What is prayer? This may seem like an odd question, as prayer is part of our society's vocabulary, even if not fully practiced or understood. The Oxford Dictionary defines prayer as "a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship." Though many are familiar with prayer, not everyone agrees on or understands its function. It's become a bit of a hot button topic. Debates of whether or not prayer should happen in school rage on TV and online. Your grandma keeps telling you she's "praying for you". You hear game show contestants just "praying" they have the right answer... Amazingly enough, even people with no spiritual attachment practice prayer as a sort of “insurance policy.” 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. It’s that sort of statistic that makes you scratch your head and wonder... Who are they praying to? What does it even do? What is prayer? In Super Bowl 55, CBS announcer Jim Nantz called for "thoughts and prayers" when discussing a coach who'd been involved in a car accident. Was Nantz implying that prayer could bring healing, or was this a kind sentiment just a means of sending “good vibes”? We observe that prayer becomes almost automatic in disaster situations as well. In the infamous miracle plane landing on the Hudson River, popularly depicted in the movie Sully, there are accounts of believers and nonbelievers alike throwing up prayers in hopes of a safe landing. Banker Fred Baretta, aboard the infamous flight, says "I prayed with every fiber of emotion and sincerity I could muster, 'God, please be merciful to us.'" It's almost as if we have this instinct to cry out for help when we feel we've exhausted all other options. In a 2013 Washington Post article titled "Some nonbelievers still find solace in prayer," an atheist software designer named Sigfried Gold says he turned to prayer when battling obesity and issues with his family. He ultimately found that processing through his problems with a rigorous prayer routine helped him cope with life's challenges. The article went on to say that "of all Americans who say they don’t believe in God -- not all call themselves “atheists” -- 12 percent say they pray." For one out of every ten people who don't believe in God, "prayer" is still a component of their life. Other people who believe in a higher power see prayer as a means of connection. In some faith traditions, prayer means connecting with nature and the forces of the universe, and in others it's about connecting with one all-powerful deity. In making these observations, it becomes all the more mystifying as to what praying or "sending up a prayer" really means or does. When we see people bowing their heads or speaking words aloud, are they receiving some kind of enlightenment download? Do they leave feeling changed? To find satisfying answers to these questions, we must consider why we even ask them to begin with. As we unpack how we got here, things start to feel a little less complicated. What is prayer? If it means nothing, it bears no influence on our life. But if it does indeed mean something, it has the power to change the way we look at our entire existence. Let's look at the spiritual, scientific and cultural narratives of prayer to see if we can come to a satisfying answer to our question. There seems to be two dominant views: Prayer is a meaningful conversation or action with God, or just a societal "empathy" response for times of crisis.



In 2022, prayer has become almost taboo in Western culture. Praying in public in most major cities 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 form of relationship or conversation with God is often 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 ultimately defining prayer as ineffectual, unimportant, or at worst, foolish; a mere act of speaking to the sky.



For obvious reasons, science is held within high regard in our 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 1997, famed scientist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould originated the NOMA principle, which stands for Non-Overlapping Magisteria. The idea is that science and religion exist on different planes, therefore they have different authorities depending on which area you're talking about. In simpler terms: science does its thing, religion does its thing. Moreover, many in the scientific research community have been hesitant to fully dive deeply into prayer, citing a difficulty in creating the right parameters for research. "For example, if you're praying for your loved one, how do you have a control group? You can't go to family members of patients and say "no praying for your guy, because this is science and we have our control group and our experimental group," says Dr. Michael Shermer, author of The Believing Prayer. He continues: "the problem with prayer is that it's so wrapped up in all the religious, mystical notions that it's not helpful from a scientific perspective." While Shermer finds there to be a disconnect between science and religion, Dr. Francis Collins asserts that science has a meaningful role to play in addressing questions about the world, but its aim is not to address the why. Therefore, the two are actually complementary. Collins, the former director of the National Institutes of Health and pioneer of the Human Genome Project, says this: "I think most people are kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it's not the whole story. There's a place also for faith, religion, philosophy. But that harmony perspective doesn't get as much attention." However, recent studies have outlined the possible effects of prayer on the self, which is a dimension of prayer, but not the entirety of it. A randomized, controlled study done in 2009 by a team of leading psychiatrists on the mental health benefits of prayer found that "participants receiving the prayer intervention showed significant improvement of depression and anxiety, as well as increases of daily spiritual experiences and optimism." Amidst the COVID pandemic in 2020, the Wall Street Journal caught up with Dr. David Rosmarin, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. “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,” Rosmarin said. While science has not staked any claims as to what prayer actually is, these developments indicate the research world is at least taking seriously the therapeutic outcomes of prayer. But as Dr. Collins concludes, science is largely unable to give us a complete picture on its own. It’s a part of the equation, which if paired with the spiritual side of things, can give us a holistic perspective to our main question: what is prayer?



The root of this matter ultimately comes down to this: Does a higher power, God, actually exist? And the latest findings appear to indicate that it’s reasonable, if not most logical, to believe that this type of being does exist. Which if true, makes prayer at its most basic form a two-way conversation. A relationship where when we speak, this being speaks back. 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?

The biblical text suggests as much, outlining at least ten different ways that God speaks to humans, including through dreams, thoughts, feelings, senses, prophecies and visions. And the fascinating part of this is when we line-up what science has to say on the therapeutic benefits of prayer alongside what the biblical text put into words thousands of years ago. Consider this passage in Philippians 4:6: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Just a few paragraphs up, Harvard professor Dr. Rosmarin concluded, “[prayer] can calm your nervous system, shutting down your fight or flight response. It can make you less reactive to negative emotions and less angry.” Scripture fills in the gaps of science by explaining that God is relational, often referring to him with the affectionate and intimate name Abba. It also says that like a Father, God gives good gifts to his children. Peace is a good gift. A sense of well being is a good gift. A calm nervous system is a good gift. All of this comes to us through the means of prayer. By speaking out into this universe with the hope that this relational being will meet us there. Thus, the invitation is to come to God with all kinds of wants, expressions, fears, frustrations, sorrows and expressions of gratitude. Dr. Richard J. Foster sums up prayer beautifully in his teachings on spiritual formation. His words are yet another reminder of the uniquely relational aspect of our connection to God. "And so I urge you: carry on an ongoing conversation with God about the daily stuff of life. For now, do not worry about 'proper' praying, just talk to God." This gets into more complicated waters, but prayer in the Biblical narrative is also a means of petition and change. Yes, it is about a relationship and a conversation, but that conversation isn't a powerless prop. For more on that, we encourage you to read our blog, "Does Prayer Change Things?" So, what is prayer? In the simplest terms, it's a conversation with God, who cares deeply and intimately about our wants, needs, feelings, and dreams.


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