When people who disagreed with Dr. Larry Dossey's theories on medicine offered to pray for him, he was touched. At first.
He has now come to the conclusion that such prayers may be more like "drive-by muggings."Dossey, one of the first doctors to publicly embrace the theory that prayer can be a strong component of medical healing, has come to believe that there are different prayers - a portion of them not good or loving or kind. Some of them, like the "death prayers" of Polynesian shamans, who tried to pray their enemies to death, are completely malevolent.
He believes those "negative prayers" also have the potential to be quite effective.
It's a controversial view that many theologians question or dispute. Others say they've never heard of "negative prayer."
Dossey is one of the leading authorities on prayer and medicine. He lectures around the world. He's organized conferences, written books and both conducted and studied others' scientific research. He's come a long way, he recently told a conference of the Religion Newswriters of America, for someone who in the '70s and '80s, esconced in a thriving Dallas medical practice, "would not have prayed for one of my patients on a bet."
Of prayer and healing he now says, "There's no way to put this genie back into the bottle. It's possibly medical malpractice for doctors to try to weenie out" of using prayer as part of patient care.
But his extensive study of prayer and medicine, chronicled in such books as "Healing Words" and "Prayer Is Good Medicine," have lead him to the conclusion that some prayers are dark indeed. And they, too, may be measured scientifically.
He also believes that people with good intentions sometimes do harm with the way they pray.
His most recent book is titled "Be Careful What You Pray For . . . You Just Might Get It."
Studying the dark side of prayer is different than studying the effects of prayer on healing. For one thing, while it's OK for doctors to organize scientific experiments where people pray healing for ill patients, it's not OK to pray them sicker. Experiments that harm humans aren't allowed. So the little research that has been done on negative prayer has used human tissue but not humans.
For instance, in one study people prayed negative prayers over cervical cancer cells, wishing them harm. The cells died. (But critics of the study say the experiment was the same as praying healing from cancer. It's like a double-negative - praying harm to something that's harmful. It cancels out to be a positive prayer.)
Other studies have suggested that prayer can inhibit or encourage growth of bacteria and fungi. In France, for example, researchers had 10 people try to mentally slow or stop growth of a harmful fungus. The growth was retarded significantly in 151 of 194 cases.
Test tube experiments
In another experiment, 60 volunteers were asked to "influence" nine test tubes of E. coli. The goal was to make three lactose positive, three lactose negative and have three remain as they were. Each tube did as the "prayer" asked.
Dossey admits that people shy away from his theories on negative prayer. They don't like to think
that God would allow negative things to happen just because someone with ill will wishes it. But that's a view Dossey doesn't find in his Bible. He quotes Amos 3:6: "Shall a trumpet be blown in the city and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in a city and the Lord hath not done it?" And Isaiah 45:7: "I form the light and create darkness. I make peace and create evil. I, the Lord, do all these things."
He doesn't want to convince people that God is cruel. That's not his view. But he does want people to know that prayers have consequences. And people need to be "responsible" in their use of prayer.
"A Gallup poll found that 5 percent pray harm to others. And those are the ones who will admit it," said Dossey.
"That's terrible!" said Mary Mayo, spokeswoman for the Catholic Diocese of Utah. "Who are they praying to? The devil?"
Cursing vs. prayer
"The opposite of prayer is cursing," said Msgr. Francis Mannion, rector of the Cathedral of the Madeleine. "And it's not to God. God does not respond to the wish to curse others. It's not Christian."
Such a prayer, he said, would "destroy one's spirituality. Negative prayer is an intrinsically confused notion. God is loving and good . . . it's not in his character" to respond to negative or harmful requests.
Dossey calls "negative prayer" powerful, which elicits a completely different response from Elder Alexander Morrison of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He calls it "bunk."
"Negative prayer is not powerful in that it provokes divine intervention. I can't believe that. . . . In the sense that it corrodes and festers the soul of the pray-er, that is certainly true. I am poorer if I pray divine harm.
"And God will not honor that prayer."
Msgr. Mannion expressed surprise that so many people would even admit to negative prayer. "When people wish harm, they don't involve God in the project, usually."
Several Protestant ministers indicated they, too, believe that such negative prayers couldn't be directed to a kind and loving God. Or honored by him with an answer.
Defense against bad prayers
Dossey, on the other hand, is adamant that people need to learn to protect themselves. First defense, he said, is a positive prayer life. And people who are kind, compassionate and moral are less likely to attract negative prayers - or to have them stick, he said.
But the best protection is found in the Lord's Prayer: "Deliver us from evil." That's "prayer as protection."
While he advocates a strong prayer life, Dossey worries that some people unleash unintentional harm with the things for which they pray. For example, he told the writers, parents often pray that their children will escape childhood diseases. But those diseases are how children develop strong immune systems.
The best prayers, according to Dossey, are those that leave things in the hands of God, like "Thy will be done." God wants good for his people, Dossey said, and he alone knows what will be best.
"It's invoking a wisdom higher than their own."
`Thy will be done'
He also noted that in scientific experiments, "thy-will-be-done" prayers evoked a greater positive response than specific prayers.
The Rev. Alan Tull, canon theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, finds contradictions in Dossey's viewpoint. For one thing, if God "wants good for his people," as he and Dossey agree, why would he unleash illness and harm in response to negative prayer?
The Rev. Tull is skeptical, although he doesn't dismiss Dossey's beliefs out of hand. He wants to see empirical data on the power of negative prayer. "When you talk about what goes on in the world, speculating isn't the way to do it."Comment on this story
But he's not surprised that some people admit they pray harm to others. And he does believe that "we live in a global community. People harboring hate are going to pollute the whole environment. Probably more than 5 percent (the number who admit to negative prayer) do harm to others. Look at I-15. The number of people who mutter about other people is immense.
"But everything the Bible tells me is that God intends good for the world because he loves the world. I don't think he's going to participate in evil. I know nothing about that kind of God - that's not the God of Christianity."
The power of negative prayer, he says, may lie in creating "a climate of hate. And that, in turn, can do harm. Evil can take hold of communities. Just look at racism."
The good news, from his viewpoint, is that even one strong voice for good can unleash good things into the community. "Look at the effects of one lady not going to the back of the bus."