ISR in Focus/ Jeff Levin on the prevalence of healing prayer

With this issue, we are pleased to introduce an occasional feature giving space for ISR scholars to discuss their current research on contemporary religion. For this month, we contacted Dr. Jeff Levin, University Professor of Epidemiology and Population Health and Director of the Program on Religion and Population Health at Baylor, about his current research on the prevalence of healing prayer among Americans.

Distinguished Senior Faculty - Jeff Levin - Headshot - 09/22/2009

In a recent study based on an analysis of the Baylor Religion Survey, you find that Americans engaging in healing prayer are very widespread– almost three-quarters of Americans have prayed for the healing of others, and over half have participated in prayer groups. Do you think there has been a steady percentage of Americans engaging in these practices all along, or has it grown in recent years?

Possibly both, but it’s hard to say. Based on data from a few national health surveys since the 1990s, use of spiritual healers seems to be on the uptick. This isn’t the same thing, of course, as personally praying for one’s own healing or for others, but it suggests perhaps a rise in interest in making use of spiritual resources for purposes of healing. This would track with the rising popularity of complementary medicine as a form of primary care, and with continued interest in nonconventional expressions of spirituality. At the same time, the lifetime prevalence numbers are so high that it’s hard to imagine this all just emerged, out of nowhere, in the recent past.

You also find unexpectedly that over a quarter of Americans have experienced or have engaged in the “laying on of hands” in healing prayer. Could the growth of small groups and charismatic and Pentecostal churches in the past few decades have spread these types of practices to more people?

Maybe, to a modest extent, but I don’t believe this accounts for its ubiquity. I’m doing some follow-up analyses, for a medical journal audience, and without divulging the numbers—still a work in progress—the data suggest that healing prayer, including laying-on-of-hands, is widespread and highly prevalent across almost all major religions, Christian denominations, and different categories of religious identity or theology. So this isn’t just a phenomenon observed in, say, Pentecostals or charismatics or the few New-Agers still around. These folks, even added together, can’t come close to accounting for the proportion of this country that’s involved in this.