Prayer is a very personal phenomenon. It’s not something that people talk about openly unless among their peers in a prayer group or while availing of spiritual guidance. Indeed, in modern society we tend to look suspiciously on anyone who speaks often or too publically about his or her personal prayer life. They may be perceived as holding extremist religious convictions or as being a little ‘over the top’! The fall from grace and influence of institutionalised church has made it nearly politically inappropriate to wear your religion (if you still have one!). In a society, which ferments scientific and technological gains, prayer is often seen by many as something that is fading away quickly. It is sometimes understood as something with no science behind it and a ritual practiced by innocent or misguided people. Weekly religious practices of nearly all faiths indicate a significant decrease in attendances at their perspective churches. We seem to have thrown prayer out the window!
Most religions encourage prayer and many recommend a daily ritual of some sort of adoration, plea of forgiveness or avenue to intercede for special intentions. Prayer is believed to be a form of direct communication with a supreme being – the creator. In recent decades religion, prayer and spirituality have fallen under the eyes of the scientists. Religious practices, the data suggest, foster health (George, Ellison, & Larson, 2008) and well-being (Levin & Chatters, 1998). The most beneficial practices appear to be public religious participation (George et al. ,2008) and positive religious coping (Pargament, 2008). According to George, Larson, Koenig and McCullough (2000) there is an abundance of evidence revealing robust relationships between religiousness and health. They comprehensively examined the evidence and confirm a relationship between religion and longevity!
Our religiousness may influence the course and outcome of illnesses. Harris et al, 1995 showed religion to be associated with better recovery from physical illness, including better health and longer survival after heart transplant and reduced mortality following other cardiac surgeries (Oxman, Freeman & Manheimer, 1995). It also correlated to reduced mortality among breast cancer patients (Spiegel et al, 1989) So there does seem to be health benefits associated with religiousness or participating in religious services but what about prayer itself? Are there any psychological benefits in prayer?
Psychologists from Sheffield Hallam University conducted a prayer study involving 251 men and 223 women between the ages of 18 and 29. They measured participants’ reasons for having a religious belief, their church attendance and their tendency for having depression. In relation to both men and women, they found that the frequency with which they prayed was closely correlated with their having fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. They also found those who incorporated prayer into their lives not only were less likely to be mentally ill, but enjoyed higher self-esteem. The findings, suggested researchers in the British Journal of Health Psychology, “would appear to support the view that a religious coping model is integral to the understanding of the relationship between religiousity and psychological well-being.”
Scientific research on the health benefits of prayer is still in its infancy. In order to truly understand why people derive health benefits from prayer, researchers need to identify the unique markers that differentiate prayer from other non-spiritual practices. It may also prove to be the case that some aspects of prayer may not be transparent to scientific investigation according to scientists who have examined prayer (Bernardi et al,2001). There may be dimensions to prayer that go beyond the reach of science. However, one thing that is undeniable is that prayer is a powerful resource for coping with pain and illness and improving health and general wellbeing. People are less terrified in crisis if they believe that they are ‘being looked after’. Faith seems to offer people a meaning to life, a sense of journey and a feeling of belonging. The failure of institutionalised church to practice truthfully what it preaches has incensed people and many have turned their backs on their religion altogther. But maybe they have thrown more out the window than they realised?
(c) Shane Martin
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