The Purpose of Prayer in a Modern World

Does God answer our prayers?

A popular conception of prayer is that if we have faith in God, pray diligently and if the cause we are praying for is a righteous one (like the health of another person), then God will intervene in a supernatural way to make our wish come true. Many people can site examples where their prayers "have been answered" in such a miraculous way. But why do many other equally deserving prayers go unanswered? When we delve deeper into this topic, we may discover that we are asking the wrong questions.

Thinking of prayer as a mechanism to compel God's action presents several difficulties. First, the idea that God intervenes in the world because of our prayers raises the centuries-old problem of theodicy (discussed in my earlier post here). Why would God intervene in some cases but not in others? Innocent people -- including heart-breaking cases involving children -- experience tragedies, suffer and die by the thousands around the world every hour. If God acts in a supernatural way when we ask through prayer, why wouldn't a loving God go ahead and prevent whatever the bad occurrence is from happening in the first place?

Second, doesn't this view of prayer violate the scientific principles that govern the universe? Is it not a leftover conception of God from an age in which people performed rites and rituals to please the gods who controlled what we now understand as natural occurrences -- the weather, illness and fertility? As our scientific understanding of the mechanics behind the universe has grown, the spaces in which God can act on the universe have shrunken. Scientific theories like quantum mechanics, chaos theory and evolution teach us that not only is the world unpredictable but the inherent chance and probability within the universe is necessary to its creative process.

A third problem arises when we consider the psychological aspect of this view of prayer. As humans, we have a powerful ability to control our environment; we have also evolved a psychological need to exercise this control. Is prayer (like ancient ritual sacrifices) nothing more than a psychological crutch that gives us the illusion of control over forces in the world that we do not and never will have control over?

Fourth, when we examine the scientific data on prayer as a mechanism to influence outcomes, the results are not encouraging. One meta-study that examined ten double blind scientific studies on prayer involving 7800 participants found that "overall, there was no significant difference in recovery from illness or death between those prayed for and those not prayed for." (See Cochran Report). Another meta-study at Syracuse University came to the same conclusions: "The effects of distant intercessory prayer are examined by meta-analysis, and it is concluded that no discernable effects can be found." (Syracuse Study)

How do we explain then the cases where people are miraculously healed from terminal illnesses after being prayed for? Because randomness and chance are inherent mathematical and physical qualities of our universe, both positive and negative events will simply happen over time. Just as we should be cautious assuming that the bad things that happen to us are divine punishment for our misdeeds (the story of Job teaches this lesson explicitly), we should exercise similar restraint in attributing God's deliberate action to the good things that happen. Did God really select a certain musician to win a Grammy award or a certain football team to win the Superbowl?

Medical studies are done as double blind experiments (neither the doctor nor the patient know if they are receiving the real treatment or a placebo) because the human mind has the incredible power to heal the body on its own. The placebo effect is often as powerful as many of the drugs we take to cure our illnesses. Give a patient a sugar pill and tell them it is a stimulant, and the patient's heart rate and breathing will increase. They'll report feeling more awake and full of energy. If the pill is red, the effect is even greater! The more confident a doctor is in delivering the pill, the stronger the placebo effect in the patient. Seen in this light, the mechanism behind faith healings can also be understood as the power of the human mind.

Do the above problems with seeing prayer as divine intervention mean that prayer is a pointless exercise? Not at all. Maybe we just need to rethink the purpose of prayer in a modern world.

Instead of seeing prayer as a method of asking God for something we want (even if that something is good), maybe we can use prayer as a way of opening up ourselves to God. Prayer can become a means of connecting us with the divine ground that is the essence of existence. This model of prayer requires a different model of God for our modern world. As I discuss in a previous post (Re-imagining God), if we conceive of God as the creative power that gives rise to existence itself rather than a supernatural being who resembles Zeus on Olympus, then God encompasses (and is the source of) the physical laws that govern the universe as well as space, time, matter, and energy that define the universe.

This different model of prayer leads us in several directions:

1. We can use prayer as a way of opening our hearts to God, not as a being living in an extra-dimensional heaven, but as the wellspring of creative energy within us and the universe. By quieting our minds, we can open ourselves to experience this divine ground directly. This experience may even lead us to new conceptions of our place in the universe and give us a way of transcending our own suffering. When bad things happen to us and our loved ones, we can find comfort in prayer that God is with us always, not sitting in judgement of us up in the sky, nor are we pawns in a cosmic chess game made to suffer according to some divine plan. This is the path that mystics across the world's religions have sought for thousands of years.

2. We can use prayer to center ourselves, to accept who we are, and to become more present and aware. Various forms of meditation and centering prayers fall under this category and are practiced across religious traditions. Unlike intercessionary prayer, contemplative practices have been shown to have significant medical benefits to its practitioners. (See e.g. Harvard Medical School's Herbert Benson: stress, depression and even many physical diseases are positively affected by meditation and prayer).

3. We can use prayer as a way of expressing thanks. We can recognize that we are not independent, but dependent creatures, and be thankful for the blessings we have. Through thanksgiving we can begin to realize that we have enough, and that our societal pressure to always want more (money, power, sex, material items, etc.) will never bring true happiness.

4. We can use prayer as a method of forgiveness for both the things we have done in our lives and for the wrongs we feel have been committed against us. Many psychologists would say that healing cannot happen without forgiveness.

5. We can use prayer to connect with others. We may pray for someone in trouble and wish them well, without the expectation that a supernatural intervention will make this so. Instead, the prayer for others may be about connecting with what that person is going through, with becoming empathetic with their experiences, and with expressing compassion. This connection with others will be strengthened as we realize that God who is the spark of our being, is also the spark of theirs.

Many of you may think that re-conceiving prayer in this way is not new at all. You are right! The themes contained above -- openness to that which is greater than we are, contemplation, thanksgiving, forgiveness and compassion -- are traditional Christian themes. I have only tried to emphasize in a new light how we approach prayer through these themes in a modern world.