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More people pray than go to church: but how effective is prayer?
by Graeme Davidson, 3 Nov 2007

[See also: Anyone can pray: a guide to Christian ways of praying by Graeme Davidson, SPCK London 2008 http://www.spck.org.uk/cat/show.php?9780281060313]

Undoubtedly, the most powerful effect of prayer is that described by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who wrote, “Prayer doesn’t change God, but it does change the one who prays”.

... In the Fortnightly Review of 1 August 1872, a leading intellectual of the time, Francis Galton, caused a stir in Victorian society when he reported one of the earliest tests on the effectiveness of prayer. Every Sunday British churchgoers prayed for the Queen, so Galton checked on whether royals lived longer than other groups in the general population. His statistical analysis revealed they didn’t.
... Had he shown prayer is a waste of time? Or, at best, that it acts only as a placebo to boost morale and make those who pray feel good?
... Anyone who’s prayed to win at Lotto – motivated, of course, by pure altruism to do great charitable works with the winnings – knows how effective prayer is: “Not a winning ticket. Better luck next time.”
Of course, God may say no – in fact, God says no to nearly all who pray for a Lotto win. And many who win haven’t uttered a prayer. The results are pure chance.
... Is all prayer like that? Prayer experts tell us that prayer isn’t like rubbing an Aladdin’s Lamp so God will act like a super genie who answers our requests on command. Nor should we pray for selfish things that are not God’s will. And most of us need a tad more faith than the French philosopher Ernst Renan, who prayed “Oh God, if there is a God, save my soul if I have a soul”, if we are to move mountains through the power of prayer.
... The experts also remind us that God sometimes puts us to the test – like those unreliable trades folk who always promise to answer your calls for help and repeatedly fail to show, so that you’re pathetically grateful when they finally appear.
... But what about the unselfish prayers of the very devout of different faiths who constantly pray for justice, peace, the environment, an end to poverty and for positive outcomes for people suffering from disasters, accidents and disease? Their prayers, like those to win at Lotto, don’t seem to make a scrap of difference. Sometimes, religious faith and belief about how God wants prayer answered may even be part of the problem – like the way the Vatican dogmatically refuses to support the use of condoms to help prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
... The American Cancer Society website states: “Available scientific evidence does not support claims that faith healing can cure cancer or any other disease. Even the ‘miraculous’ cures at the French shrine of Lourdes, after careful study by the Catholic Church, do not outnumber the historical percentage of spontaneous remissions seen among people with cancer. However, faith healing may promote peace of mind, reduce stress, relieve pain and anxiety, and strengthen the will to live.”
... Undeterred by questions about its effectiveness, over 80 percent of adults in the USA say they pray regularly. And many who pray aren’t the types who usually go to church, mosque or synagogue. Internet sites that offer spiritual guidance and help on prayer have huge hit rates. Books on prayer are on the bestseller lists with some reaching sales figures in the millions.
... So, why do people continue to pray? Are their incantations a superstitious hangover from an earlier time, producing the same placebo effect as clinging to a rabbit’s foot for good luck?
... When devout people pray, they don’t expect to manipulate God into producing a miraculous result. Rather, they pray to get in touch with God, to gain strength from God’s love, to put their concerns into the context of their faith and to be open to divine direction so that they can help bring about a positive outcome. That can produce a personal struggle, as most devout people recognise how the effectiveness of their prayers depends on their loyalty to God and that often clashes with their own desires.
... Undoubtedly, the most powerful effect of prayer is that described by the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard who wrote, “Prayer doesn’t change God, but it does change the one who prays”.






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