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Prayer Works

THE YEAR IN IDEAS: A TO Z.; Prayer Works

By Jim Holt (NYT) 481 words
Is it superstitious to believe that God answers prayers? Skeptics have long pointed to a lack of hard evidence that petitions addressed to a supernatural being can actually affect the course of worldly events. After all, few prayers have been repeated as often as ''God save the king,'' but statistically that has done nothing for the longevity of British monarchs.

Praying for pregnancy, though, seems to be a different matter. This year, researchers at Columbia University announced their rather startling finding that women in a fertility clinic were almost twice as likely to get pregnant when, unknown to them, total strangers were praying for their success. The clinic was in Korea, and the praying strangers were members of various Christian denominations in the United States, Canada and Australia. They were given pictures of the patients for whose pregnancy they were entreating God, but no other identifying information. Women in the prayed-for group had a pregnancy rate of about 50 percent, versus 26 percent for women in the control group. The Columbia researchers expressed surprise at the magnitude of this difference, saying that they did not expect to find any benefit to prayer at all.

Quite apart from the vexed question of God's existence, prayer is a psychological process with perfectly natural consequences. If a person believes in the efficacy of prayer and knows he is being prayed for, that could certainly affect the state of his psyche and thus his body. What makes the Columbia study so mystifying is that neither the patients nor the staff members at the fertility clinic were even aware of its existence. So the apparent influence of prayer could not be attributed to their beliefs or expectations or to some kind of placebo effect.

There remains, of course, the possibility that the observed prayer effect was due to some subtle defect in the study's design or to pure chance. And skeptics will continue to object to the very idea of a deity meddling in the causal processes that govern our health or the weather or our prospects for victory in war. For their part, believers in the supernatural efficacy of prayer will no doubt continue to put less stock in randomized double-blind scientific studies than in anecdotes of Old Testament-like drama. Remember back in 1985 when Pat Robertson publicly prayed that Hurricane Gloria, which was violently working its way up the Atlantic Coast, miss his Christian Broadcasting Network's headquarters in Virginia Beach? It did -- and then made land at Fire Island, flattening the summer house of Calvin Klein. JIM HOLT

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