Even Atheists Could Benefit From Praying Every Once in a While

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Photo: CSA Images/Printstock Collection

In the hours after the massacre in San Bernardino last week, regular people and politicians alike began sending their “thoughts and prayers” on social media, as people and politicians so often do after horrors such as this. But this time, a debate erupted over the appropriateness of the sentiment — followed by another, considerably more annoying, conversation over whether this constituted “prayer shaming.”

This post is not really an attempt to wade into that debate. Rather, it’s a stab at taking a wider view of the point of prayer, and considering whether there is any reason even the nonreligious may benefit from offering a prayer here and there, every once in a while. More than half of Americans pray every day, and although younger Americans — those born between 1990 and 1996 — are the age group least likely to pray daily, about 40 percent of this group still claims to do so, according to a Pew Research Center survey released last month. Even a quarter of respondents who identify with no religion in particular said they prayed daily — as did, intriguingly, 9 percent of agnostics and 1 percent of atheists. Are all of these people getting any benefits from this daily activity?

In the 2000s, a spate of scientific studies were published concerning “intercessory prayer,” or prayer concerning the well-being of someone other than yourself. 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.”

But then again, surely even the most devout would likely agree that attempts to objectively measure the efficacy of prayer are at best tricky, and at worst a probable waste of time. So what about the benefits of prayer for the individual who is actually doing the praying? This is something that scientists have also attempted to quantify through the years. 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. And some of these findings may very well transfer to the nonreligious who engage in something that looks and feels a lot like a prayer.

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.

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.

It’s true what the president said after the shootings on the community-college campus in Oregon: For politicians especially, thoughts and prayers are by no measure enough. But as Stephen Colbert — who described himself on last Monday’s Late Show as a person who “occasionally thinks and prays” — phrased it, “The reason you keep people in your thoughts and prayers is admittedly not to fix the problem, but to try to find some small way to share the burden of grief.” Thoughts and prayers are not enough, but they can often be a place to start.

Could Atheists Benefit From Praying?