Religion as a competing interest

Jon Clarke
Med J Aust 2007; 187 (7): 421-422. || doi: 10.5694/j.1326-5377.2007.tb01319.x
Published online: 1 October 2007

To the Editor: I take issue with the presentation of evidence by Jantos and Kiat1 — firstly, on the effect of intercessory prayer on health, and secondly, on prayer as a supernatural intervention.

The minor positive findings of the Byrd study2 on prayer for coronary care patients, given so much column space, have proved non-reproducible.3 When meta-analysis is applied to the review by Astin et al4 of randomised trials of “distant healing”, the quoted “inconsistent” results of prayer become most definitely non-significant.5 The largest and most robust trial of prayer, by Benson et al (involving 1802 subjects),6 showing no positive effect of prayer on recovery after heart surgery, is mentioned but somewhat dismissed by Jantos and Kiat. As for the Cha and Wirth study on prayer and in-vitro fertilisation7 cited by the authors, simple investigation reveals it to have been an embarrassing fraud. The article was subsequently removed from the journal that published it, and one of the authors went to jail.

In the section entitled “Plausible mechanisms by which prayer delivers health benefits”, the paragraph on “supernatural intervention” includes bible quotations on healing miracles presented as “evidence”. This may constitute sectarian theological material, but it is not medical science.

Analogous to the financial interests of authors, religious groups have their own vested interest in the outcome and interpretation of medical studies involving religious issues. This is due to the intrinsic nature of religious faith, whereby a point of belief constitutes an absolute truth to the believer, irrespective of any other data, but seems implausible to non-believers.

I would suggest that, for the benefit of a secular readership, in articles concerning religion and medicine in the Journal, the Editor should require the authors’ religious position to be stated under “competing interests”.

  • Jon Clarke

  • Flinders Medical Centre, Adelaide, SA.


  • 1. Jantos M, Kiat H. Prayer as medicine: how much have we learned? Med J Aust 2007; 186 (10 Suppl): S51-S53. <MJA full text>
  • 2. Byrd RC. Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. South Med J 1988; 81: 826-829.
  • 3. Harris WS, Gowda M, Kolb JW, et al. A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. Arch Intern Med 1999; 159: 2273-2278.
  • 4. Astin JA, Harkness E, Ernst E. The efficacy of “distant healing”: a systematic review of randomized trials. Ann Intern Med 2000; 132: 903-910.
  • 5. Bolton B. Intercessory prayer [letter]. Ann Intern Med 2001; 135: 1094.
  • 6. Benson H, Dusek JA, Sherwood JB, et al. Study of the Therapeutic Effects Of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) in cardiac bypass patients: a multicenter randomized trial of uncertainty and certainty of receiving intercessory prayer. Am Heart J 2006; 151: 934-942.
  • 7. Cha KY, Wirth DP. Does prayer influence the success of in vitro fertilization-embryo transfer? Report of a masked, randomized trial. J Reprod Med 2001; 46: 781-787.


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