What is prayer? This may seem like an odd question, as prayer is part of our society's vocabulary. But not everyone agrees on or understands its function.  For instance, your grandma keeps telling you she's "praying for you". You hear game show contestants just "praying" they have the right answer. When NFL player Damar Hamlin collapsed on national television in 2023, it seemed the whole world was sending "thoughts and prayers". Hashtags like #PrayersUp and #PrayforDamar were used millions of times on TikTok and Instagram. To the non-spiritual person, it’s easy to mistake these comments as mere wishes, pleasantries, or alternative versions of “sending good vibes”. To make matters more complicated, even people who do not consider themselves to be spiritual sometimes engage with prayer.  A recent Guardian poll done in the U.K. found that 1 in 5 adults pray in times of crisis or hurting even if they have no religious affiliation. A 2013 report from the Washington Post also found that some nonbelievers find solace in prayer.  If you were to study human behavior, you’d find that in disaster situations prayer becomes automatic. There is an instinct in humans to cry out for help when we feel we've exhausted all other options. We see this in the infamous 2009 miracle plane landing on the Hudson River. Featured in the film Sully, there are accounts of believers and nonbelievers alike throwing up prayers in hopes of a safe landing.  And finally, prayer has even gone so far as becoming a controversial topic in recent years. Some see prayer as a threat, and debates rage of whether or not it should be allowed in public schools.  All of these statistics and stories are what make you scratch your head and wonder what prayer actually is.  Why do we do it? Why would such a thing be controversial?  From the outside, it seems to mean different things to different people. In some spheres, prayer is viewed as a means of connecting with nature and the forces of the universe. In others it's about connecting with one all-powerful deity.  The question of “what is prayer” is one of the most important ones we could ask. Because if prayer means nothing, then it bears no influence on our life and really is just an alternative form of sending good vibes.  But if prayer does indeed mean something and someone is on the other side, it has the power to change our entire existence.  So let's unpack the three predominant narratives of prayer to see if we can come to an intellectually satisfying answer. First up, we’ll examine what our culture has to say about prayer.



As evidenced by the debates in school, prayer has become almost taboo in Western culture. Especially in the coastal cities, praying in public can draw some wide-eyed looks. Despite some reports saying that prayer is integrated into the daily lives of 55% of Americans, the culture around us indicates this is most certainly a private endeavor.  A recent study from Barna Group found that "82% of praying adults most often pray silently and by themselves." When was the last time you saw a Hollywood blockbuster where the characters stopped to pray, and it was totally normal?  When people say "I'm praying for you," many see it more as that empathetic response we discussed before. Code for "I feel bad for you," or an "I don't know what to say."  Taking it a step further, prayer as a conversation with God has been openly mocked in the media, or seen as something out of the ordinary. Joy Behar, host of the popular daytime T.V. show The View, implied that it was crazy to hear from God in a segment from a few years ago.  "It's one thing to talk to Jesus. It's another thing when he talks to you," she said. "That's called mental illness."  Comedian Anthony Jeselnik publicly blasted the idea that prayers do anything in a 2015 standup sketch following a wake of tragedies.  “Do you know what [prayers are] worth? [Expletive] nothing. [Expletive] less than nothing. You are not giving any of your time, your money or even your compassion.” Jeselnik is correct to a degree in that compassion and action is important. In fact, some would say these are central outcomes that come from prayer. But nonetheless, the reactions of many in the media are telling: the idea that praying can do something or should be regularly practiced has become a sour taste in the mouth of many.  Was this always the case? Debates on prayer have existed for centuries. The difference now is that as society has steadily become less religious, resulting in more people viewing prayer as ineffectual, unimportant, or at worst, foolish. This means that psychologically, a large portion of our culture today genuinely does view prayer as sending good vibes. How does this line up with our next area of examination – science? 



Science is held with the highest regard in modern society. Many of the major breakthroughs humanity has made over the last couple hundred years are due to scientific discovery. Which means that to an extent, science can be a revealer of truth. So as we ask “what is prayer?", it’s worth investigating what science has to say about the topic and how that lines up with public thought. In doing so, we need to first consider the limitations of science.  Since the scientific method is based on repeatable patterns that we see in the material world, you cannot use that to confirm something happening in the non-material (or spiritual) world, such as God.  But you can measure what’s happening (or not happening) in the brain during prayer, and come up with a working definition based on that. One of the most famous studies done in this area was in 2006 with researchers from the Ivy League school UPenn. They measured speaking in tongues, which is essentially a prayer language with God. As the New York Times reports, “Researchers.. took brain images of five women while they spoke in tongues and found that their frontal lobes — the thinking, willful part of the brain through which people control what they do — were relatively quiet, as were the language centers.” To the outsider, speaking in tongues can sound like babbling, but it has real biblical roots dating back to the original followers of Jesus. On a brain scan, what was revealed was the exact opposite of what a scientist would expect to see. People were verbally speaking, yet there was no activity in the brain. “The amazing thing was how the images supported people’s interpretation of what was happening,” said Dr. Andrew B. Newberg, leader of the study team. He adds, “the way they describe it, and what they believe, is that God is talking through them.” While the UPenn study was focused on praying in tongues, that is not all that science has revealed about what happens in the body and brain during prayer. Recently, the Wall Street Journal interviewed Harvard doctor David Rosmarin on the subject. “The research that has been done on prayer shows it may have similar benefits to meditation: It can calm your nervous system, shutting down your fight or flight response. It can make you less reactive to negative emotions and less angry”.   On these grounds, science would not agree with the culture that prayer is merely “sending good vibes”. At the very least, science would define prayer as a therapeutic practice that positively impacts the body in similar ways to meditation. While more studies would be needed to confirm this, the UPenn study also suggests that there is also a supernatural aspect of prayer that defies scientific logic, as evidenced by the brain scan results. Something is happening. This leads us to our final area of examination, the spiritual narrative of prayer. This gives us by far the most substance in our search to answer the question of “what is prayer?”



The root of this matter ultimately comes down to this: does a higher power actually exist?  We would invite you to explore the latest findings, which appear to indicate that it’s reasonable, if not most logical, to believe that this type of being does exist. If this is true, then at its most basic form, that would make prayer a conversation with God.  In-part, this is also how the Oxford Dictionary defines prayer, "a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship." The Bible takes this idea a step further, suggesting that prayer is not just us talking to God, but him talking back to us.  From Genesis to Revelation, we see at least ten different ways that God speaks to humans, including through dreams, thoughts, feelings, senses, prophecies and visions. In rare instances, he speaks audibly, although most people have not experienced this. With this in mind, we discover the true meaning of prayer A two-way conversation with a God who deeply cares about our wants, needs, feelings, and dreams. Prayer is simply the starting point to developing a relationship with him. And for those of you that are channeling your inner Joy Behar, consider this:

If this creator put into motion the laws of science, the solar system, the oceans, the trees and the complex wiring of human DNA, why couldn't he speak to the very creation he made?

We find that God is both Creator and Father. He is all-powerful and all-knowing, but also personal. In times of crisis, we cry out for help because we are designed to be connected to him. It is part of our nature. Perhaps this just raises many questions about this subject and we're here to help.  For more, click here to visit our Prayer Hub.


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