Raymond Lawrence, an Episocopal Priest, comments upon the recent prayer study.
Historically, religions have promoted many kinds of prayer. Prayers of praise, thanksgiving and repentance have been highly esteemed, while intercessions of the kind done in the Benson study — appeals to God to take some action — are of lesser importance. They represent a less-respected magical wing of religion.
In fact, many theologians reject out of hand the notion that any person or group can effectively intercede with God in any respect. Paul Tillich and Karl Barth, the two major Christian theologians of the 20th century (and certainly no opponents of prayer) would have scoffed at the idea. The Lord's Prayer, the central prayer of Christendom, contains no plea for God to influence specific events in people's lives.
The news from science will not lead religious people to stop praying for others. Prayers are expressions of empathy that strengthen a caring community and bring comfort to those who are suffering. Comfort in this context undoubtedly has therapeutic health benefits. But scientists should not leap to the assumption that the ruler of the universe can be mechanically requisitioned to intervene in people's suffering or health.
It is unsurprising and not a little ironic that patients in the study who were told unequivocally they were being prayed for did worse than those who were told only that they might be. When medical personnel dabble in religious practices, we should anticipate that patients might interpret this as a sign of desperation.
...But scientists who conduct research on religious practice should at least consult reputable theologians. Had they done so to begin with a considerable amount of money could have been saved. Scientists who undertake the work of theologians are as reckless as theologians who pretend to be scientists.