Speculations on the phenomenon of prayer
Praying for Japan
As the situation continued to worsen in Japan a little over a week ago, many of witnessed Wall posts and tweets and blogs and so forth where people sent their thoughts and prayers to the Japanese. We listened to our friends and our parents and grandparents — and perhaps, for some, ourselves — pray for the victims and ask God to look on them with mercy and compassion and healing.
And many of us laughed at those who thought it would do any good to pray.
Neurological Benefits of Prayer and Meditation
But prayer is a complex phenomenon, and I had a lengthy discussion with my friend, physicist, and Christian Kemper Talley about what prayer is and how it affects us as humans.
Prayer has likely been around as long as religion has been… perhaps longer, even. We have written records of prayer rituals that are at least 5,000 years old. 1 But, rationally, what does prayer do to us? Why do we feel the way we do after prayer? Intense prayer, usually by those who are serious practitioners (like nuns and monks), activates the frontal lobes and shuts off the parietal lobes, which are traditionally thought to process sensory input and create subjective reality for the owner of that particular brain. 2 It turns out meditation — even secular meditation — has the same neurological effect.
So prayer does affect the pray-er, in a way that most would consider positive and clarifying. But does prayer have an immediate external effect? Does it help enact magical action at a distance? If enough people pray together, can the power of that prayer somehow be channeled for good?
I must resoundingly say “no”, and many rational Christians I know would agree with me. Even if prayer affected the “will of God”, God could only affect the world by urging people to do good things (impossible by Judeo-Christian doctrine, as that denies someone’s free will) or by enacting a physical miracle. Even those who believe that miracles exist typically agree that they’re rare. So what’s the point in praying?
My friend argues — validly, I think — that the internal clarification provided by prayer or meditation mediates positive work by the believer. Sure, one might argue, the prayer itself may not work magic: but the now-motivated servant of God now has impetus and will power to get up and go affect real physical change. This could be done my any means, from donating money to the Red Cross to helping coordinate relief efforts online to flying straight to Japan and picking up a shovel. I won’t deny that this is a valid argument in favor of prayer — or, at least, meditation (which I’ll consider a superset of prayer).
But I know of many people who don’t pray — and even many people who are atheists — who do the same things. They go out and help. They donate. They contribute. So prayer isn’t the exclusive course to motivating oneself to enact change. In a perfect world, a secular rationalist who loves humanity first might even help more than a faithful believer who loves God first.
But all of this is pretty obvious, so here’s what I really want to talk about: what are the negative effects of prayer, and are they outweighed by the positive effects?
Here’s a problem that I perceive with prayer (in this context): those who believe that prayer truly does work, that prayer has a material, action-at-a-distance, miracle like capacity to affect change may feel that prayer is a substitute for real service. I know people, especially adults in their 30s – 50s, who pray every night for Japan’s recovery but have never donated a cent (let alone flown to Japan to do service, but that’s more understandable). Whether prayer here is a facade of caring these people hide behind or a genuine impression that they’re doing good things by praying, it remains that they’re relieved either the social pressure or the divine edict to contribute to the community by replacing it with prayer. (I’d be interested to find a study on this, but don’t feel like doing too much research: someone send me an article if you can find work investigating this question! In the meantime, read this article from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion for a somewhat related and interesting study.)
Is there a balance?
I’ve occasionally been accused, upon revealing myself as an atheist, to necessarily be a self-centered nihilist. But this certainly doesn’t follow. I love humanity; in fact, I think I love it more than many religious believers do. More than anything I want to see us keep maturing as a species. I want to reach for the stars, to disassemble the quantum, to live in a state where resources aren’t a problem and menial tasks are provided for us by our artificial intelligences, by our critical thinking and our advances in science. I feel that devoting ourselves to various sky-wizards (as my friend Mark calls God and kin) holds us back, and takes up the precious time we do have in our lives to enjoy the people we love, work on fulfilling projects for the pursuit of truth and happiness, and enjoy the spectrum of experience available to our sensory apparatuses.
There are many who think likewise.
So is prayer worth it? My fundamental question is one of an inequality; does it hold that:
good[prayer] > bad[prayer] ?
More precisely, does
good[prayer] – bad[prayer] ≥ good[non-prayer] – bad[non-prayer] ?
I’m not sure that it does. In fact, I’m personally pretty sure that it doesn’t. This is a question for anyone to think about, but I ask that, if you do, you do it objectively: take an unbiased look at those around you, note who prays, note who volunteers, note who donates. Note who the atheists are, who the lazy Christians are, who the serious religious believers are.
And ask yourself if it’s worth it.
 – Stephens, Ferris J. (1950). Ancient Near Eastern Texts. Princeton. pp. 391–2. (via https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Prayer#Forms_of_prayer)
 – Prayer may reshape your brain… and your reality. NPR News, 2009. This is a layman’s overview of a particular journalist’s experience, but there are many studies using functional MRI’s to map brain activity during prayer or meditation that are easy to find on the web.
 – By Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon (NASA Earth Observatory), via Wikimedia Commons [https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/wiki/File:2011_Earthquake_and_Tsunami_near_Sendai,_Japan.jpg]. This image is in the public domain because it was created by NASA.