Similarly, Ken Pargement of Bowling Green State University compared the benefits of spiritual meditation to secular meditation on headache sufferers. In a study published in August, he and his colleagues asked a group of people who suffer migraines to meditate 20 minutes each day by repeating a spiritual mantra, such as "God is good. God is peace. God is love." Another group was instructed to use a nonspiritual mantra: "Grass is green. Sand is soft." After a month, the spiritual meditators reported a greater decline in the number of headaches—as well as a greater increase in pain tolerance. "There seems to be something special that spiritual resources offer in times of trouble," says Pargament. His approach of randomly assigning one treatment to some patients and another to others is considered the gold standard of medical research.
Yet religious acts have come up short in other randomized tests. A widely publicized 2006 study of some 1,800 people concluded that "intercessory prayer"—prayer by other people for someone else's welfare—did not help patients recover after cardiac surgery. A group of about 600 patients who unknowingly received prayer had no fewer complications than a group that wasn't prayed for; a third group of patients, who knew they were being prayed for, actually fared worse. The study set off a firestorm of controversy about how—and whether—to test faith.
"One of the problems is what's being studied is different from what most people believe about intercessory prayer," says David Hufford, who teaches spirituality and health at the University of Pennsylvania. Providing a random group of people "a particular dose of prayer to get better faster, administered by people they don't know" may miss the point of the deeper meaning and purpose behind the prayers, he says.
- Part 2 of 2. Read Part 1: 'Say Two Hail Marys, and Call Me in the Morning.'