Does praying work?
- According to Encyclopedia Britannica, there are six major types of prayer: petition, confession, intercession, praise and thanksgiving, adoration, and mystical union.
- In 1952, President Truman signed into law the National Day of Prayer, a date that President Reagan amended to fall on the first Thursday in May. The day is set aside so that “the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.”
- A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 55% of Americans say they pray daily.
- References to prayer can be found in written sources from 5,000 years ago, with the etymology of the word rooted in the Old French term preier (to request).
Though there has been anecdotal evidence of prayer influencing the external world, prayer's real effect is on people's inner lives. Many people skeptically look upon prayers for peace when they see violence in nearly every corner of the world, but what these skeptics are missing is the sense of inner peace that those who are praying gain. Prayer allows individuals to connect deeply with themselves and the divine and find strength in loneliness or alienation. And this notion can resonate out into the larger world.
People often turn to prayer in times of trouble, when they feel overwhelmed, discouraged, or in danger--and for a good reason. In a scientifically measurable way, prayer has been proven to help alleviate the stress and anxiety associated with these states.
Brain scans of people deep in prayer have shown that prayer--especially the meditative types associated with Buddhism and Hinduism--has a measurable effect on the thickness of the frontal lobe in the brain. Since the frontal lobe is associated with motor skills, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language, judgment, and impulse control, it can absolutely be said that prayer works to affect these individuals. These studies have also shown that those who regularly engage in prayer have more significant and permanent brain changes.
Prayer absolutely works to comfort those in need and help them connect with a larger purpose in life. Prayer also physically affects the brain and can lower stress levels, allowing individuals to lead more healthy and comfortable lives.
To say that prayers work means that something happened due to praying that would not have happened otherwise. Sadly, this has never proven to be the case. Yes, nice things happen after prayers, but not because of them.
Praying for better health is common across the world, and, fortunately, it is an easy way to gauge if prayers actually have any effect. Do people who pray have better health? Meta studies, covering over 7,000 patients, have shown that prayer does not decrease rehospitalization or speed up rehabilitation. Somewhat concerning is one study that found that if you knew you were being prayed for, you had an extra ten percent chance of developing complications.
Praying doesn’t even protect you in the moment. Just this year, a poor boy died while praying during a rainstorm, while over 100 people were killed in a synagogue collapse in 2014. Even Notre Dame cathedral cannot avoid destruction.
If prayer actually changed anything, perhaps some of the more famous prayers might have affected history more concretely. When Martin Luther King, Jr. prayed, “Give us renewed confidence in nonviolence,” he still fell victim to murder. And when Jesus of Nazareth prayed, “O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me,” he was nonetheless executed days later.
Maybe it is just as well. If, perhaps, some deity feigned to make prayer work when Hitler prayed, “Almighty God, bless our arms when the time comes; be just as thou hast always been; judge now whether we be deserving of freedom; Lord, bless our battle!”, then World War Two would have ended much differently.