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- 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.”
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