After Christopher Hitchens famously claimed that religion poisons everything, researchers discovered that when patients on chemotherapy believe in God their chemo works better. This is not about faith healing. It is more about supplementing the chemo with prayer.
Today Melissa Dahl offers some thoughts on the power of prayer, especially prayer to God. Dahl suggests that atheists might also do well to pray from time to time. In that she is undoubtedly correct. But, that opens the question of what or whom atheists would pray to.
The news about prayer is not all good. A 2006 study has suggested that when someone prays for a patient undergoing open heart surgery, the surgery is less likely to be successful. To understand these results, one assumes that those who are the objects of such prayers know that someone else is praying for them.
For example, in 2006, researchers at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind/Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital (and elsewhere) reported the results of their ten-year study of more than 1,800 heart-surgery patients: Not only did the prayers of others not help them recover, but those who were prayed for were actually more likely to suffer complications, “perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created,” reported the New York Times in an article headlined “Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer.” It’s kind of like the original version of “thoughts and prayers are not enough.”
What does expectation have to do with it? One suspects that those who are told that other people are praying for them believe that their condition is so bad that there is nothing left to do but to pray.
Dahl started looking into the power of prayer when she was thinking about the now-infamous New York Daily News front page, the one that suggested, after the San Bernardino terrorist massacre that God was not going to fix this. Apparently, the Daily News believes that it will all be fixed when we disarm unilaterally. That will surely help us when faced with armed enemies. The paper took offense at the fact that some of the Republican presidential candidates offered their prayers to the victims of the terrorist attack. Perhaps it would have been better to say that they did not really care about the victims.
Of course, if we disarm unilaterally, prayer will be all we have left to defend ourselves.
So, Dahl chose to examine the studies on the power of prayer. She discovered that prayer is notably therapeutic.
The explicit studies of prayer, for example, have linked the act to improved self-control, decreased anger and stress, as well as increased likeliness to forgive and trust.
She continues to contrast prayer and meditation:
If for the religious prayer is a personal conversation with God, then for the nonreligious it’s considerably more one-sided, and in that way it’s a lot like introspection. But it’s also more than that, the musician Andrew W.K. argued in a Village Voice column last fall. “Prayer is a type of thought,” he wrote. “It's a lot like meditation — a type of very concentrated mental focus with passionate emotion directed towards a concept or situation, or the lack thereof. But there's a special X-factor ingredient that makes ‘prayer’ different than meditation or other types of thought. That X-factor is humility.” It’s communing with something that’s bigger and more powerful than your tiny self, whether that thing is God or the simple fact of your smallness in the vastness of the universe.
Prayer brings the virtue of humility.Meditation does not. Prayer is an antidote to egotism and narcissistic self-involvement. When you pray you are asserting that you do not control everything. Understanding that you are narcissistic does nothing to mitigate your narcissism, because it allows you to feel superior for having understood your problem.
Effectively, the power of prayer is one of the underpinnings of 12 Step programs. When participants offer up something like prayers, they, of course, pray to a Higher Power. Do atheists accept there being a higher power, while rejecting the notion that there is a God?
One understands that atheists would rather pray to the vastness of the universe, but still, vastness is a quality, not an agent. Vastness will not humble you in the same way that God will.
More than a century ago William James wrote a book called The Varieties of Religious Experience. He argued that religion provides believers with experiences that cannot be gained by scientific reasoning. The book ought to have had a place in the history of psychotherapy, because it foreshadows forms of therapy that involve spirituality.
When people pray, Dahl reminds us, they experience a sense of awe. But, doesn’t one feel awe when faced with a natural phenomenon that one did not create, that one’s mind cannot influence, that one’s interpretations cannot change? Doesn’t the sense of awe suggest that another mind, a greater mind created it and that one cannot uncreate it.
In Dahl’s words:
It’s an awesome experience in the original sense of the word, to put it another way, and awe is an emotion that has been increasingly linked to greater happiness and overall well-being in studies by the University of California, Berkeley, psychologist Dacher Keltner and others. One fascinating study published earlier this year in the journal Emotion, for example, found that people who reported regularly feeling a sense of awe or wonder were also less likely to harbor potentially dangerous inflammatory markers in their bodies — proteins that have been linked to illnesses such as heart disease or cancer. There are numerous ways to tap into that feeling: Hiking Machu Picchu, catching a glimpse of a grizzly in a national park, even a simple sunrise. All of these are humbling acts, ways to get a real sense of your own smallness, and maybe all of these are also tiny prayers, in their way.