Dr. Mark Sheehan discusses his book, Healing Prayer on Holy Ground and the impact of prayer on his patients.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview with Dr. Mark Sheehan. During the interview Dr. Sheehan discusses the role his Christian faith plays in understanding the effect of prayer on his patients:
Alex Tsakiris: Your book is so strictly, uniformly Christian in its perspective that I want to push back a little because I don’t think the scientific data on prayer supports the idea that this is an exclusively Christian experience. Actually, the data I’ve encountered suggests just the opposite — prayer works — but there isn’t any superiority to a Christian belief system in encountering the spiritual, or the Divine.
Dr. Mark Sheehan: Well, those are good questions and rightfully so some concerns. Not all Divine experiences are of the Light. Some may be hallucinations. Some may be drug related hallucinations. Some may be lies. Some may be deceptions from the Evil One.
Alex Tsakiris: But is it a Christian light?
Dr. Mark Sheehan: Well, I come from a Christian perspective and that doesn’t mean God doesn’t call people who are not called Christian and belong to my God, the Christian God, even though they may not call themselves Christians.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. But I’m trying to really hone in and you’re being very open. I appreciate that. But I would suggest that the position you’re advancing about the science of prayer is not supported in the data because the assumption that we would naturally make from your position is that Christians would have a different kind of experience, or a better kind of experience, and they don’t.
Dr. Mark Sheehan: Right. Well, I appreciate that. That’s a very sensitive thing. When I come alongside my patients I don’t push my brand of faith, trust me. That would be presumptuous on my part and over-riding also and not appropriate. That is not my job. My job is to come alongside with love and caring and care for that patient, whether they have faith or no faith.
Today we welcome to Skeptiko, Dr. Mark Sheehan, a highly respected cardiologist from Denver who, along with his son Chris Sheehan, has written Healing Prayer on Holy Ground. Dr. Sheehan, welcome to Skeptiko.
Dr. Mark Sheehan: Thank you, Alex. It’s good to be with you.
Alex Tsakiris: So you’ve written a book with some amazing and very convincing stories about the power of prayer among your patients. Can you tell us real briefly a little bit about the book?
Dr. Mark Sheehan: Well, the reason the book was written, Alex, was that one of my patients had a near-death experience many years ago and she believed that she was restored by the prayers of the faithful. In fact, she had specifically heard my prayers in the presence of the Lord. She would come up to me and stick her hand in my face and say, “You need to pray for each of your patients.” When she said this, she said that a large weight had been taken off of her shoulders. So I thanked her very much because whenever someone asks me to speak about the power of prayer, specifically in the lives of my patients, I feel an obligation to do so.
Alex Tsakiris: Let’s dig into this a little bit differently then because I want to talk a little bit about science and the scientific evidence for prayer, because as you know and as you reference in your book, it’s quite well established. I had a chance a few months ago to interview Dr. Larry Dossey, who is someone who’s published quite a bit on this. There are many others. Do you want to talk a little bit about some of the studies you’re aware of establishing the scientific validity of prayer?
Dr. Mark Sheehan: Yes, I’d be glad to. Probably the most widely published study came from Randy Byrd. Hold on just a second. I’m getting this specific reference for you. Randy was a cardiologist out in San Francisco and wrote an article. It was in the Southern Medical Journal, 1988. He looked at groups of patients with cardiac problems who were prayed for by intercessory prayers. The outcome showed significant improvement in outcome, death, need of diuretics, instance of heart failure.
It kind of shocked the medical community because it was a double blinded study, which scientifically carries a little more weight, as you know. I’ve reviewed many, many different scientific papers on prayer and medicine, underneath the scrutiny of science and it’s not 100%. I’d say probably 75% of the studies that I’ve looked at and the reviews of this topic have shown an improvement in outcome with prayers. Everything from CCU care or coronary care unit management to pregnancy to serious infections-all different types of medical conditions showing a benefit three-quarters of the time.
But I think the problem with these studies, as I look at it in being a physician, a large part of my training as you’d expect is through the scientific community. I’ve been in school for many, many years being a cardiologist and certainly have been trained in the scientific method. The problem with this is to put the prayer model under a scientific analysis means that we understand the parameters of prayer. It means that we understand the parameters of the Divine.
I think that’s where the science is going in the wrong direction because any scientist would know that if you don’t know all the parameters, it’s presumptuous to say that you know what you’re studying. I give this example in the book, Alex, where if someone is ill with a serious illness that ultimately takes their life and that patient connects with God through the special kind of brokenness, the pain of the dying process, if that person connects with the Lord during that process, if you look at it from an experiment standpoint, it would be marked down as a failure.
But in God’s perspective there’s great celebration. It’s successful. So that’s the problem with measuring God or putting God on the test as if who is man to judge God? Or to limit His power? Being a physician, I bought into science during my training. I was, as I mention in the book, I was raised in a Christian family but all during college, medical school, internship, residency, even fellowship, my wife and I were both inactive at best in our faith. I really didn’t have much of a faith during that time.
So I certainly bought into the science being the answer and especially I had all the answers because I had the accolades. I had the academic credentials to make me think I had the answers. The truth is I didn’t have those answers. I was not the one in charge of life and death. The patients are the ones who have told me who controls life and death.
Alex Tsakiris: It’s quite a compelling story. But it’s challenging in a number of ways and I, like you, I believe in God, I believe in Heaven, I believe in the power of love. I believe in the power of prayer. But let me rephrase that. I don’t believe I’m convinced by the evidence because that’s kind of where I come from because I also do believe in science. Let me take a minute and tell you about my journey a little bit so that I can frame up this next question. It’s kind of sensitive to talk about but…
Dr. Mark Sheehan: I understand. And I hope you understand that I’m just a human. Just because I’m a doctor I don’t walk on water. I put on my pants one leg at a time and so I love to hear you tell me these stories, Alex. That’s why I wanted you to read the book, too, so you and I could connect. I think reading the book you certainly know more about me.
Alex Tsakiris: I do. And I feel a connection to you and I feel a connection to the work that you do, Mark, because I think you’re doing good work. I believe you’re doing good work. That comes through.
Here’s the part I’m trying to understand. I’m trying to traverse, map out, this spiritual landscape that we find ourselves in because it is so vitally important. Questions of who we are, how we’re all connected, how this love stuff works, this prayer stuff works, what happens after we die? These are the most important questions we can ask.
So when I come across your book, I’m a little bit challenged because I also come across people that I’ve interviewed on the show. I’ll give you a couple of examples. I interviewed a Dr. Michael Marsh, Professor of Medicine at Oxford. Highly, highly qualified. Also a Ph.D. at Oxford in theology. So Dr. Marsh comes on and says, “Hey, all that near-death experience stuff that you’ve been talking about, that Dr. Sheehan’s been talking about, that’s not real. Those are hallucinations.”
And part of the evidence he uses to support his claim is the Bible. He says that the modern NDE accounts don’t square with the biblical accounts. Again, this guy is an Oxford theologian, physician, has really done his work in making his case. I don’t think his case stands up to scientific scrutiny, but that’s his case.
Now let me tell you about one more guest that I had on recently. A guy named Gary Renard. Very popular, best-selling author. He claims to be the reincarnation of the Apostle Thomas. Claims to have a clear, more direct interpretation of Jesus’s teachings because he’s indirectly communicated with Jesus. So this, to me, is the spiritual landscape that we’re on.
So when I come across your book, there are so many things I resonate with and I feel that are true. But I’ve got to probe deeper. Your book is so strictly, uniformly Christian in its perspective that I want to push back and say, “I don’t think that the data, the prayer data that we have, supports that idea that this is somehow a Christian experience. Or even that near-death experience is a Christian experience.”
Really, the data that I’ve encountered suggests just the opposite, that it’s completely open. There doesn’t seem to be any primacy, any superiority to a Christian belief system in encountering the spiritual, encountering the Divine. What are your thoughts on all that?
Dr. Mark Sheehan: Well, those are good questions and rightfully so some concerns. Not all Divine experiences are of the Light. Some may be hallucinations. Some may be drug related hallucinations. Some may be lies. Some may be deceptions from the Evil One. So not all stories of seeing the Light are what I’m calling the Light of being the Divine Light, okay?
Alex Tsakiris: But is it a Christian light?
Dr. Mark Sheehan: Well, I come from a Christian perspective and that doesn’t mean God doesn’t call people who are not called Christian and belong to my God, the Christian God, even though they may not call themselves Christians. C. S. Lewis in his book, Mere Christianity, talked about that. There are people who have heard the teachings of Jesus, heard the Christian thought and aligned with them so greatly and understand the concepts of mercy and love and grace and they follow those strong covenants and don’t even call themselves Christians. I believe some of those people belong to the Christian God, okay?
Now I personally do not think all religions lead to the same road though, Alex, because you can’t put black and white on the same road. If someone says this is true and another faith says this is not true, you can’t have truth and untruth together because it’s not going to work like that. There has to be a truth.
Alex Tsakiris: What’s an example of a religion that you think is not on that road, is not on that path, is not truth?
Dr. Mark Sheehan: I think that there are some aspects of the…
Alex Tsakiris: Are Mormons on that path?
Dr. Mark Sheehan: I think there are some paths on the Mormon that I don’t agree with, although I must say there are some things-and I happen to love Mormons because my next-door neighbor and his wife are Mormon and we love this couple. We love them. We have no disagreements. I don’t judge the person. I love the person.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. But I’m trying to really hone in and you’re being very open. I appreciate that. But here’s the question. Are Mormons, are Seventh Day Adventists, are Muslims, are Jews, but more importantly, are Hindus, are Buddhists? I don’t know how you’re making that evaluation and I guess what I really push on because we don’t want to get into some philosophical or theological discussion, I would suggest that the position that you’re advancing, from what I read in the NDE literature, is not supportable.
It just isn’t because the assumption that we would naturally make from your position is that that would bear out in the near-death experiences. That Christians, people of faith, would have a different kind of experience or a better kind of experience, and they don’t.
Dr. Mark Sheehan: I think the problem, and I hear what you’re saying, and it’s just like the story of Steve in the book. Here’s a man who was raised Southern Baptist, was inactive in his faith. He had a cardiac arrest. I resuscitated him out of this. I shocked him out of this. He looked at me and said, “I’m not going up there.” I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “I saw Jesus standing next to you and he pointed to my right-hand side and he wouldn’t take me.”
So certainly this man comes from a Christian perspective. The problem was this man had no relationship, and that’s a scary story for us. It’s a scary story and I mention this in the book-prayer is powerful not just because we’re saying words or meditating. That’s not the power I’m talking about. The power of prayer comes from who it’s connected to. It’s connected to the Divine. That’s what I’m saying. I don’t think all prayers are the same. I don’t think just praying to a wall has the same impact of praying to a person, praying to the Divine.
Alex Tsakiris: Isn’t that a testable hypothesis? Is that why we have to rely on science? I guess that was part of my frustration. There are so many things I love about the book. I think anyone who gets the book will find value and inspiration and a good message from it. But the challenge comes down to this stuff we’re talking about right now. We’re trying to map out this landscape. I’ll tell you, you said…
Dr. Mark Sheehan: The problem, Alex, the problem…
Alex Tsakiris: Just let me finish saying-I’ll just wrap up with this point here that you were saying a minute ago that you agree with maybe Dr. Michael Marsh is correct. Dr. Michael Marsh is so miserable misinformed on the near-death experience science that he isn’t even credible to listen to. So I don’t want to hear about his Christian dogma or any of his beliefs.
I’m someone who goes to church. Even though I’m not Christian I go to church to worship with my Christian brothers and sisters, but I can’t call myself a Christian because I can’t get over some of the exclusive, only begotten son of God. Only this way. Jesus is the only path. The evidence that I read doesn’t convince me that that’s how this other realm that I’m trying to understand works.
It seems to me from the evidence to be much more open, much more multi-faceted and I’m trying to push you on that because I think there is a lot of confusion. And I think, Mark, there’s a lot of pain. There’s a lot of pain from a lot of folks who are spiritual, genuinely spiritual, are connecting with the same energy, the same Divine love that you’re talking about, but feel pushed out of the equation because they don’t fit into a particular Christian viewpoint that you’re espousing.
Dr. Mark Sheehan: Right. Well, I appreciate that. That’s a very tender, sensitive thing you just said, Alex. It is not unique. It’s felt my many of my patients, too. When I come alongside my patients I don’t push my brand of faith, trust me. That would be presumptuous on my part and over-riding also and not appropriate. That is not my job. My job is to come alongside with love and caring and care for that patient, whether they have faith or no faith.
Trust me. The only people I ever pray audibly with are those who I either share the same faith or I think would appreciate and benefit and want to be prayed for. So I am very careful about that. Oftentimes I’m praying silently, anyway, so the patients don’t even know I’m praying anyway. I’m praying silently also.
Part of the problem–in reference to science–is I think if you’re looking for a scientific study that is going to answer your questions, you’ll not find it. The reason is that the spiritual aspect of faith and the Divine transcends science. It transcends science. Time, space, it goes in different areas. It transcends it. To understand the Divine and to understand God, God is spirit and we must worship Him in spirit and in truth. That comes from John:4.
The problem if you’re looking for a scientific paper to prove your point, you’ll never see it. It’s how do you explain someone dead for three days rising? You’ll never, because everyone will say it never happened, see? The answer is they just deny it because miracles can’t happen. They’ll say it cannot happen.
Alex Tsakiris: Right. I believe miracles do happen. But here’s the problem, Mark. You’re saying the exact same thing that Gary Renard said on my show. That so many New Age folks say. “You know what?” they say, “Just trust the experience. We don’t have to test it this way. We don’t have to evaluate it that way. Trust the experience.”
What science tells us is, Okay, open yourself up to the experience but don’t totally trust the experience. That’s what history tells us; that’s what critical thinking tells us. So I have to disagree with you because I tell you, my faith, my spiritual openness has been greatly, greatly enhanced by science. By the science of near-death experience, by the science of prayer. By the science of deathbed visions. It’s expanded by that.
So I’m not with you on closing down and drawing this big gap that we can’t jump over. Of course we can never know or at least we can assume will never know all the answers. But we can nudge a little bit closer to the truth.
Dr. Mark Sheehan: I guess I’m just not optimistic knowing the Divine as I can appreciate it, that the scientific method alone is ever going to solve that question. That’s the only caveat I raise for you, Alex. I would suggest we move on to another topic.
Our ultimate healing, which is another point I make in this book, each of our ultimate healing is not going to occur in this life. Our ultimate healing will occur when we come into His presence. That’s our ultimate healing.
I must disagree with you on the point of all roads leading to the same place because if you study the different religions, they’re not the same. They’re different. All the religions are, as I understand it, are all based on works, relationships, except Christianity. Christianity is based on a grace, a savior concept.
Alex Tsakiris: This is not true, but I’ve had plenty of people disagree with that very ethnocentric view we have that Christianity is somehow different in that way. Not at all. It’s just not.
So we will move on, but we will find ourselves coming back to some of the same topics because I know one of the things you care about is spreading this message of the power of prayer to the physician community that you’re a part of and the larger physician community around the world. What do you think has to happen to make prayer more a standard part of the medical treatment procedure that people receive, especially when they’re near death?
Dr. Mark Sheehan: Well, a couple things. Certainly I would encourage patients to continue praying. Not only for their loved ones but for their physicians. Pray for the physicians because Lord knows that with physicians, healthcare workers need those prayers. No group in our culture has a higher incidence of divorce, suicide, alcohol, drug abuse, than female and male physicians. It’s a very high-risk group, so that’s one of the things I always would encourage.
The other is that physicians knowing that there is now growing evidence that prayer in a majority of studies shows a benefit and that over 90% of my patients consistently have a faith in God and a belief in God. Over 90% of my nurses have a belief in God. When physicians recognize that 90% of their patients have a belief in God, it’s important and that the scientific community is now showing a benefit for prayer.
The other thing which I think should be taught in medical schools and training programs is that if a physician does not feel comfortable about these issues, call the chaplain. Call the Rabbi. Call the priest. Get them involved with these patients under their care so they can help these patients during the time when they’re in the dying room.
Alex Tsakiris: Dr. Sheehan, where can people pick up a copy of Healing Prayer on Holy Ground?
Dr. Mark Sheehan: They can order it directly on my website and that is www.hpohg.com. Those are the initials of the book, Healing Prayer on Holy Ground.
You know, there’s something about what you’re saying, Alex, which I love and I really love that you are a seeker. I really sense that from my talking to you. There’s a word of encouragement I want to give you that comes from a verse in our New Testament Bible from Hebrews. It’s 11:6. It says, “And without faith it is impossible to please Him for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.” I believe you are a seeker and I applaud you. You keep seeking, Alex, and seek Him with all your heart. I ask all of His blessings on you and your family.
Alex Tsakiris: Thanks. I’ll always take a blessing whenever I can get it. I do have to say I’m not as much of a seeker as maybe I sound. I’m just more focused on the doing part and the executing part and I guess one of my goals is as a seeker to seek and share the truth. But that doesn’t really fit into my personal spirituality. I feel like my personal relationship with God is strong and getting stronger. I’m not seeking.
And it does kind of rile me just a tiny bit when you don’t agree with Christians’ worldview they immediately put you in a category of “Oh, you’re a seeker. You haven’t found the Lord. You haven’t found Jesus.” No, I have. I’m connected. Believe me. I just don’t agree with your worldview, you know what I mean?
Dr. Mark Sheehan: And I respect that. I don’t mean to be-I have a faith and I have a belief in what I think is real and my job is to love everybody.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s my job, too. Love everyone and tell the truth. That’s what I’ve been told to do, is first to love everyone and then to tell the truth.
Dr. Mark Sheehan: I can’t agree with you more.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. We end with such a harmonious note. That’s a good way to do it.
Dr. Mark Sheehan: You take care now, and God bless you.