With this cheeky homage to Edwin Starr , let me state at the outset that I believe prayer to be nothing but god-bothering self-talk with absolutely no influence on reality, in the sense that one’s thoughts can neither conjur up the existence of some supernatural being (typically living in the sky and in need of a shave), nor influence the behavior of that same supernatural entity to intercede in human affairs on anyone’s behalf (no matter how well-meaning one’s intentions happen to be). Obviously, there are many folks who fundamentally disagree with this assertion. But, all the knee bending, hand clasping, waist bowing, muttering in low tones, violent muscular contractions, loud verbalizations in intelligible language known to humanity and unintelligible gibberish not heard on this planet before or since aside, prayer has been tested scientifically many times and has consistently been proven to be ineffective in terms of having a supernatural entity conjured-up by ‘pray-ers’ interceding on behalf of ‘pray-ees.’
“The worshippers starting praying for the patients the night before surgery and for the next two weeks, asking God to grant “a successful surgery with a quick, healthy recovery and no complications”.
The study found no appreciable difference between the health of those who did not know they were being prayed for and those who received no prayers. Fifty-two per cent of patients in both groups suffered complications after surgery. But 59 per cent of those who knew they were prayed for went on to develop complications.”
If prayer is demonstrably ineffective, what, then (Hooh!), is it absolutely good for? Here’s what I believe our second-most favorite national pastime (the first is still baseball, right?) is, in fact, good for.
First, religiously-oriented self-talk can give one a sense of purpose and determination, as well as a hallucination that some old or young bearded man in the sky has their back and will support them in their endeavors. This self-hypnotic, inner belief can, and probably often does, provide one with a sense of confidence to go out into the world and ‘make a difference.’ So, it is possible that prayer has made an immeasurable contribution to human progress for this reason alone. (This is a pretty good reason to pray, I must admit, and it may not be necessary to look any further. But, I will nonetheless.)
The act of prayer is very often a shared experience, and so the act of coming together to participate socially can bind a community of people and reinforce the idea that it is often necessary to act with a common purpose, and to be on guard against acting in an excessively selfish manner to the detriment of the larger community of which one is a part. And, since the notion of community can be expanded to mean the entire planet, it can be argued that prayer has been instrumental in raising consciousness the world over. (I think that photograph of the Earth from Apollo 8 had a role to play in this, also.)
In addition, prayer typically involves a contemplative state of mind that may have benefits usually associated with meditation. It seems to me that the brain doesn’t care if you are conjuring up some supernatural being in your thoughts or if you are just sitting quietly thinking of nothing. In my opinion, in either case the brain chemistry is probably the same. This could also be why Jesus was very specific in his direction to all of humanity in how to pray:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Mathew 6:5-8)
(Are you listening to your lord and savior, all you rapacious, money-grubbing, and grotesque caricatures-of-human-beings televangelists out there?)
Finally, a contemplative state of mind can put us in touch with a sense that, although none of us knows for sure about the true nature of reality and the reason for its existence, we are sure that the universe is almost incomprehensible to religion and science alike. And, in that light we can see ourselves as a tiny speck in a vast universe of space and time. In other words, prayer can engender a sense of humility, which is always good to have in our psychological toolbox.
In conclusion, if you are expecting your prayers to heal the sick or to get you that pony you’ve always wanted, or to get that priest to pull his shit-stained erection out of your rectum for the last time, or to have god intercede on behalf of the jews (who invented him, for christ’s sake!) to turn off the flow of zyklon-b gas just prior to your ‘nice hot shower after that long train ride,’ you are probably going to be disappointed. But, there are many reasons why prayer may be just the chicken soup your soul is searching for, regardless of whether or not you believe in the supernatural.