An introduction to Christian prayer:
God, beliefs, reasons, poll data
About the nature of deity:
People's concept of prayer are profoundly influenced by their beliefs about the nature of deity:
Some see every rock, tree, stream, mountain as having a spirit who
can be contacted through prayer and other religious rituals. These are
Some believe that God created the universe, wound it up, set it in
motion, left our vicinity, and hasn't been seen since. This is the
Deist position, which was very popular among the
framers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and
Constitution. It is a rapidly growing religion today. Most Deists
consider prayer to be non-productive, except that it perhaps helps us
organize our thoughts. Although few North Americans are aware of the term Deist,
on the order of one in four have similar beliefs.
Some believe that God is a spirit that permeates the entire universe and seeks a
relationship with each human person through prayer.
Some believe that God indwells the body of each believer when they become
saved. They do
not view their faith as a religion; rather, they see it as a personal
relationship with God.
Some believe that God is remote, and can only be contacted through
intercessors -- perhaps human clergy or deceased saints.
There are many other specific beliefs about deity held by followers
of different religions.
What people believe about prayer:
One common belief that links believers from many of the hundreds of theistic religions around the world is that
one or more deities exist as a living, conscious person or persons concerned
about individual humans and who can be approached through prayer. Belief in
prayer, along with some expression of an Ethic of
Reciprocity (The Golden Rule), are the two common features found in
essentially all theistic faith groups.
A common belief among Agnostics, Atheists, Humanists,
some Deists, etc. is that there is, or probably is, no
deity who listens or responds to prayers. Prayers are useful in that they
can help the individual sort out priorities, and give them a sense of
reassurance. But the still quite voice that people hear during prayer comes from
within their own minds, not from any supernatural being. Prayers are also
useful, in that people who know that they are the subject of other people's
prayers often feel comforted. But their reassurance comes from knowing that they
are being prayed for, not from any direct effect of the prayer.
Scientists are at a loss to explain how prayer could work. None of the known
forces or processes in the universe appears to be capable of linking a person's
brain directly to a deity, even if such a supernatural entity could be found to
Suggestions by Bishop John S. Spong:
Bishop Spong is a retired Episcopalian bishop who is best known for his books
that are largely directed at Christians who feel exiled from the church. He has
rejected the concept of a personal deity as described in the Bible: an
omnipotent entity living in Heaven and looking down over the Earth. Spong
"Most people, quite unconsciously, approach the subject of prayer with a
very traditional concept of God quite operative in their minds. This God is a
personal being, endowed with supernatural power, who lives somewhere outside
this world, usually conceptualized as 'above the sky.' While that definition
has had a long history among human beings, it is a definition of God that has
been rendered meaningless by the advance of human knowledge. This means that
for most of us the activity of prayer does not take seriously the fact that we
live in a vast universe, and that we have not yet come to grips with the fact
that there is no supernatural, parental deity above the sky, keeping the
divine record books on human behavior up to date and ready at any moment to
intervene in human history to answer prayers. When we do embrace this fact
then prayer, as normally understood, becomes an increasingly impossible idea
and inevitably a declining practice. To get people to embrace this point
clearly, I have suggested that the popular prayers of most people is little
more than adult letters written to a Santa Claus God."
"There are then two choices. One says that the God in whom I always
believed is no more, so I will become an atheist.
People make this decision daily. It is an easy way out."
"The other says that the way I have always thought of God has become
inoperative, so there must be something wrong with my definition. This stance
serves to plunge us deeply into a new way of thinking about God, and that is
when prayer itself begins to be redefined. Can God, for example, be conceived
of not as supernatural person, but as a force present in me and flowing
through me? Then perhaps prayer can be transformed into meditation and
petitionary prayer becomes a call to action. The spiritual life is then
transformed from the activity of a child seeking the approval of a
supernatural being to being a simultaneous journey into self-discovery and
into the mystery of God. It also feeds my sense of growing into oneness with
the source of all life and love and with what my mentor, Paul Tillich, called
the Ground of All Being. It would take a book to fill in the blank
places in this quick analysis, but these are the things that today feed my
ever deepening discovery of the meaning of prayer." 3
Why people pray:
People might pray for many reasons:
To seek guidance from God on a specific topic or problem in their
For example: should they propose to their girlfriend; what
university should they go to; should they accept a recent job offer;
is this the right time to buy a new car?
To assess the will of God on a theological matter:
To enjoy a quite time in communion with God; to simply enjoy his
To give thanks to God for all that he has done for them.
To thank God for
Creating the universe, including the earth and its life forms;
Giving humanity a holy book (Torah, Bible, Qur'an, etc) for
Accepting selected individuals into
Heaven at death,
To demonstrate respect for God:
To indicate to God the love one has for him, and willingness to
abide by his injunctions.
To find out what God's expectations are:
To find out what God expects from them, their family, and the
To ask God for help -- for him to alter or direct the future in a
For example, to protect their children, to cure a health problem,
to bring them financial success, etc.
Results of public opinion polls:
According to a Gallup Organization, the vast majority of those who pray "seek guidance [from God] for decisions"
1 that are before them.
A Beliefnet/Newsweek poll conducted in 2005-AUG asked 1,004 randomly selected American adults about their religious beliefs. One of the
questions was: "What do you think is the most important purpose of prayer?" Results were:
27%: To seek God's guidance.
23%: To thank God.
19%: To be close to God or the divine.
13%: To help others.
9%: To improve a person's life.
4%: Other purposes.
5%: Don't know. 2
The same Beliefnet/Newsweek poll also asked people how often they pray.
10%: several times a week.
5%: once a week.
4%: once or twice a month.
2%: A few times a year.
The margin of error of the Beliefnet/Newsweek poll is about ~+mn~3 percentage points.
George Gallup, Jr., "Poll releases: As nation observes National
Day of Prayer, 9 in 10 pray -- 3 in 4 daily," 1999-MAY-6, at: http://www.gallup.com/poll/releases/pr990506.asp Unfortunately,
the Gallup Organization now restricts public access to its historical
data base. It is now only available to subscribers to the Gallup
Organization's "Tuesday's Briefing."