What is the purpose of prayer?
If you imagine that the primary purpose of prayer is to heal the sick, then your faith in prayer might be disturbed by a recent study that questions its effectiveness at achieving this particular outcome.
The study, published in the American Heart Journal, appears to show that prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery. [sources: Associated Press (via MSNBC, Kansas City Star) and New York Times (via Herald Tribune, InfoShop)]
Some defenders of prayer including Bob Barth (representing a Missouri-based prayer organization called Silent Unity) insist that "prayer works". Narc Twain finds this baffling, and concludes that "god isn't going to be the one to step in and save any of us. even those who pray".
In the film Bruce Almighty, prayer is shown from God's perspective as being like millions of incoming emails, all asking God to do something. What is the difference between asking God to allow a particular person to recover from a particular ailment and asking God for a new bike? Adam Shostack suggests that Vengeful God Hurts Those With Demands, and suggests that "if there is a god, he prefers those who help themselves".
The study on the effects of prayer sound like sending mass petitions to God. Hey God, here is a batch of similar prayers, could you possibly see your way to healing this guy? Does this sound like authentic prayer?
In a article called How Should Christians Respond?, Donald S Whitney (Center for Biblical Spirituality) argues that the studies are scientifically flawed and/or irrelevant. Whitney starts by attacking science and scientists. "The fatal flaw in this research is the assumption that prayer can be successfully evaluated by white-coated people with notepads using test tubes, Petri dishes, and algorithms." (As if notepads and algorithms are works of the Devil.) But he concludes with a more profound argument. For the devout, prayer isn't a means to an end; it is a practice commanded by God. If it has any effect at all, it is purely on the spiritual state of the person praying - an authentic relationship with God.
If religious people present prayer (or chanting or fasting or any other practice) as a mechanism for achieving worldly ends - including material, physical and emotional well-being - then they cannot complain when it is evaluated in these terms. Prayer becomes merely a routine, like jogging or cleaning your teeth. Or it becomes an emergency service, to be invoked only in desperation.
But for many deeply religious people, the correct prayer or chant is not "My Will Be Done" but "Thy Will Be Done". Inshallah/Mashallah. Nam Myoho Renge Kyo. Through prayer or chanting one learns how to fulfil God's will, or devotes oneself to the Mystic Law.
Now this discussion might not seem very important if you don't happen to think that prayer is important. But there is a more general point. Once we start to talk about prayer (or any other practice) as a mechanism with a set of predictable effects, it becomes akin to a technological device and subject to evaluation on these terms. And as soon as we trumpet the utilitarian benefits of something, we start to lose their deeper meaning and value. Is the purpose of strawberries merely to provide a good source of vitamin C? Is the purpose of Mozart merely to improve the intelligence of unborn children?
Are there some focal things and practices that shouldn't be subject to the vagaries of POSIWID?
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