Prayer: What Is It Good For?

Aug 18, 2014

By Herb Silverman


The 1969 protest song “War” asks “What is it good for?” and answers “Absolutely nothing!” If I substituted “Prayer” for “War,” I would qualify my answer with “Almost nothing.”

Prayer can be good for its placebo effect when believers feel they are doing something constructive, which might “cure” a psychosomatic disorder. On the other hand, replacing accepted medical practices with prayer has led to countless preventable deaths and injuries.

Many well-meaning people rely on prayer because it makes them feel upbeat when they don’t know what action to take in a situation that is out of their control. Regardless of logic and statistical evidence to the contrary, fervent believers remain convinced that there is a god who listens to prayers. I’ve heard comments like “Sometimes our prayers are answered and sometimes they are not” and “God answers all prayers, but sometimes the answer is no.”

Prayer can also be good for providing a sense of community to those who hope to achieve a desired outcome. But such prayers might not always be for outcomes beneficial to all, as depicted in Mark Twain’s “The War Prayer,” a prayer for the suffering and destruction of enemies, as typified by “O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shred.” This “prayer” was left unpublished until years after Twain’s death because his family considered it too sacrilegious.

26 comments on “Prayer: What Is It Good For?

  • @Herb
    its a double edged sword. the faith required for that placebo effect is also responsible for enormous psychological damage.
    Can’t we think of a different way to achieve the same mind body placebo affect you claim with prayer. How about meditation. All I am saying is we should not give up our critical thinking, and for those that already think critically, it is impossible to revert back.

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  • 4
    AfraidToDie says:

    Praying for me is synonymous with wishing for good luck. The problems arise when those who believe someone supernatural is actually listening.

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  • Prayer does not work at a distance but it can work internally as a form of meditation.
    If at the end of the day you think about how your actions played out and how they may improve tomorrow, that could be a good exercise. If your child is ill and you pray for the strength to carry on, that may be beneficial. But if you pray your boss will have a change of heart or be killed on the way to work or that your child’s doctor gets a new miracle drug, not so much.

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  • 6
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Yeah, I used to listen to that song a lot. Not the original but the remake by Frankie Goes To Hollywood.

    Actually I think Herb has it backwards. War does have its use in very few specific cases. Faith-based prayer on the other hand, accomplishes exactly zip except reinforce confirmation bias in the religious. It’s good for “absolutely nothing” like the song says.

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  • There is no benefit to prayer, except by accident. There’s benefit in self-assurance techniques and expressions of hope and goodwill, though. Who needs prayer when you have those?

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  • I was at my son’s baseball game about a year ago. My boy was pitching and the umpire was really having a bad day. Both teams were yelling and complaining and really riding him.

    The teams were both CYO (catholic youth league), and on our sideline were two Catholic priests.

    My boy threw a fastball which the batter foul tipped, right into the umpire’s collarbone. He fell as if shot and lay face down. No one from either side moved to help him. As I passed the two priests to assist, i said “hey father, who says that prayer does not work?”

    Neither priest has spoken to me since.

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  • 10
    Bob Springsteen says:

    Don’t spend two pounds to dry-clean a shirt. Say a prayer and then donate it to the Salvation Army instead. They’ll clean it and put it on a hanger. Next morning, buy it back for seventy five pence.

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  • 12
    Donal Laurence says:

    Prayer is simply a process of positive thinking. Science accepts that this process can produce positive effects, both physically and mentally. It is not a process that is owned or confined or limited to any religious group. Feel free to pray if that is what works for you. Asking any entity for a wish to be granted holds no negativity.

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  • The other day on my Facebook page a guy I went to school with comment showed up because another girl on my friends list commented. What I found out is he is a minister . The comment said a woman I assume is a member of his church MIGHT have an infection in her body. He asked everyone to praise Jesus and pray he saves her. After test were done he posted the test were negative for the infection ,praise and thank you Jesus! I shook my head. She MIGHT have an infection is not the same as she has an infection that miraculously went away and it was not Jesus who figured that out. His page is public so I looked through it. The night before the woman posted she was hoping she could sleep but she was having stomach cramps. After the test were done and came back negative she posted ,thank you Jesus. My thought was she just thanked Jesus for her having a negative test but yet she still had the cramps and doctors did not know what was wrong with her. I’m pretty sure I would rather have the infection and begin treatment them to still have the pain and wonder what is wrong that could be worse.

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  • Publishing medical details of a member of the public is unethical so actually he should be investigated. Religion is the diametric opposite of ethics – behaving in a certain way for the fear of hell rather than for the good of one’s fellow man.

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  • Yep! No matter how it’s dressed up, that’s what it is at heart. I always say ‘ fingers crossed’ when I need to convey that sentiment. It’s a throwaway line and I trust no- one takes it seriously.

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  • 21
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    Thank you!! And indeed I don’t. Nuff’ said. I don’t want to risk this reply meeting the same fate as the previous one.

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  • 22
    aquilacane says:

    And the most good for absolutely nothing is a prayer for war. As far as talking to one’s self, I have solved more problems this way than talking with anyone else. I just don’t ask myself for silly things like less rain or more time. I solve real problems for real people and companies.

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  • Ask anyone who dislikes opera what they know about it, and they’ll most probably say “nearly nothing”. And the same for motor racing, darts, and prayer!

    Prayer does actually have measurable biological effects – as was pointed out last year in a study reported in New Scientist. I don’t understand why people relying on reason and science don’t know about the reason and science available to anyone with access to a newsagent!

    The action of prayer focuses on the function of the 10th cranial or vagus nerve, which connects the brain to the lungs, digestive tract and heart. The vagus nerve is part of the parasympathetic nervous system, which restores your normal emotional state after some kind of shock or stress, and your measure of this innate ability to rebound is known as vagal tone.

    High vagal tone correlates with empathy and therefore better relationships, better working memory and attention span, and increases your ability to produce insulin, regulate blood glucose and supress inflammation – so much so that low vagal tone is strongly associated with dying from cardiovascular disease.

    The very problems atheists are trying to deal with – the perception that they are aggressive (dealt with elsewhere on this site) – something generally understood to be a lower, fear-ridden trait of human personality, something closer to the animal level from which we would like to continue to evolve, and which dominates when there is no focus on higher mental ideals – are the very things prayer is designed to counteract. Probably without genuine prayer, ie, private, altruistic and benevolent thoughts for others, everyone would appear aggressive. That’s debateable, but the biological benefits of prayer are not. Prayer is virtually a tool for mental evolution!

    Barbara Frederickson, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, conducted a study which included the influence of meditation. Volunteers were instructed in meditation and given a daily routine involving visualising the good qualities of others, and repeating phrases of goodwill and benevolence towards them. What she found was astonishing – after only nine weeks, vagal tone had increased significantly in meditators, but not in people who neglected their practice.

    Meditation, a form of prayer, has been shown to increase cortical thickness and amplify the amygdala’s functioning by an extraordinary degree. It also increases the production of telomerase. Not only that, thoughts of goodwill to others generate oxytocin from the supraoptical nucleus; this neurotransmitter is vital for every major organ system and has a soothing, pleasurable effect on the brain. The benefit of oxytocin is probably why children were urged to pray before sleep, and perhaps also why people generally prayed before meals to give thanks for the food they were about to receive. I wouldn’t call all these measurable, proven, biological benefits “nearly nothing”!

    Atheists can rail against fundamentalism and superstition all they like, but if they’re not going to pay attention to what they should be more well versed in than all of us laymen – information coming out of the laboratory, in this case regarding spiritual practices – they’re going to continue to waste their time “shaking their fists at sky fairies”, as one Spectator writer aptly put it!

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  • You miss a major point here, and first, I am giving you the benefit of the doubt that your references check out, and your anatomy is correct. Others more well versed than I may comment.

    The point is that everything you are talking about has to do with an individual doing something to him/her self. I have no trouble with agreeing that excersize can change the muscle mass of the person excersizing, or that yoga or prayer may increase, by the mechanisms you describe, a persons general wellbeing. What I do get from your post is “Wow, science is throwing some light on a previously poorly understood process.”

    That does not seem particularly spiritual to me, and certainly not a demonstration of a god in the works. But, I concede, a small point can be made that prayer can do some good to the person praying, but it is really a point of semantics.

    That does not mean that it can cure cancer, or that another persons well being can be affected. OK, maybe if Aunt Mabel feels better going into an operation because her family prayed for her, it could conceivably improve her prospects, but really, that is a small and I suspect impossible to confirm effect.

    No, the issue that “Atheists can rail against fundamentalism and superstition all they like,” has to do not with your discussion, but rather whether prayer can affect the remote and disassociated outcome of circumstances for some else.

    There several examples of properly conducted research that have amply demonstrated that it cannot.

    Sorry folks, nothing to see here, no spirituality, and certainly no god, just chemistry again. Move along please.

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  • Prayer is an attitude of submission to the will of God and expresses the sense of having a relationship with him. Anything meant to magically control God is magic not prayer. A perfect God cannot be influenced because by definition he knows what he is doing better than we do. Catholicism wants you to get saints to influence God – thus it is a subtly occultic religion. The notion that prayer helps is nonsense. If anything helps, it is people’s misunderstanding of prayer. Many think that saying prayers for others in order to feel good about doing nothing for them is prayer. By definition prayer cannot be proven to help anybody. It is really about asking God to do what he wants not you so how can it help?

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