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An introduction to Christian prayer:
God, beliefs, reasons, poll data

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About the nature of deity:

People's concept of prayer are profoundly influenced by their beliefs about the nature of deity:

bullet Some see every rock, tree, stream, mountain as having a spirit who can be contacted through prayer and other religious rituals. These are Animists.
bullet 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.
bullet Some believe that God is a spirit that permeates the entire universe and seeks a relationship with each human person through prayer.
bullet 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.
bullet Some believe that God is remote, and can only be contacted through intercessors -- perhaps human clergy or deceased saints.
bullet 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 exist.

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 suggests:

"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:

bullet To seek guidance from God on a specific topic or problem in their life:
bullet 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?
bullet To assess the will of God on a theological matter:
bullet For example: which denomination is the true church; what is the best ethical choice about stem cell research; is an abortion the least worse option in a particular circumstance?
bullet To enjoy a time of companionship with God:
bullet To enjoy a quite time in communion with God; to simply enjoy his presence
bullet To give thanks to God for all that he has done for them.
bullet To thank God for
bullet Creating the universe, including the earth and its life forms;
bullet Giving humanity a holy book (Torah, Bible, Qur'an, etc) for guidance;
bullet Accepting selected individuals into Heaven at death,
bullet Etc.
bullet To demonstrate respect for God:
bullet To indicate to God the love one has for him, and willingness to abide by his injunctions.
bullet To find out what God's expectations are:
bullet To find out what God expects from them, their family, and the nation.
bullet To ask God for help -- for him to alter or direct the future in a certain way:
bullet For example, to protect their children, to cure a health problem, to bring them financial success, etc.

Results of public opinion polls:

bullet According to a Gallup Organization, the vast majority of those who pray "seek guidance [from God] for decisions" 1 that are before them.
bullet 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:
bullet 27%: To seek God's guidance.
bullet 23%: To thank God.
bullet 19%: To be close to God or the divine.
bullet 13%: To help others.
bullet 9%: To improve a person's life.
bullet 4%: Other purposes.
bullet 5%: Don't know. 2
bullet The same Beliefnet/Newsweek poll also asked people how often they pray. Results were:
bullet 64%: daily.
bullet 10%: several times a week.
bullet 5%: once a week.
bullet 4%: once or twice a month.
bullet 2%: A few times a year.
bullet 6%: Seldom.
bullet 8%: Never.

The margin of error of the Beliefnet/Newsweek poll is about ~+mn~3 percentage points.

References used:

  1. George Gallup, Jr., "Poll releases: As nation observes National Day of Prayer, 9 in 10 pray -- 3 in 4 daily," 1999-MAY-6, at: 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."
  2. "Newsweek/Beliefnet Poll Results,", at:
  3. J.S. Spong, "What is Prayer?" Waterfront Media newsletter, 2009-MAY-13

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Copyright 2001 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2001-OCT-12
Latest update: 2009-MAY-13
Author: B.A. Robinson

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