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The difference between placebos and prayer

Written By | May 1, 2017

PETALUMA, CA, May 1, 2017 – “The difference between placebos and prayer,” said Dr. Harold Koenig during a workshop he was giving at Duke University’s Center for Spirituality, Theology, and Health, “is that with placebos we know there’s no active ingredient, whereas with prayer we know there is.”

A compelling assertion, to be sure, especially in light of so many these days who are quick to equate the two concepts, particularly in situations where someone is praying for better health. Prayer, they say, not unlike a placebo, is simply a means of fooling the brain into believing whatever it wants to believe and, in so doing, generating whatever chemicals it deems necessary to bring relief to the body.

This is not to say that those who pray for physical healing aren’t seeing consistent results. Oftentimes they are, with plenty of research, including Dr. Koenig’s, to back them up. The sticking point lies in how these results are interpreted.

One such interpretation can be found in the recently published “Suggestible You: The Curious Science of Your Brain’s Ability to Deceive, Transform, and Heal.” Although the author readily admits to the power of prayer, the book includes no substantive exploration of the ways and means of its success. Further, the author compares my particular prayer practice as a Christian Scientist with acupuncture, hypnosis, and witch doctors, all of which are vastly different in purpose and practice from Christianity.

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Certainly the argument can be made that all the author has done is provide a scientific construct through which certain phenomena, including prayer, can be better understood. Yet this assumes matter-based explanations are sufficient to describe decidedly spiritual experiences.

Rather than expanding our understanding of these life-transforming events, such an approach actually restricts it. The effect would be to deprive the world of what so many have come to appreciate as prayer’s single most “active ingredient,” namely, a purer, more consistent love for God and His/Her creation. “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” a lawyer once asked Jesus, to which he replied, “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.”

I understand the theory that when we feel affection toward someone – platonic, romantic or otherwise – certain chemicals in the brain are ignited, and we’re able to observe this reaction using sophisticated machines. I also understand that describing love in these terms in no way diminishes that unique sense of wonder and delight that often accompanies this emotion. Even so, I’m pretty sure this is not how most people would define love, nor is it something they require in order to validate its practical, healing effects.

For me, true love is not a chemical reaction but a divine influence. It’s not so much what we think or even what we do, but what God – that which Christian theologian Mary Baker Eddy defines as the universal principle governing one and all – is forever encouraging us to see and to be. “We love,” declared the apostle John, “because he [God] first loved us.”

Love is that which we naturally reflect of the Divine; what we are designed to express. It is not a placebo. Such a notion becomes all the more illogical when considered in the context of John’s description of God or Spirit – the very opposite of matter – as love itself.  Although love is regarded as a largely subjective experience in that it’s expressed individually, it’s also undeniably objective given that its effects are both measurable and observable.

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Love, or God, as the “active ingredient” in healing is not something to be analyzed as much as it is something to acknowledge, to experience, and to live out to the best of our ability. While there are those who see this as taking a less-than-scientific or, worse, anti-scientific approach to the subject, I see it as quite the opposite. “Jesus of Nazareth was the most scientific man that ever trod the globe,” affirms Eddy. “He plunged beneath the material surface of things, and found the spiritual cause.”

Assuming this is true, that means we’re all bound to discover that love is not merely an “active ingredient,” but the very substance of our being, and the ultimate source of healing.

Eric Nelson writes about the link between consciousness and health from his perspective as a practitioner of Christian Science. He also serves as the media and legislative spokesperson for Christian Science in Northern California. Follow him on Twitter @norcalcs. Continue the conversation on Facebook.


Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson’s column “Consciousness and Health” has appeared on a number of national media websites including The Washington Times, The Washington Post, KevinMD, The Houston Chronicle and American Public Media's "On Being” blog. Eric also serves as the Christian Science Committee on Publication for Northern California, enjoys road biking, and is more than happy to chat with anyone, anytime, about baseball.