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Faith

The Science of Prayer

In a world where the term ‘thoughts and prayers’ are often mocked for being a statement meant to offer little more than passive pleasantries, is there any benefit at all to something so simple such as prayer?

In a world where the term ‘thoughts and prayers’ are often mocked for being a statement meant to offer little more than passive pleasantries, is there any benefit at all to something so simple such as prayer?

Neither my Earth nor my Sky are wide enough to contain Me. But the heart of My servant, believing, pious and pure, is wide enough to contain Me.” (Hadith Kudsi)

In a world where the term ‘thoughts and prayers’ are often mocked for being a statement meant to offer little more than passive pleasantries and, in a society, where longitudinal data suggest a large-scale shift away from organized religion, especially amongst young people [1], is there any benefit at all to something so simple such as prayer?

Our holy texts are replete with calls for the believer to maintain this behavior such as “and seek help through patience and prayer, and indeed it is difficult, except for the humbly submissive (to Allah)” (2:45). Does our empirical data verify its benefit? What does modern psychology have to tell us about the function of prayer in a society that increasingly discards its usage as antiquated and nonsensical?

Firstly, there are various types of prayers operationalized in the social sciences; conversational prayers involve speaking to a higher power on individual or daily matters, meditative prayers center around contemplation and devotion, ritual prayers are obligatory (and usually involve communal aspects such as jum’ah) and lastly, intercessory prayers involve petitioning for oneself or someone else’s health, wellness, financial help, etc.

Secondly, research has uncovered that prayer is the most commonly used ‘health intervention’ in many non-Western societies [3]. This means that humans regularly praying is actually the norm in most of the world. This last point is critical because our behaviors model environmental contingencies and so, many of us in secular Western nations, may undermine the role of prayer because it is not situationally present. For example, we do not hear the call to prayer regularly like our brothers and sisters in Islamic countries.

Thirdly, the usage of prayer fluctuates over time, both individually and collectively; the recent COVID-19 pandemic, for example, increased prayer (Google searches of ‘prayer’ rose by 30%, the highest recorded level in history) [4]. This last point is touched on in the Holy Qur’an, “And we will surely test you with fear…but give good tidings to the patient… Who when disaster strikes them say, ‘Indeed we belong to Allah and to Him we will return” (2:155-156).

My Lord! Make me and those ‘believers’ of my descendants keep up prayer. Our Lord! Accept my prayers.” (14:40)

Human beings using prayer to change maladaptive thinking patterns, instill resilience and hope, and foster strategic pathways for prosocial behaviors and other positive health ventures is well-documented [2]. But does prayer work? Yes and no.

Yes, in that documented changes to bio physiology are reported such as decreases in blood pressure, slower brain wave activity, and parasympathetic responses such as feelings of calmness [3]. Prayer has also been linked with reducing anxiety, depression, and even physical pain [6]. But no in that there is inconclusive evidence that prayer can actually change a certain outcome.

For example, a research study took two groups of patients who were going to receive heart surgery, one group who was being prayed for and one group who was not and no differences were found between the two groups [2]. But again, we must contend with what the empirical sciences can determine in a randomized control trial; although results may be non-significant, the equation itself is faulty. A worshipper may bargain with the Lord, “if I pray x amount of times, I wish to receive y benefits”. This amounts to the prayer of a ‘businessman’ in the words of Imam Ali (a.s), in contrast to the prayer of a free man who only worships for the total love of Allah (swt). 

Lastly, it is important to recognize that as it pertains to psychological treatment – comparisons using interventions that integrate prayer and scripture reading and other pertinent characteristics of faith in conjunction with therapeutic models such as CBT have found better results with certain populations such as Christians, Muslims and other faith members [5]. Prayer may not work for some people, but it works for any who believe in a Creator who is Merciful and Loving.

I would like to close with a statement from an 83-year-old woman suffering from chronic pain, she was interviewed by social scientists as to why she continues to pray in spite of her suffering; “Some people are sick and have pain and it gets the best of them. Not me. Praying eases pain, takes it away. Sometimes I pray when I am in deep, serious pain. I pray, and all at once the pain gets easy. . . I believe in God. He’s my guide and my protector.”


References

1. American Survey Center: Generation Z and the Future of Faith 

2. Jantos, M., & Kiat, H. (2007). Prayer as medicine: how much have we learned?. Medical Journal of Australia186, S51-S53.

3. Masters, K. S., & Spielmans, G. I. (2007). Prayer and health: Review, meta-analysis, and research agenda. Journal of behavioral medicine30, 329-338.

4. Bentzen, J. S. (2021). In crisis, we pray: Religiosity and the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of economic behavior & organization192, 541-583.

5. Gonçalves, J. P., Lucchetti, G., Menezes, P. R., & Vallada, H. (2015). Religious and spiritual interventions in mental health care: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled clinical trials. Psychological medicine45(14), 2937-2949.

6. Jarego, M., Ferreira-Valente, A., Queiroz-Garcia, I., Day, M. A., Pais-Ribeiro, J., Costa, R. M., … & Jensen, M. P. (2022). Are Prayer-Based Interventions Effective Pain Management Options? A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Journal of Religion and Health, 1-30.

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