Prayer and Meditation

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Prayer and Meditation

Prayer is the practice of communion with God and traditionally involves components such as confession, thanksgiving, and intercession (praying for the needs of others). Meditation is a form of spiritual practice based on focused attention that is restrained in its use of words or images. Whereas prayer is conceptualized in terms of a relationship with God, meditation does not necessarily make theistic assumptions. Prayer and meditation raise several issues for the science-religion discussion, including the effects of intercessory prayer for those prayed for and the more general benefits of prayer and meditation for those who practice them. There are both outcome questions about the extent of the benefits, and process questions about how benefits are mediated.

Intercessory prayer

The efficacy of intercessory prayer is not easy to investigate scientifically. To do so would obviously require a control group of people who are not prayed for. It would also be necessary to ensure that those being prayed for do not know that they are being prayed for; otherwise any benefits might be considered a kind of placebo effect. Indeed, it is often considered desirable during such a study that the people who pray do not know the full identities of those for whom they are praying. In a hospital setting, the medical staff also should not know the identifies of those being prayed for to ensure that they do not influence clinical outcomes by treating the prayed-for people differently.

Meeting all these methodological requirements involves creating highly artificial conditions. For example, it is questionable whether it is possible to pray effectively for people whose identities have been concealed. Even if such prayer is possible, it may be less powerful than heartfelt prayer for a known person. It is also arguable that knowing that the prayer is being undertaken for the sake of a scientific experiment undermines its effectiveness; perhaps prayer ought only to be undertaken out of concern for the person prayed for. There is also the theological question of how God might respond to testing the effectiveness of prayer scientifically. Prayer is primarily a matter of a person's relationship with God, not of control of the world.

Despite these problems, a number of scientific investigations of the efficacy of prayer have, in fact, been undertaken. The results are mixed and inconclusive, with some studies finding an effect, others not. However, there is certainly more evidence for the effectiveness of prayer than would be expected by chance. In the 1980s, Randolph Byrd carried out a study of nearly four hundred coronary care patients. A control group was prayed for, while an experimental group was not; other patients and medical staff were kept blind about who was in which group. When this experiment was concluded, the patients who had been prayed for had a better outcome. A number of well-designed studies have been conducted since then and have found significant effects from intercessory prayer, though some experts remain unconvinced by these studies.

Is there a way of explaining the efficacy of prayer that is consistent with the scientific worldview? In general, explanations are divided between those who invoke God and those who do not. Those who do not invoke God see the efficacy of intercessory prayer as a form of psychokinesis or remote mental influence. Those who invoke God see it as a special case of divine action.

A series of well-designed experiments have been conducted on "bio-psychokinesis" that indicate that it is possible to influence a range of specific biological functions in others without any immediate contact. Several of these effects have been well-replicated. It is possible that intercessory prayer, such as prayer for physical healing, is a specific example of bio-psychokinesis. Of course, that does not completely explain the phenomenon because researchers do not understand how biopsychokinesis itself works. It may be preferable to look first for some not-yet-understood naturalistic explanation of bio-psychokinesis, rather than assume that a wholly non-naturalistic explanation is required.

Alternatively, the effect of prayer can be seen as a special case of divine action, but one in which divine action is triggered or facilitated by prayer. This raises the theological conundrum of why God should act in response to prayer rather than acting on God's own initiative. It is theologically objectionable to suppose that God is unaware of human needs or not motivated to respond unless prayer occurs. It is also objectionable to suppose that God is powerless to act without human prayer, though it is perfectly acceptable to suggest that, out of voluntary self-restraint, God might prefer to act in conjunction with the prayerful initiatives of human beings. If so, prayer could be seen as establishing a union of wills between human beings and God. Science provides a source of analogies for how that could come about. For example, it may be analogous to a nuclear resonance, or some kind of attunement.

A divine action model would probably predict that the prayer of people who have strong faith and lead good lives would be the most effective. A psychokinesis model of prayer would probably predict that prayer would be most powerful if carried out by people with psychic powers (which would, of course, have to be assessed in some independent way, to avoid circularity). There is thus some prospect of testing the different predictions of the two kinds of theories empirically.

Benefits to the person who prays

Next, there is the question of whether prayer benefits the person who prays. Here we are concerned not just with intercessory prayer but with the full range of prayer, including thanksgiving, adoration, confession, and petition. It is almost certain that prayer makes a valuable contribution to personal coping. However, actual evidence for this is not easy to collect. It would be hard to conduct a controlled study in which an experimental group prayed regularly over a sustained period, and a control group never prayed. Most people would not be willing to allow whether or not they prayed to be dictated by the requirements of an experimental design, certainly not for long enough to show a broad range of effects.

That means that the evidence will only be correlational in nature. There is indeed a good range of studies showing that people who pray tend to be better adjusted. One of the most sophisticated of such studies is that of G. Parker and L. B. Brown (1982), who found that prayer was one of the coping strategies that apparently helped to protect against depression. However, the problem with all such studies is that they are correlational, which interferes with firm conclusions about causal effects, particularly when so little is known about the causation of the phenomenon under investigation. There is also the problem that prayer is closely related to other aspects of religion, such as religious beliefs, experience, and public rituals. It is hard to be sure that it is prayer that helps, rather than those other aspects of religion.

It is nevertheless highly plausible that prayer is helpful, and it is not difficult to suggest how it might be so. It seems to serve as a cognitive method of coping with stress in which events are conceptualized in a broad framework of meaning. The religious frame of reference does not look at events primarily in terms of whether they are enjoyable, but in terms of how they relate to the purposes of God. It is a basic belief of many faith traditions that God can bring blessing out of adversity, and prayer facilities the application of that belief to particular events.

Attributional processes are important in coping generally, and the beneficial aspects of prayer are probably mediated in part by the attributional aspects of prayer. Prayer invites attributions to God, whereas otherwise there may be little alternative to attributions to one's own strengths or weaknesses, or to seeing events as the result of mere chance processes. Thanksgiving is an aspect of prayer that plays a particularly important role in the reformulation of attributions.


Meditation has been widely studied scientifically, especially transcendental meditation. There is clear evidence that transcendental meditation produces a distinctive arousal pattern of relaxed alertness, and there is evidence also of its therapeutic value, not only on subjective measures such as anxiety, but on more objective measures such as use of drugs and alcohol. However, none of that may have much to do with religion; it may be that transcendental meditation is little more than a technique for deep relaxation.

The cognitive aspects of meditation are more interesting from a theological point of view. A pointer to the distinctive mode of cognition induced by meditation comes from the classic laboratory studies of Arthur Deikman during the 1960s in which college students gazed at a blue vase while refraining from thinking discursively about the vase in any way. The unusual sensations of vividness experienced were interpreted as arising from a suspension of the normal "automatization" of perception.

Though some meditation moves beyond words and images, much of it still uses them, albeit in an unusual way. Words and images are characteristically used sparingly, but each is allowed to resonate with maximum depth of meaning. Layers of meaning may be uncovered that are felt to be "ineffable." That sense of ineffability may arise from making use of a meaning system of the cognitive architecture that is distinct from, and to an unusual extent decoupled from, propositions that lend themselves to articulation.

See also Spirituality


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fraser watts