On Prayer


Over the years, I’ve settled into a loose agnosticism. But the abstract notion of some benign, transcendent being (an Emersonian “Oversoul,” perhaps) has a continuing appeal to me, particularly at times of depression and desperation. I’m led at these times to consider the notion that prayer to a Higher Power is at least worth a try. I tend to contextualize such pleas not as a public petition to a conventional religious deity, but as a private request thrown into a mysterious void, a “To Whom It May Concern” message in a bottle.

Since my moments of private prayer are involuntary, I’ve wondered if there’s something psychologically necessary, or even valuable, in having the option to yell “Help me somebody!” at a mysterious universe. And further, does this necessity transcend an individual’s predilection for secular rationalism over faith? If, as Mohandas K. Gandhi said, prayer is “a longing of the soul,” perhaps it is a healthy thing, no matter the religious view of the person praying.

Most are familiar with the traditional Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim notions of prayer as petition, penance, and power. A common religious presumption is that prayer unaccompanied by specific faith in a Judeo-Christian or Islamic deity is potentially disempowering, even dangerous. But is there enough justification for a “secular prayer” that one who practices it need not feel intellectually ashamed nor psychologically (or spiritually) threatened?

The skeptical hard line is that prayer is begging, a pathetic groveling and self-denial that diverts attention from the potential to improve one’s lot in life, without relying on irrational beliefs in abstract supernatural phantoms. In his essay, “The folly of prayer,” Tim Kidd writes that prayer can help as a means of psychological conditioning for those prone to wishful thinking: “Of course, this only works on a few people who are simpletons enough to believe that God listens to and answers prayers ... (G)enerally such individuals are so pitiful and stupid that they need all the help they can get.” Kidd advocates transforming the “talking to oneself” that prayer amounts to, to a more “logistical and realistic” form, presumably one free of irrational piety. (“Hands that help are far better than lips that pray,” as Robert Ingersoll has it.)

Alvin Boyd Kuhn, in “Prayer and healing,” says it is only the notion of prayer as “an asking for favors from deity” that deserves scorn as “infinitely degrading to the human ego.” But as a mystical contemplation or communion with deity, the prayer process can enhance the mind and spirit, as long as the term “prayer” is reserved for its dictionary definition, a “solicitation of benison from deity.”

What Kuhn and Kidd seem to be looking for is a process that can utilize whatever is psychologically valuable in traditional notions of prayer, without getting caught in an ego-degrading practice of begging to deity. In Secular wholeness: a skeptic’s paths to a richer life, David Cortesi advocates an inner conversation, borrowing from prayer the notion of communion between oneself and a higher power while sidestepping the necessity of a Supreme Being. One stratagem is to imagine an utterly distinguished and trustworthy counselor that you’ll be having an appointment with: “Organize the story you are going to tell and then, in your imagination, tell it ... As you are telling the story to your wise, tranquil, sympathetic, imaginary counselor, listen to it yourself. Hear it with the deep perspective of the person you’ve imagined. Ask the questions the counselor might ask: Did you try that? Why not? That was a bit cowardly, wasn’t it? What’s an acceptable long-term outcome? Well, what’s a first step toward that?” Cortesi contends that listening to your own story “with the ear of the most adult, most civilized person you contain within you is a way of mustering your own experience, knowledge and good sense — what the Buddhists call your Buddha nature.”

Dr. Raul Moncayo, in “Psychoanalysis and postmodern spirituality,” describes “contemplative prayer” as “a prayer of aspiration and realization of the sacred as the emptiness which lies beyond representation.” Drawing from William James, he speaks of a postmodern “intrinsic” spirituality with which one can psychologically interact:

From my point of view and that of intrinsic spirituality, doubt needs to be understood as fundamental, not as a method, as in Descartes, or as an enemy of faith, but rather as a subjective position wherein knowing emerges from the void with the Real, from the not-knowing within knowing. Such not-knowing within knowing alludes to an authentic non-speculative intuition which is neither totally rational (as in Hegel), nor irrational (as in Jung), but transrational (a term coined by Ken Wilber.)

Within this “transrational” field, Moncayo says, “intuition becomes compatible with science and contemporary physics.” Could it be then, that a prayerful reach into a void of not-knowing can reflect such intuition? Perhaps we always have access to a state that, as Moncayo puts it, is “beyond thought but not without thought.”

Rupert Sheldrake, in “Prayer: a challenge for science,” sees prayer in a context “where there is more to it than just what we know about chemistry and physics and clever mathematical models.” Sheldrake introduces a “morphic resonance theory,” where human minds are “field-like in nature:” “I see mental fields as the basis for habitual patterns of thought. Mental fields go beyond, through, and interface with the electromagnetic patterns in the brain. In this way mental fields can affect our bodies through our brains. However, they are much more extensive than our brains, reaching out to great distances in some cases.” These “morphic fields” create powerful connections between people — connections that even “ordinary” Judeo-Christian prayer can effect: “When two people come into contact and establish some mental connection (perhaps experienced as affection, love, even hate) their morphic fields in effect become part of a larger, inclusive field. Then, if they separate from each other it is as if their particular portions of the morphic field are stretched elastically, so that there remains a ‘mental tension’ or link between them. There has to be something like this that relates the two people.”

There have been a number of studies attempting to establish evidence of the power of prayer. In “Scientific research of prayer: can the power of prayer be proven?” Debra Williams points to a study on germinating seeds done by Dr. Franklin Loehr, a Presbyterian minister and scientist:

In one experiment they took three pans of various types of seeds. One was the control pan. One pan received positive prayer, and the other received negative prayer. Time after time, the results indicated that prayer helped speed germination and produced more vigorous plants. Prayers of negation actually resulted in germination in some plants and suppressed growth in others.

Williams also refers to the work of Larry Dossey, who in his books Prayer is good medicine: how to reap the healing benefits of prayer and Healing words: the power of prayer and the practice of medicine, attempted to further popularize the notion that there is scientific evidence that prayer works. He states,

“Skeptics who do not believe in the effect of distant intentions say that any observed result must be due to the expectation of the subject — or the power of belief and thought.“ Dossey argues that if bacteria respond to outside intentions by growing more slowly when prayer over, than control groups not receiving prayer, then one cannot dismiss this result to negative suggestion.

Dr. Randolph C. Byrd conducted studies 1982-83 at San Francisco General Hospital’s Coronary Care Unit, in which nearly 400 patients participated in a “double blind” study to assess the therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer. “Patients were randomly selected by computer to either receive or not receive intercessory prayer. To guard against biasing the study, the patients were not contacted again after it was decided which group would be prayed for and which group would not,” Williams says of the studies.

The patients who had received prayer as a part of the study were healthier than those who had not. The prayer for group had less need of having CPR performed and less need for the use of mechanical ventilators. They had a diminished necessity for diuretics and antibiotics, less occurrences of pulmonary edema, and fewer deaths. Taking all factors into consideration, these results can only be attributed to the power of prayer.

Williams tips her hand early on with comments like “The results of the study are not surprising to those of us who believe in the power of prayer” and “Although most of us, who possess the belief that prayer can and does work, do not require physical, quantitative proof of the power of prayer ... ” Those who don’t require physical, quantitative proof in scientific studies are suspect of being biased and slack. But perhaps the real (and somewhat cloaked) point of such attempts is simply to sound credible and plausible enough that it triggers belief among half-converted souls, people who don’t require scientific rigor as much as a feeling of reassurance.

Hector Avalos, an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Iowa State University (and a former Pentecostal faith healer), wrote of Dossey: “While Dossey sometimes denies that he would impose his spiritual beliefs on his patients, his favoritism toward the supposed efficacy of prayer in the Judeo-Christian traditions is evident.” In “Can science prove that prayer works?” he writes of “fatal flaws with so-called scientific experiments used by supporters of prayer, and there are even greater philosophical and theological problems with verifying scientifically that the Christian god answers prayers.”

Among these problems is the clash between the idea of God as one who answers prayers and that of a God who is all-knowing, all-good and all-powerful. Prayer would be “unnecessary” with such a God, Avalos writes, yet those in the Judeo-Christian faith insist on trying to reconcile two irreconcilable notions. “Every single case of a supposedly answered prayer that I witnessed,” Avalos writes, “can be explained by one or more of the following factors: (1) false assumptions, (2) erroneous information, and (3) wishful thinking.” Further, the main problem with the idea of “controlled experiment” regarding prayer is that there can be no such thing:

You can never divide people into groups that received prayer and those that did not. The main reason is that there is no way to know that someone did not receive prayer. How would anyone know that some distant relative was not praying for a member of the group that Byrd had identified as having received no prayer? How does one control prayers said on behalf of all the sick people in the world? How does one assess the degree of faith in patients that are too sick to be interviewed or in the persons performing the prayers?

Addressing Dossey’s emphasis on experiments on bacteria and mice as being “more convincing” because psychological factors of patients are eliminated, Avalos says:

(E)xperiments on nonhuman subjects will not help Dossey because these experiments can encounter the same theological and scientific obstacles that plague experiments on human subjects. For example there are people praying for the well-being of all life on Earth, and so you would not be able to divide bacteria, fungus, mice, or any other living thing into prayed-for and nonprayed-for groups.

Avalos notes that “none of these experiments (human and nonhuman) have been replicated by those who are generally skeptical of scientific studies of prayer. In general, such experiments will probably not inspire confidence until they are at least performed by teams of scientists that include both skeptics and supporters of the efficacy of prayer.”

Cullen Murphy, in “Thy will be done: blind studies and unanswered prayers,” writes of the efforts of Dr. Herbert Benson of the Harvard Medical School to undertake scientific studies of prayer that avoid the shortcomings of previous studies. Benson’s belief in God, Murphy writes, is rooted in a religious background in Judaism, and a speculation expressed in his writings that human beings are “wired for God,” with belief in God and an afterlife conferring a survival advantage.

Benson seeks to avoid the flaw of “background prayer” in his studies. As Murphy puts the problem: “The scientific distinction between prayed-for groups and not-prayed-for groups is probably impossible to maintain: people who don’t receive formal intercessory-prayer treatment may be getting it in other ways — from relatives, for instance, or as spillover from general prayer by the devout for the sick.”

The studies on prayer will continue to multiply. According to a February 2005 report in Spirituality & Health, at the 2004 Parliament of World Religions in Barcelona, “the Unity Church announced the opening of the Office of Prayer Research, a new prayer center outside Kansas City, Missouri. Directed by the Rev. Bob Barth, a minister with a degree in physics, the office will oversee the worldwide exchange of prayer research information.”

The results of another major study on intercessory prayer, funded by a $2.4 million grant from the secular John Templeton Foundation, were published in March 2006. The study monitored the recovery of 1,800 patients after heart bypass surgery in the US, and failed to establish any scientific connection between prayer and healing power.

So are my moments of asking for help from “To Whom It May Concern” ultimately the reflection of a “pitiful and stupid” mental state? I would say my moments of prayer are not “pitiful,” but rather, human, a reflection of how prevalent and dominant moments of breakdown and mystery are, and how the human brain copes as best it can. Perhaps this is “stupid” in some theoretical sense, but life is not lived in the ivory towers of rational assuredness. It is mostly lived in the rough-and-tumble of spontaneous interaction and winging it. There, only the heartless would not cut some slack.