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The Contender
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12 Points

Spiritual healing and distant healing actually work

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Voting Style: Open Point System: 7 Point
Started: 6/3/2010 Category: Science
Updated: 6 years ago Status: Post Voting Period
Viewed: 1,523 times Debate No: 12237
Debate Rounds (3)
Comments (4)
Votes (2)




I'm going to start off with an explanation of the topic. It is that spiritual healing and distant healing like from a medicine man, or a group prayer can actually help people.

The definition of spiritual healing I am using for this debate is "systematic, purposeful intervention by one or more persons aiming to help another living being (person, animal, plant or other living system) by means of focused intention, hand contact, or passes to improve their condition." -Daniel J. Benor, MD

Distant healing is, "healing that is deliberately sent by one or more healers as an intent, wish, meditation, or prayer to a healee who may be in the healers' presence or may be far away." - Daniel J. Benor, MD


Thank you for this debate sammyc. I'll start off with a few definitions and conditions of my own that I'm sure you'll agree with. First, for healing to be healing, quite simply, it must help. This agrees with your definition. Second, if a process causes more physical harm to a person than benefits, that person is not being healed. This also logically makes sense; you don't heal a person by hurting them more than you help them. (and yes, it should be more than him or her, but that takes forever). Third: for a technique to be accepted as genuine, its effects must be at least measurably greater than those of a placebo. This is also readily apparent; it has been demonstrated that the body will heal itself more if it thinks it is being healed, and so the effect of a technique must be shown to be greater than that of the body's own healing process.

Now, the largest and seemingly most ethically conducted study that I could find on this topic is one that was conducted over a 10 year period on 1,802 patients receiving heart surgery. This was to ensure comparability between subjects. Patients were divided into three groups, two were prayed for and one was not. Of the two being prayed for, one group was informed that they were being prayed for, while the other was not. The group not informed that they were being prayed for showed no improvement over the group not prayed for. However, the group told that they were being prayed for actually had more complications after surgery than the other two groups. Clearly, this alone disproves any positive effect from prayer, since a single blind trial showed no effect and a non-blinded trial, which should at least have displayed a placebo effect if prayer/distance healing was effective, actually harmed patients. Finally, the source of much of the funding for the study was the Templeton Foundation, which is an extremely religion-friendly organization, so there is clearly no bias in the results due to a desire to appease the funders of the study.

Now, as for non-prayer spiritual/distant healing: The study alone shows a null or negative correlation between prayer and healing. I in this case have taken prayer to be the same as spiritual or distant healing, in that prayer for one's recovery is a direct and purposeful attempt at intervention via focused intention. If you believe this is not the case, feel free to debate me on it, but as it stands they appear to me to be the same thing or at least the same general idea.

Now, as I have provided clear evidence that prayer, spiritual, or distant healing do not work, there is a large burden of proof placed on Pro to demonstrate that his claims are true. I must simply state that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Since the burden of proof is on Pro anyway to validate his claims, he now has an additional hurdle in that there is evidence against his claim, rather than simply no evidence for his claim.
Debate Round No. 1


Daniel J. Benor, MD wrote an article to review 61 studies on distant healing. In this article he goes over three studies in particular; the first conducted by Randolph Byrd. He conducted the experiment on 393 patients in the Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CCU) of the 393 192 were in the experimental group, and 201 in the control group. This was Byrd's finding,

"Significantly fewer patients in the prayer group required intubation;ventilation (p < 0.002) or antibiotics (p < 0.005), had cardiopulmonary arrests (p < 0.02), developed pneumonia (p < 0.03) or required diuretics (p < 0.05)."

There is a possibility that friends and family of people in the control group were praying for them, so that would make the difference smaller and increase the results of the control group.

William S. Harris and colleagues conducted the same experiment at a different CCU, and increased the numbers of each group (466 in experimental, and 524 in control. They also created scales to measure how well a person was doing.

William S. Harris found that, "On both the weighted and unweighted scales, the treated group showed significantly greater improvements (both at p < 0.04)."
Fred Sicher, and Elizabeth Targ did the same type of study but on AIDS patients. These people along with prayers also received standard medical treatment.

Fred Sicher and Elizabeth Targ found that, "At six months following the initial assessment, those sent distant healing had significantly fewer AIDS-related illnesses (p < 0.04) and lower severity of illnesses (p < 0.02). Visits to doctors were less frequent (p < 0.01), as were hospitalizations (p < 0.04), and days in hospital (p < 0.04). Mood was assessed on the Profile of Mood States (POMS). Again there was significantly more improvement in the prayer group (p < 0.02)."


Well well, that certainly looks like an impressive list of studies. Let's take it apart.

I'll start with the last one first. The Targ study: "Shortly after Dr. Targ's death, her methods came under attack. An article in Wired magazine charged that she and her co-authors had massaged their data on AIDS to make the effects of prayer look better than they were.

Officials at California Pacific conducted an investigation of the study and concluded that the data had not been manipulated. Dr. John Astin, who is running the second AIDS study, said the biggest weakness of Dr. Targ's first trial was that it was too small to be conclusive."

and "But in a letter defending the study, the hospital's director of research also acknowledged that he could not tell for sure from the original medical records which patients had been prayed for and which had not been.

'Each subject's name, age and date of birth were blinded with what appears to be a black crayon,' he wrote."

Soooo basically we have a study that has a small enough control group that positive results can appear to be statistically significant when they may not be, which is further marred by the fact that records were probably altered or tampered with. If I flipped a coin ten times and it came up heads 6 times, and then changed my data so it said it came up heads 7 times, yeah, that might look convincing and I could even say hey, I ran a study and heads comes up more than tails, it must be true! But I didn't do enough trials to show that in the long run with enough flips, heads and tails will tend to even themselves out. And if you think I oversimplify, this study had 40 people. So if by freak chance one member of the control group died and everyone else did the same, it would appear that prayer increases your chances of survival by 5%. Size matters when conducting scientific research. So that's one bit of evidence shot down.

Here's a critique:

Now, as for the other 2 studies:

Both are essentially the same study replicated at different hospitals, so I can deal with them as one. The essential problems in this study were several. I have to split a little here. The first one you mentioned, the Byrd study, made a 2 big flaws that even I can see, I not being a statistician or a doctor. One is that the control and prayer groups, while pronounced equal by Byrd, were in fact very different. First, the median age of the control group was 2 years higher than that of the prayer group, which makes a big difference with heart disease. Next, the prayer group contained both a greater number and a higher percentage of women than the control, which is significant because women are less prone to heart conditions than men. Third, the control group had a greater percentage of prior acute MCI's (heart attacks), also a major factor in treatment, as well as a higher percentage of unstable angina, cardiomyopathy, and supraventricular tachyarrhythmia (really fast irregular heartbeat). Basically the prayer group was healthier to begin with, and although I'm not going to go down the list for the Harris study, it's a similar story.

Next big mistake in these studies was the analysis. Now, when you do a study, you generally test for one thing, for example a hypothesis might be "prayer reduces the number and severity of heart attacks." But these studies didn't do that. Basically they ran the study and then cherry picked the categories that they used to quantify how prayer was better. Now, there is a technique called meta analysis in which you analyze data collected in previous studies that show a result that the study wasn't searching for. For example, a study that sought to find out whether a new drug lowered blood pressure might have found no result, and reported such. But analyzing the data, one might find that those on the drug had their cholesterol lowered significantly, and a meta analyzer might point this out. However, if the study makers had done a study to assess blood pressure, found no result, but looked and found the cholesterol correlation, it would be intellectually dishonest of them to act as though the entire study was based on finding out whether the drug lowered cholesterol. Such is the case here; there was no specific criterion established for the efficacy of prayer other than the rating of Good, Intermediate, or Bad. The authors of the studies simply took whatever criterion they chose to support their theories.

Another death blow to the studies was that while they were double blind at the outset, meta analysis revealed the identities of the patients to the analyzers (who happened to be the same doctors that fervently believe in the efficacy of prayer) either directly or through the fact that with so few patients in the trial, a doctor could easily recognize most of them. In fact, the people behind the Harris study could not duplicate Byrd's results using Byrd's scoring system, which should have worked if in fact Byrd's scoring system was not based entirely on manipulation of data.

Now, here's a genuine, double blind, large, independently non-meta analyzed study. Run by the Mayo Clinic. Now, this will at first sound like an appeal to authority, but in fact it is not. The Mayo Clinic is basically one of the best medical centers in the world. When they run a study, it is almost guaranteed to be well run. Guess what this study found? That's right, absolutely no correlation between prayer and healing.

So here's my summary. You've presented 3 studies. One is so severely flawed that it cannot be at all counted. The other two are also extremely flawed in that they are meta analyzed rather than attempting to find a specific result. I've presented two studies that between them have more than double the total number of patients in your studies. They are well controlled, triple blind (meaning even the data analyzer does not initially know what group a given patient was in), and run by some of the best research institutions in the country. One was even funded by a religion supporting institution, the Templeton Foundation. And I didn't even include the MANTRA studies run by Duke, which also showed no evidence of the efficacy of prayer.

In briefer summary: Professional, well done studies show no result, while studies run and analyzed by people with a strong religious bias show a pro-religion view. Does this mean that only religious study makers can find prayer's effects, or that religious study makers are manipulating data to create such an effect? I leave it to the voters to decide.
Debate Round No. 2


sammyc96 forfeited this round.


Since my opponent has forfeited, my arguments will be extended for this round. I so far have presented several reliable studies done by some of the best universities in the country by impartial reviewers; my opponent has presented three seriously flawed, small studies done by those with a clear interest in the promotion of faith healing as a medically viable. I'll leave it to the voters to decide.
Debate Round No. 3
4 comments have been posted on this debate. Showing 1 through 4 records.
Posted by Yvette 6 years ago
The hands! I lol'd.
Posted by sammyc96 6 years ago
I'm arguing that there is a scientific basis and that the intended result does happen
Posted by Volkov 6 years ago
Question: are you arguing that there is a scientific basis for why this works, or supernatural?
Posted by surfride 6 years ago
are you arguing that it exists?
2 votes have been placed for this debate. Showing 1 through 2 records.
Vote Placed by ravenwaen 6 years ago
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Vote Placed by Yvette 6 years ago
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