Prayer vs. the Pill

If prayer has such extraordinary power to accomplish miracles, why does modern medicine refuse to take it seriously? With so much at stake, choosing the wrong kind of treatment can cost you more than your life.

Last month Jesse, the owner/operator of El Camino Pest Control, stopped by on a scheduled appointment to protect our home from the various creepy crawlies that share our Southern California desert habitat. Jesse tells me that his company wasn’t named for the small Chevrolet pickup truck that made its debut more than forty years ago. Rather, it comes from Spanish, his mother tongue, in which el camino means “the way.” It is also the common name for El Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James), one of the most important pilgrimages in Christian history, since for those who undertake it all sins are considered forgiven. The route can begin in any one of many cities throughout Europe and eventually ends at the magnificent Romanesque cathedral in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela that lends the pilgrimage its name. Several books – most notably The Pilgrimage by Paul Coelho and Shirley MacLaine’s The Camino – speak of the significant transformations that befall those who commit the month or more of their lives to wending their way along this 1,000-year-old route.

I would have forgotten all about the name Jesse chose for his business, except that he told me of a local miracle he had just witnessed – or rather instigated. A few weeks earlier Jesse had participated in an all-male retreat of the Brothers United in Christ. On the final night, just before the group was to disband, Jesse asked that they pray for one of his close friends that he might recover from a coma that had already lasted some ten days. Shortly after returning home Jesse learned that his friend had come out of the coma at the precise moment the group was praying.

One could easily chalk it off as coincidence, an unexplainable synchronism, except that science tells us otherwise. According to Larry Dossey, MD, author of Healing Words, prayer is a real, powerful, and effective method of healing, and its efficacy has been demonstrated in controlled studies. However, Dossey’s conclusions do not rest easily in the minds of the many medical and scientific skeptics who view prayer as little more than religious mumbo jumbo.

I have watched this debate for decades and am reminded of it each time my wife, a traditional naturopath, shares with me a contemptuous remark that one of her clients heard from his or her allopathic doctor. A recent example is one medical practitioner who scoffed at homeopathy, saying, “We don’t have time for such treatments.” He was keen to prescribe a drug that would address the symptoms fast—even if it caused unfortunate side effects. Is this a simple turf war between healing modalities, or does something more insidious lie at the root of this debate?

The difficulty of wading into these turbulent waters is that there is less common ground between the conventional treatments preferred by surgeons and drug companies and the methods offered by acupuncture, naturopathy, energy work, homeopathy, and other alternative modalities than one might imagine. In fact, the differences run as deep as the basic understanding of the nature of disease. According to the biochemical and/or biomechanical model of the conventionalists, the symptoms define the disease. Hence, abatement of the symptoms is their primary objective. If a symptom can be altered mechanically, then a surgical procedure is needed; if not, the practitioner browses the pharmaceutical literature seeking a chemical or radiological intervention that will address the unwanted condition.

Natural therapists work from a bioelectrical and/or bioenergetic model. They view symptoms as the final phase of a cascading syndrome (running from the spiritual through the emotional to the physical) that ultimately finds expression in the body. Consequently, they are less concerned with treating the symptom and more interested in addressing its underlying cause. By this approach, each case is a unique occurrence and cannot be lumped into a homogeneous statistical grouping for scientific study.

While the conventional medical community acknowledges prayer and placebo (an inert substance given to participants in drug trials as a control) as agents of change, they typically relegate them outside the realm of science. The fact that in some instances more than 50 percent of people respond positively to a placebo is dismissed by most doctors as a meaningless anomaly in an otherwise sound scientific study. The fact that people who are prayed over may be immediately and spontaneously healed is disregarded just as quickly. This is unfortunate, because modern medicine, along with most of the First World’s government institutions that protect and regulate such matters, has bet the farm on its model being 100 percent infallibly correct. And there are restrictive laws are already on the books or in the process of being written that severely curtail the legal options available to those who don’t share this simplistic view.

I would suggest that we are far more than biochemical beings. Even calling us bioelectrical or bioenergetic hardly begins to describe the fullness of who we are. Metaphysician Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said we are spiritual beings having a human experience. To thinkers such as Teilhard, treating only the physical symptom is like cutting away the portion of a movie screen on which a displeasing image was projected. A more holistic view would be to change the film in the projector.

There are reasons why prayer and placebos are so powerful. There are also reasons why very young children and animals – who have no appreciation of the substances they are taking and therefore cannot be accused of psychological self-healing – respond so well to subtle remedies such as homeopathic medicines and Bach flower essences, which continue to defy modern science’s understanding. Wouldn’t it be more productive to explore why Korean hand therapy, acupuncture, NAET (Nambudripad’s Allergy Elimination Techniques), and other modalities based on the ancient Chinese energy meridian system consistently achieve such stunning results than to haughtily dismiss them as unscientific?

This isn’t just an abstruse debate between science and the occult. It comes down to each of us having to determine who we think we really are. One the one hand, we are invited to consider ourselves an exquisitely organized creation of meat and bones (with an ever-increasing invasion of fat) who is here for one lap around the carousel before we go to an ill-defined eternal hereafter, the nature of which is determined by how we ride our little horse. On the other hand, we have the option of seeing ourselves as Teilhard de Chardin suggested: an individuated portion of cosmic consciousness pretending to have a human experience. If we adopt the latter, then prayer, healing touch, shamanic ritual, and other subtle remedies are not only perfectly understandable but desirable.

The rub – and there’s always a rub – is that selecting holistic model won’t let us remain passive; we are required to exercise our personal power and actively participate in the healing of our condition. Physical symptoms are no longer unwanted annoyances but are welcomed as valued teachers that open doorways to deeper self-exploration. Going with conventional medicine is easier in this respect. Yet subjecting ourselves to the chemical and mechanical approach to healing seems to require us to abdicate our power as we turn our own recovery, or that of our loved ones, over to the doctors.

This is not an easy choice for anyone. Perhaps I should ask Jesse to have his prayer group pray for us all the next time they meet.

Jean-Claude Gerard Koven is a writer and speaker based in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. He was a featured weekly columnist for the UPI (United Press International) Religion and Spirituality Forum and is the author of Going Deeper: How to Make Sense of Your Life When Your Life Makes No Sense, recipient of both the Allbooks Reviews Editor’s Choice Award and the Award for the Best Metaphysical Book of the Year.

©2004 – 2021. Jean-Claude Gerard Koven / All Rights Reserved.


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