Prayer describes a wide variety of rituals over a multitude of religions. Generally, it describes some kind of display of worship to a deity, but what prayer entails differs vastly from religion to religion, culture to culture, and even person to person. Prayer may or may not require spoken word which may or may not be a rehearsed verse; it may or may not require a specific gesture; it may or may not be compulsory. Despite the huge differences between various prayers, however, one thing is always certain: prayer has a very powerful effect.
No, I haven’t had a sudden conversion to religion; the power I speak of is nothing supernatural and doesn’t refer to any physical change that is brought about by prayer. In fact, its power lies in quite the opposite. Sorry to break it to you, but prayer does absolutely nothing of any value. An amusing quip from a Twitter account posing as God pondered whether we should call the day after the “National Day of Prayer” the “National Day of Disappointment”. Prayer has no measurable effect. Several independent studies have investigated the effect of prayer on the health of patients. Some found no effect whatsoever, some found that prayer had a slight positive effect on health, and some even found a slight negative effect on health. These latter two results are likely simply the product of random results giving the impression of a positive or negative trend, hence the differences being only slight. Overall, no proof has ever been recorded by science of any link between prayer and the desired effect of the prayer. So how can this lack of results harbour any power?
Prayer is widely recognised and accepted despite this stark lack of evidence. No surprises there then, as it is faith after all. The very fact that the US and the UK have national prayer days is a testament to this global acknowledgement. This acceptance of such a useless exercise is the basis for the power behind prayer. In times of disaster and ill-fortune, swathes of religious followers don’t waste a second to begin praying for those unfortunate victims. Natural disasters like the recent earthquake in Japan, the Haiti tsunami and the hurricane in Oklahoma see Facebook groups for prayer and appeals for prayer to help those affected crop up everywhere. In the wake of these destructive events we witness what is essentially a highly organized cop-out. Behind the false premise of ‘helpful’ prayer, those who claim they have prayed for the victims have thence avoided having to actually do anything worthwhile to help out. It’s a cop-out that’s shielding by the near impenetrable armour of religion and faith, one that no-one can dispute otherwise they’d be ‘insulting someone’s beliefs’. Prayer is the perfect antidote for the guilt of not helping fellow humans.
The power that prayer holds is in this protection from scrutiny and in its ability to allow people to feel that they are doing good without actually doing good. This power is strong enough that the cop-out that prayer facilitates is often unintentional, and the person praying can fool themselves into feeling that they really are helping. When I say that prayer is used as a cop-out and is intrinsically built to protect itself, this is a construct that has been passed down through centuries of religious teachings. In most cases, I don’t think people consciously use prayer as a cop-out, and many probably don’t give the possibility that prayer is a waste of time a second thought. Prayer is taught as the way in which a religious follower has a direct connection with their God, and so to disregard prayer would be a severe blow to their faith, and that prayer works has been drummed into religious followers for years. Thus it is tough to think that prayer may not actually be helpful and that your time could be better spent helping in a non-religious fashion.
If you’re religious, it is all too easy to excuse yourself from charitable acts by praying. I would implore those of faith to do more than, well, nothing at all in drastic circumstances, and actually help out if you want to help out. By all means pray for victims of disaster, illness, or the well-being of friends and family, but that counts for nothing if you don’t genuinely do something worthwhile for those people.