In the past century, physical scientists and religious believers have often taken separate paths in their pursuits of truth. But in recent years there's been a growing interest in applying scientific methods to study the effects of prayer.
To date, most of the effort has been driven by researchers in the United States. In what could be a major step to broaden scientific inquiry of prayer, a panel of leading religious figures and medical researchers used a conference of the Parliament of World's Religions in Barcelona, Spain, to announce the opening of the Office for Prayer Research.
Medical researchers at Duke and Harvard universities joined author Deepak Chopra and Tom Zender, president of Unity, a spiritual movement, to introduce the center, to be based in Missouri.
Mr. Zender says that the new office will offer "a safe haven where different researchers [working on the scientific study of prayer] can come together to collaborate and share information." He sees the new center as a "global repository" that will not sponsor scientific studies into prayer's effectiveness, but will gather information and make it available to others.
For its supporters, the Office for Prayer Research signals a public acknowledgment that prayer's benefits to health are being taken seriously.
Dr. Chopra, who hosted the panel, explained: "Even though prayer has existed in every spiritual tradition, only recently has science begun to validate that prayer 'works,' which in the field of medicine means that patients who are prayed over recover faster and have fewer complications from serious illness. But science is at a loss over why prayer works, and it will remain at a loss until we revise our most basic theories of what we call reality."
Yet the scientific study of prayer's possible benefits thus far has aroused far less interest in Europe than in the US. Most scientific studies on the subject originate in the United States, and a recent report in the British Medical Journal that demonstrated the positive effect that rosary and mantra recitations have on respiratory rates received more attention in American circles than in European ones.
Chris Wiltsher, an officer of the European Society for the Study of Science and Theology, attributes this skepticism to the pronounced resistance by European academic institutions to studying the intersections between religion and science.
"At the academic level, the interest in recognizing the overlap is zero and will remain zero," he says. Anything that takes science into another area like religion is viewed with suspicion by those who control the funding strings."
But others perceive a shift in attitudes in Europe. "Studies have shown that many of the European countries are quite post-Christian - hardly anyone goes to church anymore," says Karl Giberson, editor of Science & Theology News. "Yet those cultures continue to report high levels of spirituality; belief in God remains high, and the number of people who engage in prayer is quite high. So I think there will be a receptivity to this kind of initiative, precisely because it's not going to be couched in a narrow theological context."
Certainly the robust attendance at the week-long parliament - more than 6,000 attendees are expected - suggests that Europeans may be interested in learning about alternative forms of spirituality.
Felix Marti, director of the UNESCO center of Catalunya, which is sponsoring the parliament, remarked at the opening ceremony: "The dialogue among religions must include nonbelievers and agnostics, since we live in a secular society."