To pray or not to pray

I’ve heard many people claim that research proves that praying for sick people helps them heal, even if the sick people don’t know they’re being prayed for. This claim bugs me because (a) no one seems to have any information about the supposed research, and (b) I don’t believe prayer works like that if it did, what would that say to all the people whose prayers for their sick loved ones have not helped?

Today I read about a recent study of prayer that showed no effect. Actually, it showed a slight negative effect: People who knew they were being prayed for had a few more complications. Maybe because a few recipients wanted to help prove the power of prayer so much that they stressed themselves out. More likely it’s a statistical fluke. I have a mathematically illiterate theory that some day we will discover that most of statistics is just coincidence and nonsense. It makes me feel better about a lot of polling data, anyway.

I believe that people who want to pray are helped themselves by praying, psychologically, and that people who want others to pray for them are helped by believing that others are praying for them. (Whether those others are or not-though I don’t recommend telling someone you’ll pray for them if you don’t intend to. It won’t hurt them, but lying may make you feel like . . . well, like a liar.)

But above all of this, what I believe as a humanist is that the best form of prayer is positive action. There’s no controversy at all that ill people who have caring support-cards, visits, knowing their plants are being watered and their pets fed and their bills paid and their kids looked after-do better than those who don’t get such support.

So whatever the research says, pray or don’t pray, as you like. Just don’t use prayer to try to replace real caring actions here on earth.