Whenever there is a national tragedy such as a mass shooting or natural disaster, two phenomena can reliably be observed. First, people offer or ask for prayers. Second, others respond by criticizing, even mocking prayer. They argue that we need to turn to science, not faith, to solve problems. Atheist public intellectuals often make a similar case against prayer: that because evidence that it is effective is lacking, it is a waste of precious time and energy. It appears many critics don’t realize that empirical evidence reveals that prayer can be quite helpful.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Religious Landscape Study, over half of American adults pray daily, and less than a quarter seldom or never pray. Prayer is not exclusive to the religiously affiliated. Pew finds that 20 percent of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated pray daily and that another 18 percent pray weekly or monthly. And despite people’s tendency to frame debates about the value of religious beliefs and practices in political terms, daily prayer is a bipartisan activity; 42 percent of people who pray daily are Republican and 40 percent are Democrat. People all over the world from different cultures, faiths, and backgrounds regularly pray
A number of studies suggest that prayer is positively associated with well-being and physical health. For instance, a nationwide survey of older adults found that the negative effects of financial problems on health were significantly reduced among those who regularly prayed for others. Religious practices such as prayer also contribute to perceptions of meaning in life, which promote psychological well-being. Some studies have found mixed results when it comes to the association between prayer and mental health. Results from a large national survey helped clarify this relationship. Researchers found that prayer is psychologically beneficial for those who perceive God as loving but may cause anxiety for those who view God as distant and unresponsive. Other research suggests, not surprisingly, that the content of prayer matters. For example, among a sample of cancer patients, those who focused their prayers on thankfulness and concern for others were found to have the least symptoms of depression.
Prayer might make people feel better, but, as some critics have argued, does it direct their attention away from problems that need to be addressed? In other words, is prayer a distraction? Recent behavioral science experiments suggest that it isn’t, that prayer helps people focus their attention. In one study, research participants with varying levels of religiosity completed cognitive tasks that assess attention. After finishing these tasks, they were instructed to bring to mind one concern in their lives. One group of participants was then asked to spend ten minutes praying about that concern. Another group was asked to spend ten minutes thinking about that concern. A final group spent that time working on a puzzle. Then they repeated the attention tasks. Researchers looked for changes in their performance and found that among highly religious individuals, praying about a life concern, compared with thinking about it or being distracted with a puzzle, improved cognitive performance. No differences were observed among the less religious. These findings are consistent with the researchers’ proposal that prayer frees up cognitive resources needed to focus on mental tasks by reducing the extent to which people are distracted by negative emotions.
Consistent with the theory that religious faith increases self-control, prayer has also been found to reduce unhealthy behavior. For example, across a series of studies, researchers found that the more people prayed, the less likely they were to drink heavily. This wasn’t just because highly religious people are less inclined to do so to begin with. The researchers found that people assigned to pray daily for four weeks drank about half as much alcohol as participants in a control condition who were not directed to pray. Similarly, in a study that measured behavior over time the researchers observed that a person’s prayer at an earlier date predicted a reduction in alcohol consumption at a later date.
The benefits of prayer extend to social bonds. A willingness to compromise and make personal sacrifices is critical to healthy close relationships. Married couples who are happy to sacrifice for each other experience less marital distress. More broadly, sacrifice promotes trust, which strengthens relationships. Researchers found that prayer helps promote the value of sacrifice as well as the strength of a relationship.
The more religiously observant Americans are, Pew finds, the less likely they are to view science and religion as antagonistic.
In one study, the more people prayed for a romantic partner or close friend, the happier they were with the sacrifices they made for her or him. In a subsequent study, researchers recruited people (mostly women) who felt comfortable praying to take part in a study with a close friend. Those who were instructed to pray for their friend, compared with those who were not, were found to be happier about making sacrifices, less driven to win arguments, and to feel greater unity with their friend. Other studies find that prayer inspires forgiveness and reduces anger and aggression.
There is little evidence that most believers use faith as a substitute for other evidence-based solutions to problems. Of course, a small minority of religious extremists do reject modern medicine and other science-based approaches. But most believers do not perceive their personal faith and science to be in conflict. Pew finds, for instance, that religion is strongly related to views on only a few specific science-relevant topics, particularly evolution and the creation of the universe. And religious people’s thoughts on evolution are more diverse than many realize. The more religiously observant Americans are, Pew finds, the less likely they are to view science and religion as antagonistic. In academia and progressive media, the most vocal attacks on science are certainly not coming from the devoutly religious. Both secular and religious ideologies can influence people’s willingness to dispassionately consider evidence. This is a human problem, not one specific to religious believers.
Tackling the many pressing social and personal problems Americans face requires action guided by focused deliberation and empirical evidence, and most of our nation’s problems are complex. People might disagree on what the evidence shows about any given issue and how best to respond, but few reject the idea that evidence is important. For most believers, prayer isn’t a substitute for data-based solutions. It is a personal resource that complements and may even help facilitate other thoughtful action. A friend who was recently diagnosed with cancer summed it up perfectly when she said, “I have complete faith that through God, the doctors, and prayer, I will be 100 percent healed.” Sounds to me like someone who is energized, not distracted, by faith to act upon science-based treatment.
Clay Routledge is an author, psychological scientist, consultant, professor and a contributor to National Review Online.