The Monitor's View

Does prayer exist, in Washington's eyes?

Despite a big leap in the use of prayer for health among Americans, the government has decided not to study it as a complement or alternative to medicine.

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Here’s a great paradox of our time: Half of the adults in America now call on prayer for healing – or three times the number from the 1990s. Yet the federal government recently decided not to study prayer as an aid to healing – as it had done for years.

Why this sudden disconnect between Washington and half the adult population? Must a spiritual exercise so useful and so common be labeled, as one researcher put it, “parochial” and “unconventional”?

Prayer is certainly central to everyday life in the United States. A large majority of people believe in God, according to polls. And again this year, the US president proclaimed a “national day of prayer” in May.

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“We’re seeing a wide variety of prayer use among people with good income and access to medical care,” says Dr. Amy Wachholtz, a psychiatrist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

She and a fellow researcher released a study last month that is the first to look at trends in the use of prayer for health concerns. They saw a substantial increase from 13.7 percent of adults in 1999 to 49 percent only eight years later.

That’s quite a leap, one that can’t be easily ignored. The data for that study, oddly enough, relied on extensive surveys conducted by the National Institutes of Health. Yet while NIH’s 2002 survey data on prayer use was issued in a report on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), the NIH decided not to issue the data on prayer that was collected in 2007.

As a reason for this shift in policy, the NIH’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine points to studies that claim prayer is outside the “mainstream” of unconventional healing practices and is based on “belief” and not “scientific laws.”

But among its dozens of categories defined as CAM, the center does recognize “spiritual healing,” such as native American “medicine men,” the use of supernatural forces by Curandero folk healers among Latinos, and the use of amulets by Espiritista healers.

Spiritual healing is easier to define for the government, as the meaning is considered to involve a professional practitioner and often is a “mind-body interaction.” Prayer, on the other hand, is regarded as a “private, devotional communication,” commonly seen as a petition for health, blessing, forgiveness, and grace, or as a prayer for others.

Many CAM researchers welcome the use of spirituality in the healing process. But, states a 2009 article “Is Prayer CAM?” in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine: “To include the generic terms ‘prayer’ and ‘intercessory prayer’ (any prayer for the benefit of others) in CAM ... confuses the role of medicine with that of religion.”

Thus, even though the government has found prayer to be the most common type of complementary and alternative medicine, it has decided to define it out of existence as a category for study.

At least for now.

As many CAM researchers admit, defining the categories for their research is a “moving target.” The minimal standard is that such practices are not usually taught in medical schools or generally available in hospitals.

Prayer, of course, is available to anyone, even in a hospital. It includes, after all, the bringing of the laws of God to bear on human thinking, a process which can be as scientific as the laws of material medicine.

To Washington, prayer may be too ambiguous to study. But for those relying on prayer, it is anything but.

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