't it? If we assume for the sake of argument that some sort of god exists, then perhaps the means by which this god detects prayers, decides on which prayers to answer, and then goes about answering prayers might all indeed be beyond scientific study.
None of that was part of the study, however ó the study was focused narrowly on something unambiguously within the realm of scientific measurement. Saying that "science is not designed to study the supernatural" carries some technical truth, but sometimes it's just used as a weak excuse to avoid taking seriously the empirical claims which religious theists make and putting those claims to the test. After all, if we do take a closer look at those claims, we might find out that they are completely wrong, and then where would religious theists be?