Prayers for Muamba

Mark Easton
Home editor
@BBCMarkEastonon Twitter

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Have you prayed for Fabrice Muamba today? His family are exhorting the country to believe in the power of prayer, and I suspect many millions of Britons, whether they have faith or not, will have felt moved to offer a silent appeal to an invisible power asking that the young footballer pull through.

The front page of today's Sun newspaper is devoted to the headline "God is in Control" below the subheading "Praying for Muamba". "In God's Hands" says the Daily Star. Chelsea defender Gary Cahill pulled off his shirt after scoring yesterday to reveal a vest encouraging supporters to "Pray 4 Muamba", his former team-mate.

Bolton Wanderers and Muamba's friends and relatives have said they have been touched by the out-pouring of goodwill towards the player. His club manager Owen Coyle said: "Everybody is praying for Fabrice, which is very important, and that has been a real source of strength to the family."

The dreadful sight of a young, apparently healthy athlete collapsing in front of tens of thousands of football fans is a sharp reminder of the unpredictability of all our lives. We can never be in total control of our destiny and so, like generations before us, at times of stress or crisis we look to the heavens in the search for meaning and hope.

image copyrightAP
image captionChelsea defender Gary Cahill asks fans to pray

A BBC survey in 2004 suggested roughly six out of 10 people in the UK believe in some sort of divine being and research concludes that there is a basic human desire for supernatural involvement in matters of health and wellbeing.

In the Christian tradition, the New Testament states that "prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well" (James 5.15). It is a claim that pits medical rationalism against religious conviction and for centuries scientists and preachers have argued over the evidence that prayer works.

In 1872, Sir Francis Galton's classic paper Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer was published in The Fortnightly Review. He reasoned that, if praying was effective, then monarchs should live longer than comparable groups. Galton set about examining the mean age attained by men who had survived beyond the age of 13 between 1758 and 1843. The data excluded deaths by accident or violence.

The group who tended to live longest were the gentry (roughly 70 years) and the lowest mean was among members of royal houses (64 years). From this, Galton concluded that "the sovereigns are literally the shortest-lived of all who have the advantage of influence. The prayer has, therefore, no efficacy."

However, trust in the power of prayer remained. That pioneer of nursing Florence Nightingale was a believer, writing that "often when people seem unconscious, a word of prayer reaches them". A number of scientific experiments have been conducted over the years to try and demonstrate what effect, if any, intercessionary prayer might have.

A book entitled The Power of Prayer on Plants published in 1959 detailed the results of research involving 150 people and 27,000 seeds and seedlings. The author Franklin Loehr concluded that plants for which people prayed showed a better rate of survival and growth than plants which did not enjoy the benefit of prayer.

In 1988, the American doctor Randolph Byrd recruited some born-again Christians to pray outside a San Francisco coronary care unit for a randomized group among 400 patients. The remainder were not subject to prayers. His paper in the Southern Medical Journal concluded that patients in the intercessory prayer group had "a significantly lower severity score" than the control group.

"These data suggest that intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God has a beneficial therapeutic effect in patients admitted to a CCU," he concluded.

In 2007, researchers at Arizona State University decided to do a systematic review of all the literature on the efficacy of prayer to see what picture emerged. In setting out its findings, the paper states that "although it is theoretically possible that a transcendent being exists and responds to prayer, it is also possible that prayer taps into presently undiscovered natural mechanisms that produce change".

The study looked at 17 previously published papers and found that "patients who received intercessory prayer demonstrated significant improvement" in seven of those. However, there were questions about the validity of some of the research and the evidence was not sufficient for "prayer" to meet the criteria required for an "empirically supported treatment" in the United States.

"Intercessory prayer offered on behalf of clients in clinical settings is a controversial practice, in spite of its apparent frequent occurrence. The topic is one that engenders both support and opposition, often passionately held," the research concluded.

"Thus, at this junction in time, the results might be considered inconclusive. Indeed, perhaps the most certain result stemming from this study is the following: The findings are unlikely to satisfy either proponents or opponents of intercessory prayer."

The evidence, however, is stronger in terms of the apparent efficacy of prayer on those who are doing the praying. A much-cited American paper from 1983 entitled "Are religious people nice people?" attempted to plot links between people who prayed and pro-social behaviour. The author concluded that "those who pray frequently" tend to be more cooperative and friendly.

A study in Britain of 4,000 12-15-year-olds conducted in 1992 by the academic and Anglican priest Leslie Francis found that "as many as one young person in every three who never has contact with church nonetheless prays at least occasionally". The frequency of personal prayer, he concluded, is "an important predictor of perceived purpose in life".

Whatever you might think about its links to a supernatural being, intercessory prayer is a straightforward way for an individual to focus the mind on their capacity to think nice thoughts. Anyone can close their eyes and make a wish that bad things do not happen. Right now, Britain is praying that Fabrice Muamba makes a speedy and full recovery.