The Wall Street Journal touts “the science of prayer”

May 18, 2020 • 12:45 pm

Reader Frank sent me a copy of this article, which, being in the Wall Street Journal, is paywalled (judicious inquiry might yield you a copy).  Since I’ve become a more vociferous atheist, I tend to notice these things more often, and to me this sounds like a paean to God pitched as a “scientific” analysis of why prayer is good for you.

Now I’m perfectly prepared to accept that prayer might have salubrious results. After all, it’s a break from quotidian tasks, can be a form of meditation, and could serve, as it often does, as a conversation with an imaginary friend. As the WSJ admits, however, there’s not a whole lot of “science” to this, only a few studies and some anecdotes:

Scientists have no way to measure the existence of a higher power, of course. And they’ve done little research on any health benefits of prayer, largely because of a lack of funding in the medical community for spiritual research, says David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital, in Belmont, Mass.

How would you “measure” the existence of a higher power? Does it have a size? Either there is one or there’s not one, but that’s detected, not measured. And here are three studies:

A 2005 study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine comparing secular and spiritual forms of meditation found spiritual meditation to be more calming. In secular meditation, you focus on something such as your breath or a nonspiritual word. In spiritual meditation, you focus on a spiritual word or text. Participants were divided into groups, with some being taught how to meditate using words of self-affirmation (“I am love”) and others taught how to meditate with words that described a higher power (“God is love”). They then meditated for 20 minutes a day for four weeks. Researchers found that the group that practiced spiritual meditation showed greater decreases in anxiety and stress and more positive mood. They also tolerated pain almost twice as long when asked to put their hand in an ice water bath.

This is a bit unclear to me: was the “spiritual” meditation all invoking the divine (“God is love”—a deepity if ever there was one)? What is their definition of “spiritual”? Well, I can’t be arsed to read that study, or to find out if the effects were permanent (I doubt it; I wonder if they did just one assessment at the end of the study.) As for the ice water bath, well, that’s not something most of us are prone to encounter.

Here’s another study:

People pray for many reasons, including for guidance, thanksgiving, solace or protection. But not all prayer is created equal, experts say. A 2004 study on religious coping methods in the Journal of Health Psychology found that people who approach God as a partner, or collaborator, in their life had better mental- and physical-health outcomes, and people who are angry at God —who feel punished or abandoned—or who relinquish responsibility and defer to God for solutions had worse outcomes. It’s similar to the way a loving relationship to a partner brings out the best in you, says Dr. Pargament, the lead researcher on the study.

This says nothing about the efficacy of prayer itself, but about the relative outcomes of “loving” versus “angry-at-God” prayer. Were all the outcomes, good and bad, better than those placebo non-pray-ers or of “secular” prayers? And isn’t there a complication of those people who pray benignly having different personalities from those who are angry at God? Frankly, this description tells me nothing about “the science of prayer.”

Finally, there’s this:

Prayer can also help your marriage, according to several studies at Florida State University, in Tallahassee. Researchers there have found that when people pray for the well-being of their spouse when they feel a negative emotion in the marriage, both partners—the one doing the praying and the one being prayed for—report greater relationship satisfaction. “Prayer gives couples a chance to calm down,” says Frank Fincham, eminent scholar in the College of Human Sciences at Florida State University, who conducted the studies. “And it reinforces the idea that you are on the same team.”

Perhaps this is the case, though of course there are secular alternatives, like discussing problems with your spouse in a structured way, or having couples therapy.

At the end, author Elizabeth Bernstein recounts her own episode of prayer, uttered when her father had a heart attack and a stroke, and she prayed with the medical staff for his life to be saved (it was). Now she says the “serenity prayer” (“God grant me the serenity”, etc. etc) over and over again.

I find almost none of this convincing “scientific” evidence for prayer over other forms of meditation—save for the supposedly more favorable (and probably short term) outcome of “spiritual” prayer over “secular” meditation—and yet calling on your imaginary friend may indeed be a good strategy. But what it doesn’t do, and what the Wall Street Journal touts ever so subtly, the suggestion that there’s somebody up there who’s listening. Yes, “scientists have no way to measure the existence of a higher power”, but I claim that the underlying message of this article is that such a power exists. We just can’t “measure” it!

And, if prayer improves your mental health, and praying to numinous beings gives the best results, are we supposed to pray in that manner even if we have no evidence for such beings?

52 thoughts on “The Wall Street Journal touts “the science of prayer”

  1. “The Power of Placebo: Many people are praying now, and scientists say the practice may boost confirmation bias.” There, I fixed that for the Journal.

  2. When facing a personal crisis, many people also experience a psychological breakdown. Praying helps them calm down and provides a degree of serenity. It’s a substitute for taking a Xanax. It matters little if they are supplicating to a non-existent invisible friend. All they care about is the psychological relief that prayer affords.

  3. Either there is [a higher power] or there’s not one, but that’s detected, not measured.

    And if there were a higher power that interacts with the material world at the level of human experience, science would have discovered it by now, since the laws of physics regarding the particles and forces capable of interacting with the material world at the level of human experience are fully understood.

    1. Unless, as Brian Cox noted on Infinite Monkey Cage, the interaction is at a level of energy higher than that probed by the LHC. The gaps for god may shrink in an inverse relationship to the levels of detection available, but you can never squeeze the gaps down to zero.

      One of Dawkin’s laws was something like, “as knowledge expands, gods shrink, then redefine themselves to restore the status quo”

      1. Interactions at a level of energy higher than those probed by the LHC might well lead to new discoveries in physics. But those discoveries would not have an impact at the level of human experience.

        If, for example, a “higher power” were capable of communicating with humans, that communication would need to effect changes in human neurons for humans to be cognizant of it. Any force discovered at a level of energy higher than what has been probed by the LHC would be orders of magnitude too weak to bring about such changes in human neurons.

          1. Yeah, I took a tour of the LHC some years back when it was down for repairs and had that precise phenomenon explained to me.

            Of course there’s a world of difference between the energy it takes to get particles moving fast enough to smash them apart and the strength of the forces discovered as a result.

    2. That blog post you linked to was written by Sean Carroll in 2010. I just saw this on Google News: “Milestone evidence for anyons, a third kingdom of particles” It’s all beyond my ken but I offer it hoping that others will elucidate. Wonder what Sean Carroll has to say.

      Insofar as I can understand it, it’s fascinating but I certainly don’t think we’ll find god in the gap between bosons and fermions.

      1. I certainly would defer to an expert in physics on this, but I think the answer is that such a discovery has no impact at the level of human experience. It’s not gonna change water into wine or provide a means of communication between man and god.

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      By logging in you’ll post the following comment to The Wall Street Journal touts “the science of prayer”:
      You write “since the laws of physics regarding the particles and forces capable of interacting with the material world at the level of human experience are fully understood.”

      Now, I don’t know who you are, or even who Mr. Carroll is but I am familiar with the reputations and accomplishments of the following gentlemen:

      “[T]he atoms or elementary particles themselves are not real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.” ~ Werner Heisenberg

      “Observations not only disturb what is to be measured, they produce it.” ~ Pascual Jordan

      “When the province of physical theory was extended to encompass microscopic phenomena through the creation of quantum mechanics, the concept of consciousness came to the fore again. It was not possible to formulate the laws of quantum mechanics in a fully consistent way without reference to the consciousness.” ~ Eugene Wigner

      “The doctrine that the world is made up of objects whose existence is independent of human consciousness turns out to be in conflict with quantum mechanics and with facts established by experiment.” ~ Bernard d’Espagnat

      “Nobody understands quantum mechanics.” ~ Richard Feynman

      “Is it not good to know what follows from what, even if it is not necessary FAPP? [FAPP is Bell’s disparaging abbreviation of “for all practical purposes.”] Suppose for example that quantum mechanics were found to resist precise formulation. Suppose that when formulation beyond FAPP is attempted, we find an unmovable finger obstinately pointing outside the subject, to the mind of the observer, to the Hindu scriptures, to God, or even only Gravitation? Would that not be very, very interesting?” ~ John Bell

      In the beginning there were only probabilities. The universe could only come into existence if someone observed it. It does not matter that the observers turned up several billion years later. The universe exists because we are aware of it.” ~ Martin Rees / credentials can be used.

      1. “Now, I don’t know who you are, or even who Mr. Carroll is . . . .”

        That you know some people, and not others, is congenially noted. Do you anticipate taking a few minutes to learn a bit about these two gentlemen?

        Are readers to glean something informative from the first ten lines of your post?

        1. No, I don’t know the people I quoted, I know of them. They are all quite famous and considered to be extraordinary physicists with a large body of work that directly contradicts the assertion of Mr. Kukek that “since the laws of physics regarding the particles and forces capable of interacting with the material world at the level of human experience are fully understood.”

          As to the garbage at the beginning of the post, WordPress has struck me again. For the last 15 years (and probably longer) I have had problems with logging into WordPress sites. From what I understand they offered a feature where a site can consider their users “private”, with a password unique to the site. Long ago I ended up with a number of different passwords and was never able to resolve the matter. A couple of years ago they finally implemented a “Forgot your password?” button. Unfortunately the sequence to get there is vastly different from the industry standard and I often get garbage injected. And of course they do not offer an “Edit” feature. WordPress, the Edsel of the web.

          1. Sean Carroll is a renown theoretical physicist at Cal Tech and a best-selling science popularizer with numerous books on physics to his credit.

            In the comment you responded to, I provided a link to a series of pieces he’s written on this precise topic. You should take the trouble to read that series before claiming that the random quotations you provided contradict the argument made.

            1. Good Gracious, what did your comment spawn?! Who the heck is roylofquist?

              On another note wasn’t John Gleeson one of the prosecutors in the Gotti trial you participated in?

              If so, are you aware that after he wrote an op-ed “Judge Emmet G. Sullivan appointed Gleeson to present arguments against the DOJ’s request to withdraw the case against Flynn and to determine if perjury charges should be brought against Flynn. In the role, Gleeson will serve as “friend of the court.”
              This from Gleeson’s Wiki.

              1. Yes, John Gleeson was the lead prosecutor in the Gotti prosecution. (The then-US Attorney for the Eastern District of NY, Andy Maloney, was also at counsel table for the government during the trial, but AUSA Gleeson did almost all the heavy lifting.) I ran into Judge Gleeson a few years back at a legal seminar, before he left the federal bench for private practice, and we had a chance to catch up a bit.

                I was pleased to see that Judge Emmet Sullivan appointed him as an amicus in the Michael Flynn prosecution. I can’t think of anyone more competent, or who would do a more thorough job.

  4. Prayer is like masturbation. Feels good to the person doing it, but is useless for the person being thought about.

    1. My reading of the article is consistent with your summation. It’s all about how things feel to the person praying. Essentially talking down a broken phone line.

  5. Rather than a non-spiritual meditation focusing on a word or reality or “I am love,” if atheists meditated on a “perfect” place of their choosing or really amped up the “bliss” part of meditation, we could probably tie or do even better with the meditation results than they do.
    You just have to pretend the best!

    1. “I am love” isn’t a secular meditation according to the criteria set in the article:”In secular meditation, you focus on something such as your breath or a nonspiritual word.” it’s a bullshit woo affirmation, therefore in a category of its own.

      From what I’ve read about affirmations, while they work as a positive influence for some, they’re quite deleterious for others, and I fall into that category – don’t give me no damned affirmations. I once saw an affirmation alarm clock for sale. The person records an affirmation into the clock and when it’s time to wake up, you’re awakened by your affirmation. I was repulsed and beat a hasty retreat: I didn’t even want to be in a store that sold such crap.

  6. Personally, Jerry, when I am frustrated and angered by what other people do, I meditate on your conclusion that free will does not exist. I don’t believe it to the very end, but I do believe 90% of the actions that 90% of people do (at least) are due to compulsions built into their personalities by social pressure, upbringing and circumstances. Truly, they can’t help it.

    I find this oddly comforting.

  7. Prayer is talking to yourself. It can’t be seen any other way, excepting the public ritual versions that are just signaling to the other members of the tribe. If people understood this more clearly, they might be shocked at themselves.

    Also is the WSJ trying to get on the right side of God?

    1. Well, that may explain why my childhood church-going years’ prayers did not ascend, but hung over my head. I didn’t have sense enough to realize that I was talking to myself.

      1. Yeah, mine never left the church either. I’m sure I did some praying at home, but now that I think about I don’t remember much. More interested in dad’s Playboys.

        1. I’m sure I’ve shared part of my prayer poem on this site before:


          Please attend this supplicant
          who no longer can believe.
          Prayers lie lifeless about my head, a congregation of dessicated words, shorn of faith they are powerless
          to wend their way anywhere.
          An urge to kneel chokes me with fear
          that one more word will bury me
          in years of stillborn prayers.

          Leave me in peace to journey on alone.


          This didn’t keep me from praying later when my two year old son almost died on Easter many years ago from having ingested an almost full vial of diet pills prescribed to me by my doctor. I was desperate enough to try anything, even prayer that I didn’t believe in. Fortunately, my son lived, but I believe it was due to the hospital care and his doctors.

          Your interest in Playboys was probably more beneficial.

          1. Oh my Ceiling Cat, what a horrible thing to happen! And I’m so glad it turned out well.

            I work as a street medic, prayer has never done anything, but I surely don’t begrudge you, or anybody else, that choice. And for what it’s worth undoing years of training and indoctrination from childhood, especially under stress, is next to impossible (I even dabble myself sometimes).

            And thanks for your Prayer, very expressive.

          2. I am very glad your son survived. A person of faith can certainly see the hand of Providence in the care he received.
            I would say that, basically, at some core of your being, you really do still believe. Continue to pray. It can’t hurt you, and it might nurture that spark.

              1. I’m not sure I understand your question. It’s a common phrase for God’s activity in guiding events.

              2. I didn’t ask what it is. I asked what hand of Providence – was demonstrated in his son’s recovery?

              3. As I said, a person of faith can see it. The fact that you can’t, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

  8. “Praying is like a rocking chair – It’ll give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.”

    ― att. Gypsy Rose Lee

  9. My friend Ed F., a noted northwest ceramic artist, went through a very bitter divorce which reduced him to penury. Despite the resulting bitterness, and in line with spiritual teachings, he took to praying for his ex, and sure enough, it worked: she died. I wish this tale had a happy ending, but, alas, Ed was killed in an auto accident a few years later. We can only surmise that someone was praying for him.

  10. And, if prayer improves your mental health, and praying to numinous beings gives the best results, are we supposed to pray in that manner even if we have no evidence for such beings?

    Obviously, if reading improves your mental health, and reading fiction gives the best results, no one would think twice about reading even though it is established that the account never happened and none of the characters are real.

    However, the interesting thing about this development is that prayer is supposed to be gift or an offering to God (or whomever) out of a sense of gratitude. If you offer prayers to God (or whomever) because you want to improve your mental health, you essentially invert prayer, into being about self and not the Other.

    My three cents is that a traditional religious worldview centers on the notion that life is gift and works on encouraging a sense of gratitude for being alive. This is probably more psychologically beneficial than living life as a horrible painful burden and then through some random act you die.

    It is interesting to me whether there is a framework within a secular world view for the meditative cultivation of gratitude without actually having to believe in Sky Jesus or whatever. I don’t see why not, but I haven’t encountered one.

  11. I really think that when we pray, for those who do, we’re basically “talking to ourselves”–hoping for something, or being thankful–which doesn’t require a “God”.

    1. That tellin’ it Strait. I think there’s really good information in this bit:

      Researchers there have found that when people pray for the well-being of their spouse … both partners … report greater relationship satisfaction.

      Thinking positive thoughts about your spouse, even in times of difficulty, has a positive effect on the relationship. Not particularly surprising, but information doesn’t have to be surprising to be useful.

  12. In one episode of the Hi-Phi Nation podcast they were talking about how strange it is that believers ask God to stop a hurricane, for example, but never ask Him to fix a roof destroyed by a hurricane, which is much easier. “You men of little faith”.

    1. Whether you want to call it religion or superstition, humans tend to want to control random events, and humans in vocations which are heavily driven by random factors (athletes, soldiers, politicians, gamblers, etc.) tend to be the most superstitious, with lucky numbers and magic talismans and astrologers.

      We want to improve the odds, and there may be some placebo type improvements from superstition, and there is also self-selection. If you go to battle in your lucky underwear, and you die, you don’t come back extolling the magic properties of your underwear.

      It makes perfect sense to pray to divert the hurricane but not rebuild the structure. However, it is not uncommon to conduct rituals when commencing the building of a structure, to protect against fire and unrest (both basically random).

      I think that belief in the magic of prayer is more related to superstition than religion, to the extent they can be separated. There are plenty of gamblers who would do something superstitious to avoid the path of the hurricane but are in no way religious. Spiritual without religious meet superstitious without religious.

      1. In terms of definitions, superstition would be related to trying to control events in the natural world through some kind of occult or supernatural power.

        Religion would be primarily about membership in a community with a shared narrative, rituals, symbols, and taboos, and involves collective identity. In this sense, it is more about belonging and having a shared social orientation rather than magic.

  13. If you can offer a reasoned argument (please note I did not say proof) for the proposition that there is no God, I would be very interested in it. Thus far, I am the only (former) Atheist I have ever known who could offer one. The one I used to have though, was utterly invalid.
    The fact that a thing can not be addressed by science does not mean it is not true. Can science prove, or even comment on, whether you love someone?
    The fact that evolution is true does not disprove, nor even militate against, the existence of God.
    All that said, i would agree that science can offer no meaningful assessment of the efficacy of prayer.

    1. “The fact that a thing can not be addressed by science does not mean it is not true.”

      What is your position on the existence of Bertrand Russell’s celestial teapot? On fairies? (Another comes to mind – fairies riding that celestial teapot?)

      Is anything true simply and solely because someone thinks so (or claims to have been vouchsafed this knowledge by some private “way of knowing”)?

    2. As soon as you define “God” in any coherent way, we can see whether the tools of science can indeed address the proposition. “God” often means something very specific to believers, but as soon as anybody asks to examine the evidence that would justify or falsify that particular set of beliefs, “God” gets all ineffable. “God has a mind but no body and no brain? How does that work?” “It’s a mystery.” That sort of thing.

      As far as whether “science” can prove or disprove the proposition that I love someone: my feeling of love is a brain state, and the evidence for it is how I happen to feel. Period. I love my spouse, you have my word for it, and that’s all you need to know. Five hours ago I was sound asleep and I wasn’t feeling love for her then. Later today when I’m concentrating on learning new digital audio workstation software I probably won’t be loving her, unless she happens to text me in which case I will. After I’m dead I definitely won’t love her, even though my love for her will be remembered by those still living.

      If you want to put the existence of God on the same basis — an ephemeral mental construction — have at. I’ll bet that “science” can even affirm the existence of that sort of a god. But I won’t pray to it.

    1. “Atheism, I can, with difficulty understand but what does stump me completely is evangelistic atheism.”

      Consider that representatives of a Christian evangelical organization knock on my door unannounced at a time convenient only for them –

      (as they have several times – it doesn’t matter my state of dress or how much shaving cream is on my face – no offer to come back later)

      – and, in obedience to The Great Commission, seek to “witness” to and convert me.

      Beyond my thanking them for their presentation, am I to otherwise keep silent in response (for fear of their accusing me, in the manner of a “snowflake,” of persecuting them by virtue of congenially vocalizing my disagreement with them), whether I’m a non-believer or member of a different sect or faith?

      Where do atheists go around knocking on the doors of private homes and holding forth in an evangelistic manner?

      When free thinkers and atheists hold their meetings and conventions, no one forces Answers in Genesis and their evangelistic ilk to set up a revival camp nearby. (Organized debates between theists and atheists are a different matter.)

  14. “How would you ‘measure’ the existence of a higher power?” How does an atheist measure joy? By the kilogram, no doubt. Enjoy.

  15. I only know one prayer:

    God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, The courage to change the things I cannot accept, And the wisdom to hide the bodies of the bastards I had to kill because they pissed me off. Amen.

    Seems like good advice to me.


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