Prayer's Power Trumps Positive Thinking
Two studies caught my eye this week.
One, released by the American Physical Society, presented data suggesting that religion is headed for “extinction” in nine Western countries: Canada, Ireland, Austria, the Czech Republic, Finland, Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands and Switzerland.
The scientists’ bold claims were based on a statistical model that tracked, over the past 100 years, the increasing population in those countries that claimed affiliation with “no religion.” Projecting those numbers forward, they believe that “religion will be driven toward extinction,” because people will discover that “the perceived utility of not adhering is greater than the utility of adhering” to a belief in God.
Utility. It’s a sad commentary on modern society that God must prove himself “useful” according to our standards or we’ll box religion up and send it to collect dust in some museum.
But before they proclaim the end of religion, perhaps these scientists ought to check in with their peers. The second study released last week shows that prayer--a fundamentally religious activity--produces social benefits by reducing anger and aggression.
Imagine that. It’s useful.
The groundbreaking study (the first to focus on the connection between prayer and anger) showed that prayer reduces anger and calms aggression in the person who prays. According to the study’s co-author, Ohio State Professor Brad Bushman, "We found that prayer really can help people cope with their anger.” Prayer produced measurable differences in the people who prayed, compared to a similar group who merely thought good thoughts.
But even scientific proof of the power of prayer cannot turn a skeptic into a believer.
Because they cannot prove exactly why prayer reduced the anger and aggression of those who prayed, scientists struggle to find an explanation that doesn’t presume the reality of God. Bushman suggested that prayer “probably…[helped] them change how they view the events that angered them and helping them take it less personally." Shouldn’t peaceful “thoughts” be able to do that?
What Bushman is missing is that prayer is different because it’s a communication with a very real Someone—Someone we need, a person named God, who can do anything.
Unfortunately, this latest prayer study fits a growing pattern. As social scientists pursue greater understanding of the human person, they can’t ignore the power of prayer and faith in people’s lives. So they study it. But even as their own studies prove the benefits of prayer and religious faith, these same researchers cast about trying to explain away the reality of divine intervention—to “psychologize” the power of God.
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What scientists miss—and what our culture increasingly denies—is that God is real. He’s a person who loves and cares for us. Our concerns are his concerns, right down to the anger we feel or the disasters and triumphs of our day. He cares whether those He loves find new jobs, perform well in a school play, or survive the next deployment to Afghanistan. He cares about his children’s smallest sniffle just as much as a life-threatening cancer.
Prayer “works” because God hears us and responds in love. God—not positive psychology and the power of “good thoughts”—can change our hearts and transform our lives.
But as our culture becomes ever more technical, it’s also becoming relentlessly secular. Science and technology rank higher than God, it seems.
It’s time to reaffirm to our children our belief in the supremacy of God and our dependence on God, our Creator. In practical terms, it’s time to turn our hearts to Him in prayer.
After all, now we know… prayer beats positive thinking any day.
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