When people pray, what do they think they will get out of it? It’s an important but under-researched question, because it sheds an light on the role of religious beliefs in society (as opposed to the role of religion, which is much larger).
For example, one of the criticisms that theologians make of The God Delusion is that Dawkins describes God in very concrete terms. This is not the real God, they complain – an entity that they describe in what seems to me painfully abstract and circumlocutory terms (see this, for example, or indeed any of the writings of the Oxford theologian Nicholas Lash).
But what do ordinary people actually believe in? An abstract, metaphorical god? Or a concrete, personal one?
Simply asking people is not necessarily going to give you a good answer, because people will often tell you what they think they ought to say. Wendy Cage, a sociologist at Brandeis University in Massachusetts, hit upon an innovative approach to this problem when she found that people were recording their own, anonymous prayers in a public prayer book in the rotunda at Johns Hopkins University Hospital:
Although the statue of Jesus Christ has stood in the hospital since 1896, it was not until the early 1990s that people began to leave prayers written on napkins, scraps of paper, and the back of visitor’s badges and business cards at the statue’s base.
So that the prayers were not lost, hospital chaplains placed a blank book on a stand by the statue that is filled with prayers every two to three months. Anyone entering or leaving the hospital can write in the prayer book and/or read the prayers other people have written. People write prayers longhand, filling the pages with words and drawings. Some leave photographs, children’s drawings, flowers, and coins at the statue.
This is a valuable resource. Although the prayers recorded are public, and so might differ somewhat from private prayer, they are anonymous and also they weren’t prompted by researchers – these are people’s genuine, unprompted thoughts.
Cage collected and analysed a total of 683 prayers, and what she found was strong evidence for belief in a personal god – a sort of comforting confidant. 22 percent of the prayers in the research expressed thanks to God, while 28 percent were requests of God and another 28 percent were prayers to both thank and petition God.
Cadge said the information sheds light on the psychology of the people behind the prayers. Most prayer writers addressed God as they would a relative, friend or parent, preferring familiarity over deference, she said.
“Most prayers writers imagine a God who is accessible, listening and a source of emotional and psychological support, who, at least sometimes, answers back,” Cadge said in a press release. [NB this press release is factually incorrect: Cadge’s study gives no data on how often people pray, only on what they pray for].
So when these people pray (and these are Americans visiting a hospital, of course, and so it can’t necessarily be extrapolated more widely), they imagine god very much as a person with whom you can have a conversation. Cadge writes:
As a group, these prayer writers conceive of God as accessible, as actively listening, and as a source of support. They begin prayers with Dear, Hello or Hey and sign them with their name or initials, almost like e-mails. Some make immediate requests and others thank God for listening; Sweet Jesus, Thank you for listening. The word love is common, We lift up N. to you, heal her heart and Help P. and her boys cope… I love you. Love, M.
Many of these prayers read as snippets of ongoing conversations between the writers and God.
But there’s an important caveat. Although the writers imagine God to be a supernatural presence with magical powers, they are careful not to ask for anything that could be construed as direct evidence of this. They don’t for example, ask God to heal the sick.
Rather than thanking God for specific outcomes or making detailed requests, writers frame their prayers broadly in emotional and psychological language. Prayer writers do not ask God to heal a broken leg but to give them the “strength” to get through this difficult time.
Rather than asking God for particular news at a doctor’s visit, a writer asks God to remember M. as we go to see his doctors today. Remember him in prayer and bless him always.
What these prayers rarely do is to ask an all-powerful God to cure an incurable condition; they do not ask for miracles.
All of which puts me strangely in mind of this cartoon:
Wendy Cadge, M Daglian (2008). Blessings, strength, and guidance: Prayer frames in a hospital prayer book. Poetics, 36 (5-6), 358-373 DOI: 10.1016/j.poetic.2008.06.011