The HPedia: Prayer

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From Merriam-Webster:

  1. a (1) : an address (as a petition) to God or a god in word or thought <said a prayer for the success of the voyage> (2) : a set order of words used in praying

b : an earnest request or wish

The dictionary definitions above do little to capture the range and experience of prayer, especially in naturalistic contexts.

Prayer may be characterized as a spiritual practice which employs modes of activity normally reserved for communication, and which expresses relationship with some transcendent other.  In a naturalistic context, examples of transcendent others may include nature, society, or the psyche.

The relationship may be couched in a metaphor, such as a deity representing some aspect of nature.  Such an anthropomorphic metaphor enables expression in a form that comes most natural to us as a species with a highly developed social intelligence.

Prayers may take diverse forms.  Some are more verbal in nature.  Classical Greek and Roman prayer always involved words, usually accompanied by a material offering of some kind (see Sallustius).  Other traditions have less verbal forms of prayer, though communication still seems involved.  For example, some Native Americans utilize dance as a form of prayer.  Sufis whirl.  Quakers keep silent in “expectant waiting… in order to create an opportunity to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit” (see here).  All three of these cases seem to express some form of devotion to or attendance upon the other.

Petitionary prayer, where some blessing or favor is requested of the other, may be limited for naturalists.  For example, it seems reasonable to request courage from a deity conceived as part of one’s own unconscious psyche, but not courage for another person.  In other words, asking for something the other could, in principle, grant does not seem objectionable a priori in a naturalistic context.

Prayer seems to exploit innate biological processes to effect.  Since prayer utilizes modes of communication (even when actual two-way communication is not presupposed), it likely activates the human brain’s sociality module (see “Modularity of Mind”).  Various bodily gestures, such as kneeling, bowing, averting eyes, and so on, may activate other intuitive mental processes.  These may help to explain why praying to an “other”, even if that “other” is believed to be inanimate and insensible, often seems to constellate a qualitatively different subjective experience than talking about the “other” in the third-person.  Martin Buber’s distinction between the I-Thou and I-It may touch on the same idea.

Meta-studies on intercessory prayer studies have found no effect or very little effect, with the latter usually accounted for by questionable methodologies.  Activation of the placebo effect seems at least implied, and this is not insignificant.  In that case, clearly the patient would have to either know they are being prayed for or be themselves the person praying.  The common Pagan practice of asking for prayers by Internet might be supported, but it would suggest that the effective means would be promising the patient to pray for them, and not the actual act of praying.

See also “Modularity of mind.”

Check out other entries in our HPedia.

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12 Comments on “The HPedia: Prayer

  1. I really like everything that was said 🙂 and I have to agree. But one thing I’m curious about is your thought on the subject of magick as prayer. For as long as I can remember, when someone would ask me what magick was, and if that person was not Pagan (which was usually the case), I would explain it in terms of prayer i.e. sending thoughts and intentions out into the universe to achieve a certain goal. This is my view of magick and from what I know, and correct me if I’m wrong, this could easily correspond to prayer. 🙂 though the standard definition magick must not be ignored.

    • Good point, Witch’s Cat. I see a gradient between prayer and magic, not a strict dividing line, so I could see how some forms of magic might be prayers or prayer-like. 🙂

    • I’ve often come across this conflation of magic with prayer, and I’ve tended to somewhat agree. But having read this definition, I’ve realised that I actually see the two as being quite different – in my own practice, at least. I certainly agree that there is a gradient, and there is probably quite a bit more overlapping in some people’s practices than there is in mine. But for me, I think prayer is about reaching outwards, whereas magic is more about reaching inwards. That said, I don’t use the word magic much in my practice at all, but I am fairly comfortable with the concept of prayer.

      • I usually think of the difference being that prayer ostensibly asks another being to create a change, whereas magic creates a change directly. I think that distinction stays fairly coherent in most cases, but starts to break down when you get to the gray areas in the middle ground.

  2. Much as I appreciate the examples of dancing or whirling, it seems a little square-peg-round-hole. Those don’t seem like prayer to me. In fact, when we say “Thank you Mother Earth…” before a meal I don’t tend to call it a prayer because to me it is more a matter of reminding ourselves of certain things rather than communicating to some sort of entity or object out there. Prayer, like worship, seems to connote that subject-object distinction. That’s why those terms seem a little awkward (to me) when applied to traditions or practices that emphasize unity. I think there’s a real value in being able to draw some parallels, to recognize the prayer-like aspects of what we do, when we are trying to understand and relate to (for example) Christians or Muslims. We may even benefit politically if we can legitimize ourselves according to their definitions. But at the same time it feels a bit like submitting to hegemony, if you know what I mean.

    • Actually, according to the study cited above, prayer would connote a subject-subject relationship. But I agree that, in most cases, this is qualitatively different than dancing, whirling, etc.

  3. Prayer is becoming an increasingly important part of my practice. To me prayer feels like the right word. Although I don’t believe there is an invisible person listening and judging my prayers, I do feel that prayer is a communion experience, an opening to other.

    I like the piece. B.T. one thing you might think about adding is some examples of naturalistic pagan prayer. I really like Glenys Livingstone’s “Our Mother”, which is a reworking of the traditional Christian “Our Father” prayer (http://youtu.be/Nzn1SSCvLIg):

    Our Mother
    Who is with us,
    Holy is Our Being.
    Thy Kin-dom is present.
    Thy Desire is felt throughout the Cosmos.
    We graciously receive your Infinite Daily Abundance.
    May we forgive each other and ourselves our lack of skill and insensitivity.
    May we understand our Inner Guidance,
    and perceive each other’s needs.
    For Thine is the Kin-dom, the Power and the Story,
    in never-ending renewal.
    Blessed Be.

    Naturalistic prayer is not necessarily all that different from conventional prayer. There is often just a subtle shift in focus.

    This may be controversial, but I think there is even room for petitionary prayer of a sort in naturalistic paganism. In the context of prayer, it often feels right to express my wishes for myself and especially for others to the Universe. When I have conflict with someone, I find it deeply healing to pray for them. I really like the Vipassana metta chant of Friendly-Kindness for this. I don’t expect the Universe to “grant” my prayers, but I do feel Nature responds to my prayers. For the Nature in me responds and that changes everything.

    • >I don’t expect the Universe to “grant” my prayers, but I do feel Nature responds to my prayers. For the Nature in me responds and that changes everything.

      Well said. It sounds like this is more self-expression than actual intercession, though the outward form is that of intercessory prayer, and the self-expression may lead to change through your own hands. Correct?

      • Yes. When we change the way we perceive and interact with the world, the world changes how it reacts to us sometimes drastically so.

  4. “Prayer seems to exploit innate biological processes to effect. Since prayer utilizes modes of communication (even when actual two-way communication is not presupposed), it likely activates the human brain’s sociality module (see “Modularity of Mind”). Various bodily gestures, such as kneeling, bowing, averting eyes, and so on, may activate other intuitive mental processes. These may help to explain why praying to an “other”, even if that “other” is believed to be inanimate and insensible, often seems to constellate a qualitatively different subjective experience than talking about the “other” in the third-person.”

    This is fascinating, as is the study you linked to above. I wonder how much belief is necessary to link to the sociality module of the brain? Is it enough to be agnostic about it? What if one believes the “other” is somehow “inside” or a part of “us” (i.e., archetypes) — or would that be more like the people praying to Santa Claus in the study? One question that remained unanswered in the study was whether the activation of the sociality module was triggered by the belief in the reality of God or the belief in God’s power to reciprocate.

    • Good questions. I wish more studies would be done that drill down into that. The current focus is mostly on more conventional forms of belief in deity. That makes sense since we need to get a handle on the basics before delving into specialized issues. But given the culture wars and science-religion debates, a more detailed understanding of these sorts of differences in belief could be quite enlightening for our society, I think.

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