Over the past few years of reading the religion pages in your local newspaper, you may have come across a reference to something called distant intercessory prayer. The word “intercessory” in this phrase refers to the notion of a deity interceding in worldly events. Distant intercessory prayer is a practice carried out by religious groups in which people from far away pray that good things happen to a person. Distant intercessory prayer is often carried out in an attempt to heal sick people, but there is no evidence that it works. To the contrary, in controlled scientific trials of distant intercessory prayer, those who received these faith healing “treatments” fared no better than those in a control group who received no such “treatment.”
Last week, the Washington Post reported that Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts is pushing hard to get a provision included that would mandate insurance coverage for this remote form of faith healing, despite scientific evidence that it has no effect. Dial-a-prayer hotlines to which people make calls and (for a fee, of course) arrange for distant intercessory prayers to heal the sick would be reimbursed for this “spiritual health care” that does not work.
Why require pay “spiritual health care” practitioners engaging in fruitless distant intercessory prayer? Fellow faith-healing supporter in the Senate, Orrin Hatch, declares the provision is necessary to “ensure that health-care reform law does not discriminate against any religion.” But by that standard of non-discrimination, any religion’s practice that claims to improve health would have to be covered under health insurance plans. Think of the possibilities: are voodoo copays in our future? Would Pastafarian marinara treatments get coverage? If not, so long as intercessory prayer got payments, we’d certainly have discrimination against religion. The non-discrimination explanation either doesn’t make sense or would lead to gigantic policy absurdities.
Again, why support a practice that doesn’t work? Utah and Massachusetts are home to religious groups currently receiving private payments associated with intercessory prayer. That’s an interesting coincidence.