First Things - Religion and Public Life First Things on your tablet & mobile
Login forgot password? | register Close

Do you pray? How often? Whom (or what) do you pray to (or for)? Does your prayer accomplish anything demonstrable by ordinary means? Do you find yourself praying more frequently when you or your loved ones are ill? Do you ever pray (come on now, be honest) that ill may befall your adversary? Do you think your prayers are heard as clearly, are as effective, as those of your clergy? Where do your prayers go, and how do they know how to get there?

This is merely an aliquot of the myriad questions raised by Larry Dossey, M.D., in his most recent work Healing Words (he has written four previous books mining the same general vein). Dossey as a teenager suffered from disabling migraine headaches and after having been subjected to the traditional pharmacopeia without success, was finally cured with the use of biofeedback. As a result he became intrigued with the mind-body relationship and continues to examine it in some rather audacious exploratory probes.

Now, Dossey is decidedly no fringe nut. He is a graduate of Southwestern Medical School, he completed a residency training in internal medicine at the Parkland Hospital in Dallas (forever enshrined in memory as the facility to which President John F. Kennedy was rushed on that fateful November day in 1963), served for one year as a battalion surgeon in Vietnam, then practiced his specialty in Dallas for many years. Several years ago he gave up his private practice owing to a chronic sciatic condition from which he still suffers. He refuses to employ conventional drug therapy to relieve this condition, instead relying on what he describes as “consciousness-oriented techniques”-which as of this writing seem regrettably to have been unsuccessful. The sciatica, however, seems not, in any significant wise, to have impeded his writing avocation; his books sell at a brisk pace, although an admittedly cursory survey of the religious bookshops in New York City has disclosed that none of them carries his work.

His credentials (and credenda) in the sphere of religion are-to be charitable-murky. He waffles on the question of whether or not he is a Protestant Christian, and forthrightly denies that he has a formal affiliation to any identifiable religious subset or denomination. He is, to his credit, refreshingly candid in his dismissal of any personal involvement in Judaism, Roman Catholicism, any of the Eastern Orthodoxies-and has only a basilisk stare and a crapulous flick of the wrist for the likes of the New Age doyens: e.g., Roxayne Veasey and her magic crystals, Ted Andrews and his vibrational therapies to overcome energy lockages, Wicca (the religion of the witches). As for Shirley MacLaine and her transcendentally fatuous inventions, he has only a withering contempt.

As a trained physician, Dossey has at least a passing acquaintance with the principles of science. He insists that unless a claim (e.g., that prayer can affect the natural undisturbed course of physical illness) can be validated with rigid empirical laboratory analysis, it can be discarded as “anecdotal,” the ultimate put-down in the world of medical experimentation. Thus he distances himself (with no little disdain) from Christian Science on the issue of prayer affecting the course of disease and gives short shrift to Mary Baker Glover Patterson Eddy and even shorter shrift to her lesser-known mentor Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (what a fine Dickensian name!) who practiced touch healing in New England in the mid-nineteenth century. In fact, there is only one reference to Christian Science in his book and that concerns the Spindrift organization-a dissident splinter group of Christian Scientists-which carried out some rather primitive experimentation attempting to correlate the effects of prayer on the growth rate of molds in the laboratory. The investigators concluded that non-directed prayer was more effective in inhibiting the growth of the molds than focused direct prayer. (Direct prayer is defined as prayer attempting to steer the system in a desired direction, while non-directed prayer refrains from instructing the universe what to do.)

Dossey also explores briefly the “Therapeutic Touch” technique and alludes to the work of Dolores Krieger, Ph.D., of New York University. Krieger qua healer actually never touches the subject of her healing art; her hands are maintained at a short distance from the patient’s body. Dossey then cites experiments on people with artificially created deep skin wounds and indicates that Krieger, using her Therapeutic Touch (or non-touch) approach demonstrably sped the healing of the treated subjects while the placebo (untreated) group lagged appreciably.

There are, to be sure, a number of serious flaws in this type of experimentation: is it ethically sound deliberately to inflict a serious wound on a human subject merely to test a therapeutic approach? After all, a full-thickness dermal excision is no trivial matter medically, and one wonders how the informed consent for such experimentation would read. Further, while Dossey holds himself out as a scientific rigorist, where are the exacting normative standards by which to assess the biostatistical validity of these and similar experiments he quotes: where are the chi-square tests, the student-t tests, the meta-analyses, the logistic-regression analyses? These are the classic mathematical means by which one determines the confidence levels of the results of serious biological experimentation, and about any of these there is not one word in this book. Finally, why are so many of these experiments reported in obscure publications like Subtle Energies and not in demanding peer-review scientific and medical journals?

Dr. Dossey relies heavily on the corpus of work churned out of the Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research lab (PEAR) headed by Robert Jahn, Professor of Aerospace Sciences and Dean Emeritus of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University. This laboratory is funded not by Princeton but by private donors (the Rockefeller Foundation, the McDonnell Foundation, the Fetzer Institute). Jahn and his colleague Brenda Dunne utilize such infernal machines as the Random Events Generator (REG) to investigate the influence of human intention on machines, i.e., the role and power of human consciousness on the physical world. They style themselves as investigators of the paraphysical world and shun any connection with parapsychology (e.g., ESP).

The REG is a source of electronic “white noise” generated by a random microscopic physical process such as thermal electron currents in a solid-state diode, or a gaseous discharge, or a system of radioactive decay. Electronic logic circuitry then transforms and distributes this ”noise” into a regularly spaced string of random alternating binary pulses or “bits” that other sophisticated circuitry counts, displays, and records. In short, this machine operates as an electronic coin- flipping device. By strictly controlling all other known variables, one can then measure the effect of the intention (consciousness) of the operator on the distribution curve with remarkable accuracy. (As one who turns several shades of puce trying to program the VCR, I am in no position to render a learned critique on the mathematical perfect randomness of the REG.)

Jahn and his associates contend that their experience with this and similar circuitry proves indisputably that for some operators consciousness can significantly influence the pattern of distribution of the machines: it is as if, by merely focusing your entire consciousness, you could alter the results of one thousand flips of a coin from the expected 50/50 distribution to a 60/40 or 75/25 distribution. They contend that the interaction of human consciousness with physical devices can produce results that are to be regarded as entirely unexpected in the otherwise cold mathematical world of hard data and disinterested statistical results.

But the leap from this type of experimentation (if indeed one accepts the results of this work uncritically and undemandingly) to the influence of non-local prayer (prayer attempting to influence events at a distance) is a long and daring one, more suitable for Evel Knieval than Larry Dossey (or this reader). Is prayer a variety of focused consciousness? Is the course of human events as random as the REG? Not if one is a Skinnerian, or an adherent of one of the Eastern religions. Can the influence of non-local prayer be measured with the same mathematical precision as Jahn and his co-workers can achieve in the tightly controlled, meticulously calculated universe of his laboratory?

The overarching theme of the Dossey book, then, is that prayer of a special kind (intercessory as opposed to petitionary, and non-local as opposed to local) is a form of consciousness/human intention and therefore qualifies to be analyzed by the scientific method with respect to its effect on human events. But, as we have seen, these claims have not been subjected to critical mathematical analysis, and at times Dossey’s largely anecdotal (sorry about that) data summon to mind such Marin county flakiness as Silva mind control (so hilariously satirized by Cyra McFadden in her book The Serial ) more than the stern and disciplined approach of the PEAR lab.

But this is not to say that prayer for someone else at a distance- intercessory non-local prayer-is an exercise in futility. I once visited a dear friend who had been hospitalized and operated upon twice for a particularly malignant cancer of the bowel, and as I left his room at the conclusion of the visit he asked me, in a weak and quavering voice, ”Pray for me, Bernie.” I did. As a surgeon I was afraid he would not leave the hospital alive, so virulent and aggressive was the tumor. He is-to my astonishment-alive, robust, and bursting with the prospect of new projects today, a year and a half later. Go explain.

Regrettably, Dossey finally segues into shamanism, distant hexing, and the death prayer: what he terms “negative prayer.” This is the least convincing segment of his book, invoking as he does Uri Geller, the mentalist, the “black thumb” curse of amateur gardeners, and post- hypnotic suggestion. The claims he makes for these quasi-epistemic phenomena are, if anything, more shaky and more anecdotal than those that precede it. This concluding section functions only to undercut a good deal of the respectful attention he has demanded of his reader to this point. In short, the carnival atmosphere does not work to evoke scientific respect.

I came away from this book largely unconvinced that non-local intercessory prayer can be scientifically equated with the effects of human consciousness on random machine activity as demonstrated by Jahn and his colleagues at the PEAR. Nevertheless, I was arrested by a charming little tale inserted almost as an afterthought into the last section of the book. Dossey tenderly recounts a visit to a patient of his who was dying of cancer. The dying man had never been a religious person, but revealed to the doctor that he had been praying frequently. When asked what he prayed for, he replied that he didn’t pray for anything.

“How would I know what to ask for?” he queried.

“Well,” said Dossey, “if prayer is not for asking, then what is it for?”

“It isn’t for anything,” the patient responded, “it mainly reminds me that I am not alone.”

Somebody say Amen.

Bernard N. Nathanson, M.D. is author of Aborting America and The Abortion Papers. Currently, he is Visiting Fellow at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University.