September 10, 2007

Understanding Prayer: Not Supernatural But Self-Soothing

Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century pop...
Mary Magdalene, in a dramatic 19th-century popular image of penitence painted by Ary Scheffer. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While reading a post at Secular Planet, I had an interesting thought about prayer, how it works, and how mistaken I may have been in my previous efforts to understand it. Now my head is swirling with the possible implications. What if prayer has little to do with religious belief, faith, or even the litany of gods before which believers have grovelled over the millennia? What if prayer is really just a primitive form of self-soothing? And what if religious believers are at least partially aware of this but have employed a variety of psychological defenses to repress full awareness?

The implications of such a possibility are intriguing. For starters, this would suggest that some of us have been wrong in our analysis and critique of prayer. For example, I've previously struggled to understand how Christians can simultaneously believe in an omnipotent and omniscience god and believe that this god is more likely to be swayed by prayers from multiple persons:

Does the believer think that more individuals praying will result in a better outcome than just an individual believer praying? Why? Is it to make sure their god hears them? I thought their omniscient god already knew what was going on without any prayers whatsoever. Of course, that would mean that intercessory prayer is always worthless because one isn't telling one's god anything he/she/it doesn't already know. Is it because their god must be persuaded to help? If their god is benevolent, added persuasion should not be necessary.
But if prayer is little more than self-soothing, this question is easily answerable. In fact, it is probably irrelevant.

To understand prayer, most of us have tried to get inside the believer's head and understand the phenomenon from the his or her viewpoint. Unfortunately, this necessarily limits us to material of which the believer is consciously aware and is willing to disclose frankly. But isn't it possible that the believer concocts supernatural trappings because praying primarily to soothe oneself seems childlike and not particularly admirable?

When we say that there is something admirable about intercessory prayer, it is because we implicitly accept the rationale provided by the person praying that they are attempting to help someone else. Even though we know prayer is ineffective in helping others, it is difficult to resist this trap. But if we view prayer as being about helping the individual praying to feel better and little else, then our impression may change considerably. In this sense (i.e., self-soothing), intercessory prayer is effective. I've touched on this before, suggesting that adults who regularly resort to intercessory prayer may have less developed coping skills, but I continued to fall victim to the trap of trying to understand prayer from the viewpoint of the person praying.

What I'd like to suggest here is that prayer might be a primitive attempt to soothe oneself. Furthermore, I think that most believers know this, at least at some level. However, they push it out of awareness and employ a variety of psychological defenses to repress it because it has unpleasant implications which make them uncomfortable (i.e., no gods are necessary).

If there is any truth to what I say here, I wonder whether one implication might be that assisting believers in developing developmentally appropriate coping skills could be a path to decreasing their reliance on prayer as a source of comfort. Religion, and religious fundamentalism in particular, has long been hostile to the mental health profession. Perhaps we've uncovered part of the reason for this hostility.

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