According to new findings presented at Britain's Festival of Science, appealing to the Almighty has helped both heart disease patients and those with fertility problems.

Recent studies into the effects of prayer on sample groups of patients - scientifically known as "directed intention" - helps the sick in ways beyond current understanding.

Whether evidence of the existence of God, or the power of the human mind, the research suggests that we should be careful what we ask for.

Dr Peter Fenwick, a neuropsychiatrist from London's Institute of Psychiatry and an expert in the fields of consciousness and near death experiences, said, "There has been a huge change in people's views, and it's being driven by scientific data."

He was presenting his findings to the festival in Salford, Greater Manchester, this week.

Fewer drugs and complications

Research carried out in San Francisco this year showed that half of a sample group of 393 patients who were prayed for suffered fewer complications and needed less drug treatment than their counterparts who relied solely on medicine.

Iraqi Catholic women tap into the power of prayer

The crucial detail is that the patients did not know which group they were in, so any difference in results could not be attributed to their own will power or faith, but to the "intercessory prayer" of others. 

The studies indicate that prayer may help people lock into powers of the human mind which are currently beyond understanding.

More evidence

An earlier study in a hospital in Kansas City, USA, backs up the findings.

The study involved 500 patients who all had heart problems. A little more than half of them were made the subject of  intercessory prayer.

Using a standard coronary care scoring system patients from prayer and non-prayer groups were assessed. Those who had been made the subject of prayer did better than their fellow patients, although in general, they did not get out of hospital earlier.

The research team at Kansas City University Hospital could not explain the differences in the two groups of patients.

The team's final report said, "We have not proven that God answers prayer or that God even exists.

"It was intercessory prayer, not the existence of God that was tested here. Chance still remains a possible explanation for our results."

Good studies

Tibetan pilgrims prostrate during prayers in Lhasa

Random chance aside, the results give a measure of scientific credibility to what many devout religious believers have always maintained.

Dr Fenwick said to his Manchester audience, "These are very good studies properly done.

"Subjects who are unaware they are being prayed for can be significantly helped.

"The fact that science seems to confirm the ability of prayer, or directed intention, to heal other people raises the question that the mind may influence other people directly," he said.

Mind over matter

"There are two ways to view the universe," Fenwick has said. "Our current world model is that everything is matter."

In other words, everything that we think of as "real" in scientific terms has a physical form that can be perceived by our senses. But this model, which philosophers call "radical materialism," cannot explain the existence of consciousness, which has no physical essence.

So how do we account for consciousness? "There's a little (unexplained) miracle, and consciousness arises," Fenwick says of the current paradigm.

However, another theory proposes that the basic building block of the universe is not matter but instead consciousness itself. This is described as the "transcendent" view, a perspective shared by many of the world's religions.