Praying can be easy. A prayer can be a thought, a word, a heavenward plea from someone in need, a few lines said spontaneously or recited from a book, or even just a groan. Understanding what a prayer does after it leaves your lips is a little more difficult. Christian theologians have long debated how prayer works, and what it means to say it “works.”
So have scientists.
Psychologist Kevin L. Ladd, a professor at Indiana University South Bend, recently examined some of the extensive recent research on prayer for the John Templeton Foundation. Looking at more than 40 psychological studies finished in the past few years on the impact of prayer on intimate relationships, Ladd found there is some evidence of positive correlations between prayer and improved relationships. “It may,” he writes, “be useful to encourage people to engage some forms of prayer as coping tools.”
But in study after study, Ladd, author of The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach, also found that researchers hadn’t thought very carefully about what prayer is. In a sense, they kept pointing their telescopes in the wrong direction.
Ladd spoke to CT about the limits of prayer research.
Why is it hard to study prayer scientifically?
If you’re not familiar with the practice of prayer and why people pray, it’s very easy to look at it as though somebody is making a definitive statement or doing something over which they would claim to have full control. The twist with prayer is that you can be saying things that sound very active and assertive about what you want to happen in the world and also at the same moment you are relinquishing control. You’re saying, “I am surrendering this concern.”
The metaphysical core of prayer—what God does—is not accessible to science. That’s out of the ballpark. But what we can study effectively as scientists is how people act as a result of prayer. What drives them to prayer? What do they do when they pray? And after, how do they behave?
If I pray for my neighbor, are you saying you could study the effects of that prayer on me but not on my neighbor?
Yes. This goes right into the idea of “thoughts and prayers,” which has been attacked so much. If I direct thoughts and prayers to my neighbor, I can’t see what the prayer itself is doing, but I can see what I do.
If I’m praying for my neighbor, does that change my behavior toward that neighbor? Maybe, as the old saying goes, “My heart is to God and my hand is to work.” We can see if those two things go together. One person prays for…
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