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Heaven Help Us: Should You Pray for Christopher Hitchens Today?

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In case you didn't realize, today is officially "Everybody Pray for Christopher Hitchens Day." It's a small movement -- if you can even call it that -- that began on the Web to support the 62-year-old author afflicted with esophageal cancer and undergoing chemotherapy.

In 2007, Hitchens wrote the bestselling book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Now, as he confronts the same disease that killed his father, Hitchens also faces three groups of people seizing on the moment: haters who want him to suffer; believers who want him to convert to their faiths; and others who pray for God's intervention on his behalf.

Hitchens says the first group of haters should "go to Hell." As for the second group who want him to convert, he replies: "Thanks, but no thanks." As for the third group praying on his behalf, he says: "It's fine by me, I think of it as a nice gesture. And it may well make them feel better, which is a good thing in itself."

"I'm perfectly sure that there is nothing to be gained from it in point of my health," he tells the Associated Press, "but perhaps I shouldn't even say that. If it would do something for my morale possibly it would do something for my health. We all know that morale is an element in recovery. But incantations, I don't think, have any effect on the material world."

Is Hitchens right? Do incantations have no effect on the material world? Does prayer make a difference in healing? Is Hitchens perhaps pointing to something important when he refers to the connection between "morale" and health? In short, the best evidence suggests that Hitchens is both wrong and right. Prayer may nor may not work - the science points in every direction - but the power of the mind to affect the body is undeniable.

Prayer on someone else's behalf is called intercessory prayer. In the world of medicine, it is controversial because it's so difficult -- if not impossible -- to measure the impact of one person's prayers on another person. Over the years, a number of hotly contested studies have shown that intercessory prayer works and can lead to positive results. Researchers in this field say they're not trying to prove -- or disprove -- the existence of God. Rather, they simply want to understand the impact of belief and faith in the lives of 80 percent of the world's population who are involved in organized religion. (That's 5.2 billion souls, by the way.)

At Duke University Medical Center in 2005, for instance, researchers found that cardiac patients who received stents and intercessory prayer or other nontraditional treatments did better than those with standard stents alone. (A nontraditional or noetic intervention was defined as a "healing influence performed without the use of a drug, device or surgical procedure." Nontraditional treatments included intercessory prayer, stress relaxation, guided imagery, and healing touch.)

Seven different groups around the world from various denominations -- Buddhists, Catholics, Moravians, Jews, fundamentalist Christians, and Baptists -- offered prayers on behalf of patients at Duke in North Carolina. Those who received intercessory prayer or nontraditional treatments had 25 to 30 percent fewer "adverse effects" like death, heart failure, or heart attack compared with those who received the standard treatment alone.

For every study asserting some benefit to intercessory prayer, there seems to be another rebutting it. In April 2006, for instance, researchers divided coronary bypass patients at six hospitals across America into three groups: The first received intercessory prayer for two weeks after being told they would definitely get it; the second got prayer for two weeks after being told they might get it; the third did not receive prayer after being told they might get it. Medical complications occurred in 59 percent of the first group of bypass patients who were certain they were receiving prayer. In the two groups of patients who weren't sure, there were fewer complications: Around 51 percent encountered problems after their bypasses.

The study concluded that intercessory prayer "had no effect on complication-free recovery" from surgery. To the contrary, the study found, "the certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications."

So who is right? Does intercessory prayer make a difference?

While researching my book The Survivors Club, I interviewed Dr. David Hodge who teaches social work at Arizona State University in Phoenix. Hodge noticed that a surprisingly high percentage of social workers pray on behalf of their clients. He wondered if this was a good idea. In social work jargon, is prayer an effective intervention strategy? In 2007, he examined seventeen studies on intercessory prayer and says the answer seems to be a qualified yes. When you look at all the different data, Hodge says, there appear to be "small positive effects for prayer."

How does prayer make an impact? Hodge isn't sure. It could be God or a transcendent force or some other naturalistic mechanism that we don't yet understand. Despite the small benefits, however, Hodge concluded that intercessory prayer can't be considered "an empirically supported intervention" for any problem. In other words, it seems to produce results but it shouldn't replace any other proven methods of treatment.

When I ask whether he prays for himself or others, Hodge initially dodges the question. "After conducting this study, I need to be more prayerful," he says. He's too busy to worship regularly, but he adds, "I would like to move in that direction." Later, he follows up to say there is "sufficient research" linking personal prayer and meditation with positive health outcomes and these practices are "currently warranted from a scientific perspective."

Which brings us back to the question: So should you pray for Christopher Hitchens today?

Hitchens himself says he doesn't want to stop you. "I think that prayer and holy water, and things like that are all fine," he tells the AP. "They don't do any good, but they don't necessarily do any harm. It's touching to be thought of in that way. It makes up for those who tell me that I've got my just desserts ... I wish it was more consoling. But I have to say there's some extremely nice people, including people known to you, have said that I'm in their prayers, and I can only say that I'm touched by the thought."

Touched by the thought, yes. And perhaps even helped -- or, heaven forbid, healed -- in ways that he - and we - can't quite fathom.