If you’ve ever prayed for healing for yourself or someone you know, you’re not alone. In fact, the majority of Americans have prayed for healing at least once in their lives, and this prevalence suggests the spiritual practice could have some major benefits, according to a new study.
About 79 percent of people have prayed for themselves and 87 percent have prayed for others, according to data from a randomized Gallup survey of 1,714 Americans. Among those who have prayed for themselves, 32 percent reported they do so often, and among those who have prayed for others, 51 percent do it often.
More than half of the survey respondents have asked for prayer for themselves or participated in a prayer group (54 percent and 53 percent, respectively), and 26 percent have even participated in a laying on of hands, or when a person places their hands on the body of someone who needs healing while praying for them.
Those who pray don't fit stereotypes
These findings fly in the face of certain stereotypes about religious people, writes study author Jeff Levin of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University. Contrary to popular belief, he writes, healing prayer is not used only by “poor, uneducated, rural folks, or old people, or people who are suffering from a health crisis or who are depressed or stressed out.” Healing prayer is also not a last resort for people who lack healthcare access or are socially disadvantaged in another way.
Instead, Levin said the highest predictor of whether someone engages in healing prayer is whether they think they have a “loving relationship with God."
"People who most experience God’s love in their life are more likely to use prayer for purposes of physical healing,” Levin writes in his study. "This is so regardless of giving or receiving prayer, verbally or through laying on hands, and alone or in a group setting."
The survey results also indicate that despite the country's increasing secularization, there's an "undercurrent of spirituality" that still runs through most Americans, and prayers for healing is one of the ways this is manifested.
"There've been so many news stories over the past few years ... about declining rates of identification with mainline religions and denominations among American adults," Levin wrote in an email to HuffPost. "But these present findings suggest that there's an undercurrent of spirituality in this country that perhaps isn't being captured by the usual polls and surveys of religious affiliation."
Praying isn't at odds with medical care
Engaging in healing prayer doesn’t mean that the survey respondents rejected medical care. One survey question asked participants what they would do if they faced a serious illness or injury that required care, and Levin found that the use of healing prayer was high regardless of what a respondent thought about medical intervention.
For instance, among those who agreed that they would “only seek medical care and not prayer,” 62 percent admitted to using healing prayer at some point in their lives. Among those who said they would “only seek prayer as a last resort,” 72 percent said they had engaged in healing prayer. Perhaps not surprisingly, 99 percent of people who agreed they would both pray and seek medical care at the onset of their illness said they had engaged in healing prayer at some point in their lives.
The prevalence of healing prayer among Americans, even among those who would prioritize medical care above prayer, suggests that prayer is a normal but undiscussed part of the “therapeutic backdrop of American life,” Levin says in his study.
There may be clinical value to prayer
Whether prayer actually “heals" people or simply fills them with peace and helps them accept a certain medical outcome is a research topic for another study, but there definitely is of some kind of value, Levin writes. While the survey didn’t have the means to measure whether healing prayer “worked” to make sick people better, previous research has established that prayer can reduce stress, improve sleep and strengthen brain function.
"It is unlikely that so many people -- most of the U.S. population -- would continue to pray for themselves and to serve others through prayer, throughout their lifetime, if they did not perceive that something efficacious was happening in response, whatever that might be,” he wrote.
Levin’s study was recently published in the Journal of Religion and Health.