Intended for healthcare professionals

History And Mystery

Retroactive prayer: a preposterous hypothesis?

BMJ 2003; 327 doi: (Published 18 December 2003) Cite this as: BMJ 2003;327:1465

In response to: Rustum Roy, 19 January 2004, A Scientist's Perspective.

We agree with Professor Roy that a scientist's evaluation of prayer
should be based on "the unswerving commitment to facts: only facts." This
is different from the response of theologians, philosophers, believers,
and nonbelievers, who may marshal entirely different classes of responses
based on religious teachings, revelation, personal conviction, and private

In writing about the research on prayer and spirituality over the past
decade, we have discovered that this subject is a minefield. Passions run
high and observers often conduct themselves unpredictably. Even
scientists who profess an unstinting devotion to empiricism often behave
in ways they would denounce in others. We understand that science is a
rough-and-tumble enterprise and should be, but often the response to
prayer research seems overheated in the extreme.

The most common departures from "only facts" in physicians' criticisms of
prayer research are theological and philosophical assertions about whether
prayer research should be done, whether consciousness should operate
remotely, whether the Absolute should respond in controlled prayer
experiments, whether these experiments are blasphemous, ad infinitum.

Usually these arguments are combined with passing objections about
experimental design and interpretation, but these often seem secondary to
the underlying personal ire stirred by the experiments themselves. We
submit that the field of prayer research would be advanced immeasurably if
physicians and scientists resisted the temptation to tell the Almighty
what to think and how to behave, and just stick with "only facts" as Roy

We encourage genuine skepticism, the setting aside of disbelief until the
facts are in. Science requires skepticism and cannot be healthy without
it. Yet authentic skepticism is exceedingly demanding. It is a purifying
fire. It requires a dispassionate neutrality that, in areas as incendiary
as prayer, can be difficult to achieve. Thus much of what passes for
skepticism about prayer research is more akin to a contemptuous cynicism,
which author Wallace Stegner called "that armor, that curse, that evasion,
that way of staying safe while seeming wise."
Professor Roy quotes Whitehead's observation that dogma in science bars
"fundamental novelty." Is retroactive (or proactive) prayer so
fundamentally novel that it should be rejected in principle, as Leibovici
suggested, in spite of empirical evidence supporting it? It sometimes
seems that we have lost all balance in what constitutes novelty. Consider
that most cosmologists adhere to the Big Bang, the primordial explosion
that signaled the beginning of the universe. What existed prior to the
Big Bang? The answer generally given is nothing. If scientists are
willing to believe that something as stupendous as the entire Universe
came from nothing, it is difficult to imagine what they would not believe.

If skeptics can swallow the tenets of modern cosmology about the origins
of the universe, why should they go ballistic when a patient gets better
when someone prays for her? There are no controlled studies supporting
the Big Bang, while there are nine controlled clinical studies of prayer,
five of which show statistically significant results. In addition, as we
pointed out, hundreds of controlled studies in nonhuman biological and non
-biological systems buttress these findings, suggesting that the remote
operations of consciousness reflect a deep principle in nature.

Ironically, in spite of this extreme imbalance of evidence favoring remote
intercessory prayer, the Big Bang enjoys much greater acceptance than
prayer. It seems that some forms of novelty are admissible, while others
are not, and that we are dealing with something other than "only facts."

With Professor Roy we look forward to the day when the remote, nonlocal
expressions of consciousness seem less repellant, and "just facts" are
allowed to speak for themselves.
- Brian Olshansky MD and Larry Dossey MD


Chibnall JT, Jeral JM, Cerullo MA. Experiments in distant intercessory
prayer: God, science, and the lesson of Massah. Archives of Internal
Medicine. 2001;161(21):2529-2536.

Dossey L. Prayer and medical science. Archives of Internal Medicine.

Stegner W. Quoted in: Leonard G. Interview of Wallace Stegner.
Brain/Mind Bulletin. 1994;19(6): 7.

Competing interests:
We are the authors of the manuscript responding to responses.

Competing interests: No competing interests

21 January 2004
Brian Olshansky
Professor of Medicine
Larry Dossey
University of Iowa