U.S. News & World Report -- How we talk to God: People pray for everything from the divine to the selfish and profane

(Dec. 20, 2004)
By Marianne Szegedy-Maszak; Caroline Hsu
Copyright 2004 U.S. News & World Report

Let us pray.

It is a line uttered, with variations, by many religions, in many languages, as an invitation to begin a special communication with a divine being. And indeed, many accept the invitation. Prayer is, as Baylor University sociology Prof. Rodney Stark observes, "one of the most common and unacknowledged activities on the planet." But with all this prayer, the obvious question is rarely asked: What do people actually pray about when they bow their heads, close their eyes, and begin to share their most personal thoughts, worries, desires, yearnings, adoration, and gratitude?

The importance of prayer in all religions through many millenniums has been well established. U.S. News teamed up with Beliefnet, the leading multifaith Internet site on religion, to create an online survey about how these prayers are focused. While social science researchers would not view this survey as being statistically valid, the more than 5,600 responses that it received nonetheless reveal a rich and often colorful anecdotal peek into the wildly varied reasons people say that they pray.

Health and cash. The short answer, it seems, is that they pray about nearly everything. A cancer cure. Divine inspiration. One person "asks him/her to dazzle me." Another says, "My prayers are always based on blessing God and thanking God for things. I am not asking for anything, but by talking to God I feel . . . I can find the answers." Frequently, someone needed help to pay bills, and answered prayers came in the form of cash. Someone else "suffered from severe depression, and without prayer for strength to go on, I would not have made it." Another person "often asked Allah to put me and my family in the right places at the right times, and he always does." People pray for wisdom and healing and for a closer relationship with God. They pray to express love and gratitude to God for the cosmic and for the banal. One woman prayed for her pet chicken after a dog mauled it, and the chicken lived. Another for a car that constantly overheated, and the car never overheated again. From the perspective of the believer, these are all answered prayers that provide concrete evidence of a higher power's patient involvement in the most quotidian details of each life.

The responses also reveal a vision of a supreme being, not as strict moral arbiter but rather as source of wisdom, strength, and comfort. Indeed, of those who took the survey, more than 1 in 3 said that the most important purpose of prayer was "intimacy with God." Another 28 percent said that the most important purpose of prayer was "to seek God's guidance." The key here, says Robert Orsi, the chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion at Harvard University, is that prayer may be many things, but the unifying theme is that it's "about relationships between a particular person and a religiously significant other. And once we think of prayer as a relationship, it has all the valences and complexities of all relationships. People express anger, frustration, hopes, and fears. Prayer again and again reflects all the complexities of an individual's life." Orsi's expertise is Roman Catholicism, but Ebrahim Moosa, professor of Islamic studies at Duke University, makes the same point. Islam requires prayer five times a day. It's called salat, which "literally means supplication, but it is also at its heart a relationship. It is assumed that if you keep that chain of communication with God in good order, then all good things will come into your life. Once you have done your prayers with a great deal of sincerity, concentration, and fulfillment, you get God's attention."

Money, please. The survey also sheds some light on deeper questions about the nature of prayer in today's world. What do we understand about the way people pray and how they focus their prayers? Are there issues involved in praying for personal gain--a better job, perhaps, or a secure income--that may be encouraged in one religion and considered unseemly in another? Is this a trivialization of prayer, or does it in fact reveal an important element of one's relationship with God? "In their classical forms, all great religions have considered it perfectly fine to pray for goods," says Carol Zalesky, professor of religion at Smith College and coauthor of the forthcoming book The Language of Paradise: The Nature, Practice and Meaning of Prayer. "You can't just say that Islam is a religion of adoration and Judaism is a religion of law. Probably every fully developed religion has the full range of prayers, of the typologies of prayer. The differences are in emphasis."

Geri Stratman of Omaha, who has been a practicing Roman Catholic for all of her 74 years, describes herself as not wearing "my religion on my sleeve." In October 1996, she was diagnosed with a cancer called Hodgkin's lymphoma. "Cancer is a scary word; I don't care what kind it is," she says. "When I found out that I had cancer, I was like the Cowardly Lion: I prayed for courage."

She was not the only one. With one brother (a priest), four sisters (one a nun), and her own five children, Stratman already had a large number of people praying for her. But she also went to the St. Peregrine Ministry, organized by the Servants of Mary Sisters. Since its inception 13 years ago, the ministry has focused on healing prayer for the sick, especially those with cancer. Each month, the religious order receives 75 to 100 names of people who need prayers. Sister Jean Morrow, the prioress provincial of the order in Omaha, says, "It's not that people really expect a miracle in the form of a physical cure. For the most part, they are looking for the strength that comes in knowing others care and are supporting them in prayer." Stratman felt that support. Did it make a difference? "I sat in a group of six people, and we all had various forms of cancer. I am the only one who is alive. I never asked, 'Why me?' I sometimes asked, 'Why not me?' Why did I survive when they were just as faith filled and said as many prayers as I did?"

There is no answer to that existential question. And yet, somehow quantifying and analyzing the effects of prayer on health has become a burgeoning field of scientific--some critics would say pseudoscientific--inquiry. Researchers have attempted to see if the efficacy of prayer can be evaluated in the same way as any other treatment, running studies in which some people who were ill were given a dose of prayer with their medicine and others with the same illness received standard treatment. The studies are too numerous to mention, but one of the first that established the typical pattern took place in the coronary care unit at San Francisco General Hospital in 1988. Researchers found that patients who had been prayed for by others tended to recover with fewer complications than those who received standard treatment without prayer. Their need for antibiotics was one fifth that of other recovering patients, and they were one third as likely to develop pulmonary swelling.

Another highly publicized study, which appeared in 2001, is representative of the controversy that attends all attempts to study the power of prayer. In that study, researchers claimed that women in South Korea undergoing in vitro fertilization achieved astonishing results when strangers prayed for them. They were twice as likely to conceive, even though they didn't know that they were being prayed for. Questions were immediately raised about the study's methodology, despite the fact that it appeared in a respected journal, the Journal of Reproductive Medicine, a distinguished physician was the lead author, and another physician had signed on as coauthor. But this month, the New York Times reported that the lead researcher had withdrawn his name from the study. Richard Sloan, a professor of behavioral medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and an ardent critic of all the prayer studies, says: "Almost all the studies have such serious methodological flaws as to be inconclusive." He adds: "It's bad enough to be sick, worse to be gravely ill. To add to that the remorse or guilt over some sort of failure is unconscionable. That is what you get when you make health claims about the benefits of religious practice."

Nonetheless, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine of the National Institutes of Health is spending $ 6.2 million over two years to study the link between prayer and health. A recent survey by the National Center for Health Statistics found that 43 percent of the adult population had prayed specifically for their own health in the previous year and that more than half of those surveyed had at one point in their lives prayed for their own health. And cardiologists say that 97 percent of patients pray the night before they have heart surgery. In the U.S. News/Beliefnet survey, 40 percent said that they prayed for their health "all the time." And of those who prayed for their health at all, 71.1 percent said they prayed about specific diseases like cancer, or chronic pain, and 65.1 percent said that they prayed because of emotional disorders or mental illness.

There might simply be a basic contradiction inherent in all these studies. "If they could establish that intercessionary prayer works in some objective, measurable way, they would be taking it out of the realm of prayer and into the not-so-well-known realm of some natural phenomenon," says Smith professor Zalesky. "It no longer would have the spiritual meaning people think that it has. Then, would it be prayer at all?" Or as one survey respondent explained, "I pray mostly for things that can't be measured."

High-tech prayer. Prayer can be formal, as with the five-times-a-day Muslim salat. In Judaism, according to Jon Levenson, professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard Divinity School, "prayer is a statutory requirement, a legal requirement of Jewish law, with a threefold structure of praise, petition, and thanksgiving. But when a Jew prays, he or she does it as a member of the Jewish people, so many are phrased in the first person plural." Buddhist meditation is a kind of prayer, as are gospel songs. Then there are the cozy and personal prayers that fill the busy days and sometimes wakeful nights of believers throughout the world. "I pray because it gives me security, hope, helps me express what I am feeling," wrote one survey respondent. "Not because I really believe some specific being will answer."

Throughout the world, prayer is a social and cultural phenomenon, one shaped by the cultural norms of the time. And in the 20th century, an odd yoking of technology and prayer occurred. The earliest radio programs included prayer, or preaching. Television offered Mass for Shut-Ins and other prayerful venues. Cable television is now filled with religious options. The Internet vibrates with prayer warriors, "prayer circles," prayer groups. Beliefnet alone has over 65,000 prayer circles, which have been created informally by the site's subscribers. One of the most popular has been for pets. Entrepreneurial companies accept prayers for the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, where believers can fax or E-mail a prayer request.

For those who pray, there are clearly few limits to innovation or forms of expression. Psychologically, prayer can organize anxieties, focus worries, offer a sense of comfort and connection, solidify communities. It can assist in changing bad behavior, as those who are enrolled in 12-step programs can attest. But in the end, prayer is ultimately about realms of consciousness as yet unexplored--about what believers might call the soul, or the spirit, or some transcendent part of being. Some believe that prayers are actually answered. But it doesn't really matter: For those who believe, that is not where the true power of prayer will ever reside.