Pioneering Prayer-Healing Study

The healing power of prayer has become more than a catchphrase in Sunday school and church, with an increasing number of research institutions trying to measure the effectiveness of prayer in helping patients overcome disease.

But scientific analysis of prayer is nothing new, according to the Office of Prayer Research, a clearinghouse of prayer studies founded this summer outside Kansas City, Mo. The office has identified more than 250 studies since the late 1860s, when Englishman Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin, set out to determine whether clergy members lived longer than the general public because they presumably prayed more often.

Galton's findings, published in 1872: The average lifespan was 69 years for clerics, compared with 68 for lawyers and 67 for physicians. Members of the nobility, for whom the masses were asked to pray as part of the Anglican liturgy, lived an average of 66 years.

Today's researchers discount the Galton study because he assumed clergy prayed more than others without proving it, office director Bob Barth said. But it was a beginning and is notable because Galton was "an ardent foe of religion," he said.

So, Which Way's Goshen?

Maverick archaeologist Michael S. Sanders has proposed many unconventional theories about people, places and events in Scripture, some of them seen in the "Mysteries of the Bible" TV specials done for A&E and NBC.

His latest idea, described on his Web site, is that the Exodus took place in Arabia, not in Egypt. The reason? There is no archaeological evidence of camels having lived in Egypt before or during that time, although the Old Testament makes numerous references to camels there -- from the Genesis story of Abraham's going to Egypt in search of food to the Exodus account of Pharaoh's livestock, including camels, being killed by a plague.

"Few today would contend that camels as a domesticated beast were used in Egypt until very much later," Sanders writes. He then cites evidence of their existence 5,000 years ago on the Arabian peninsula.

Outing the Index of Forbidden Books

The secrets of the world's most ambitious censorship drive -- the Roman Catholic Church's Index of Forbidden Books -- will one day be only an Internet click away, thanks to a richly funded team of German historians.

The researchers are poring over 400 years of dusty documents to reveal how Catholic officials banned various translations of the Bible and clashed over the anti-slavery novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" but passed in silence over the works of Darwin, Marx, Freud and Hitler's "Mein Kampf."

Led by Professor Hubert Wolf of Muenster University, the team is also working on recently opened files to find out when and how much the church knew about the Third Reich and Holocaust, Reuters reported. Wolf said he hopes next year to make available a database of all books the Vatican checked and the internal debate over whether to ban them.

"For over 400 years, Rome monitored the whole book market and reviewed all important publications," he said. "Until now we only know which books were banned. Nobody knew [which] books . . . passed the review."

Online Encyclopedia

Anyone interested in the intersection of religion and culture now has a free online reference offered by Hartford Seminary's Institute of Religion and Altamira Press, publishers of the "Encyclopedia of Religion and Society."

The Web site (www.hartfordinstitute.org/ency) offers 500 entries from the encyclopedia, a one-volume compendium that has become a standard reference work since its introduction a decade ago. Included are descriptions or discussions of such topics as alienation and Millenarianism; such notable figures as Abraham Maslow and Martin Buber; such varied traditions as Methodism and Jainism; and such modern coinages as "revitalization movement" and "orthopraxy."

Celebration

This month's spotlight: Simhat Torah, Rejoicing of the Law.

Date: Oct. 8 (begins at sundown Oct. 7).

Description: Simhat Torah marks the completion and new beginning of the annual cycle of reading the Torah in the synagogue. Every member receives a blessing, and Torah scrolls are carried through the synagogue between the reading of the last chapter of Deuteronomy and the first chapter of Genesis. Children follow the procession, waving flags, or join other members in unrolling and rerolling the Torah scrolls and dancing in celebration.

More information: http://hillel.myjewishlearning.com

Religion 101

Is the swastika a religious symbol or a fascist one?

Both. The swastika appeared as a religious symbol in numerous cultures -- including some American Indian tribes -- hundreds of years before it was appropriated by the Nazis. The word derives from svastikah, Sanskrit for "blessed form" or "being happy," and for Hindus signifies the sun, the cycles of life and good fortune. In Buddhism, the swastika represents enlightenment and often appears over the heart on Buddha statues, with the crooked bars typically pointing left rather than right.

Have a question on religious traditions or practices? Send an e-mail to religion@washpost.com.

-- Compiled by Bill Broadway

Saturday in Religion: Pros and cons of political sermons.