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Prayer is an effort to communicate with God, or to some deity or deities, or another form of spiritual entity, or otherwise, either to offer praise, to make a request, or simply to express one's thoughts and emotions.



There are a variety of approaches to understanding prayer:

  • The belief that the prayer is listened to, and may or may not get a response;
  • The belief that prayer is intended to inculcate certain attitudes in the one who prays, rather than to influence the recipient;
  • The belief that prayer is intended to train a person to focus on the recipient through philosophy and intellectual contemplation;
  • The belief that prayer is intended to enable a person to gain a direct experience of the recipient;
  • The belief that prayer is intended to affect the very fabric of reality itself.

The existence of prayer is attested in written sources as early as 5000 years ago. Anthropologists believe that the earliest intelligent modern humans practised something that we would recognize today as prayer.

The act of prayer

Praying has many different forms.

  • Prayer may be done privately and individually, or it may be done corporately in the presence of fellow believers.
  • Some outward acts that sometimes accompany prayer are: ringing a bell; burning incense or paper; lighting a candle or candles; facing a specific direction (i.e. towards Mecca or the East); making the sign of the cross.
  • A variety of body postures may be assumed, often with specific meaning (mainly respect or adoration) associated with them: standing; sitting; kneeling; prostrate on the floor; eyes opened; eyes closed; hands folded or clasped; hands upraised; and others. Prayers may be recited from memory, read from a book of prayers, or composed spontaneously as they are prayed. They may be said, chanted, or sung. They may be with musical accompaniment or not. There may be a time of outward silence while prayers are offered mentally. Often, there are prayers to fit specific occasions, such as the blessing of a meal, the birth or death of a loved one, other significant events in the life of a believer, or days of the year that have special religious significance. Details corresponding to specific traditions are outlined below.

Prayer in ancient paganism

  • The ever pragmatic Roman attitude is authentically rendered by the Latin phrase dō ut dēs, meaning 'I give so you may give' : the mortal worshipper is trying to 'trade' his attentions (as offerings, promisses) for divine help or forgiveness

Prayer in the Abrahamic religions

Prayer in the Bible

In the Bible various forms of prayer appear; the most common form is petition. This in many ways is the simplest form of prayer. Some have termed this the "social approach" to prayer. In this view, a person directly confronts God in prayer, and asks for their needs to be fulfilled; God listens to prayer, and may or may not choose to answer. This is the primary approach to prayer found in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, most of the Church writings, and in rabbinic literature such as the Talmud.

More detailed articles exist about prayer specifically in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament.

Jewish prayer

Main article: Jewish services

Jews pray three times a day, or more on special days, such as the Shabbat and Jewish holidays. The siddur is the prayerbook used by Jews the world over, containing a set order of daily prayers.

The most important Jewish prayers are the Shema Yisrael ("Hear O Israel") and the Amidah ("the standing prayer").

Christian prayer

Jesus provided a model for prayer in the Lord's Prayer. Many Christian denominations also have their own local prayerbooks. Many Christians also devise their own, personal prayers. Prayers said by Christians are described in the article on Prayer in Christianity.

Islamic prayer

Muslims at prayer
Muslims at prayer
Main article: Salah

Muslims pray a brief ritualistic prayer called Salah in Arabic, facing Kaaba in Mecca, five times a day. The "call for prayer" is called Adhan or Azaan, where the "Mu-dhan" calls for all the followers to stand together for the prayer . There are also many standard Duas or supplications, also in Arabic, to be recited at various times, e.g. for one's parents, after Salah, before eating. Muslims may also say dua in their own words and languages for any issues they wish to communicate with Allah.

Neopagan Prayers

Many modern neopagans pray to various ancient pagan gods. The most commonly worshiped and prayed to gods are among the various Graeco-Roman gods, such as Themis and Artemis. Prayer can vary from sect to sect, and though the majority of neopagans associate themselves with Hellenistic sects there are many who believe in the gods of other pagan religions. Particularly in some parts of Europe there's a resurgence of "Nordic" and "Celtic" neopagans.

Bahá'í prayer

Bahá'u'lláh, the Báb, and `Abdu'l-Bahá have revealed many prayers for general use, and some for specific occasions, including for unity, detachment, spiritual upliftment, and healing among others. Bahá'ís are also required to recite each day one of three obligatory prayers revealed by Bahá'u'lláh. The believers have been enjoined to face in the direction of the Qiblih when reciting their Obligatory Prayer. The longest obligatory prayer may be recited at any time during the day; another, of medium length, is recited once in the morning, once at midday, and once in the evening; and the shortest can be recited anytime between noon and sunset. This is the text of the short prayer: I bear witness, O my God, that Thou hast created me to know Thee and to worship Thee. I testify, at this moment, to my powerlessness and to Thy might, to my poverty and to Thy wealth. There is none other God but Thee, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting. Bahá'ís also read from and meditate on the scriptures every morning and evening.

Prayer in other Eastern religions

Hindu Prayer

A Hindu woman praying to Hanuman by lighting incense sticks at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.
A Hindu woman praying to Hanuman by lighting incense sticks at the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai.

Hinduism has incorporated many kinds of prayer, from fire-based rituals to philosophical musings. Prayer was part and parcel of the Vedic lifestyle, and as such permeated their books. Indeed, the highest sacred texts of the Hindus, the Vedas, are a large collection of mantras (sacred hymns of Hindus, later adopted by Buddhists) and prayer rituals extolling a single supreme force, Brahman, that is made manifest in several lower forms as the familiar gods of the Hindu pantheon. Hindus in India have numerous devotional movements. Hindus may pray to the highest absolute God Brahman, or more commonly to Its three manifestations namely creator god called Brahma, preserver god called Vishnu and detroyer god (so that the creation cycle can start afresh) Shiva, and at the next level to Vishnu's avatars (earthly appearances) Rama and Krishna or to many other male or female deities such as Laksmi (goddess of wealth) or Saraswati (goddess of knowledge). See the article on Prayer in Hinduism for more details.


Buddhist prayer in Thailand
Buddhist prayer in Thailand

Buddhism for the most part discards worship, and places devotional emphasis on the practice of meditation alongside scriptural study. Although God and deities are recognized as present, Gautama Buddha claims it is mankind who by their own free will possess the greatest capacity and potential to liberate themselves and are urged to do so without exterior assistance. Therefore, prayer is not as central to devotion as in its neighbouring Asiatic faiths. In some later Mahayana related practices, especially Pure Land Buddhism, there is an emphasis on prayer-like mantras that are recited by devotees.

Prayer in Jainism

Although Jains believe that no spirit or divine being can assist them on their path, they do hold some influence, and on special occasions, Jains will pray and meditate for right knowledge to the twenty-four Tirthankaras (saintly teachers).

Philosophical paradoxes of prayer

There are a number of philosophical paradoxes involving prayer to an omnipotent God, namely:

  • If a person deserves the recipient of the prayer to give him the thing he prays for, why doesn't he receive it, even without prayer? And if a person is not deserving of it, then even if that person does pray and request it, should it be given just because of his prayer?
  • Why should it be necessary to pray with speech? Doesn't the recipient know the thoughts of all people?
  • If the recipient is omniscient (all-knowing) then doesn't that mean that they would know what we are going to ask for, even before we pray? (It should be noted that this paradox is acknowledged in the New Testment 'Matthew 6:8')
  • How can a human being hope to change the mind of the recipient of the prayer? Why should human prayers affect those decisions?
  • Do human beings actually have the ability to praise an omniscient and omnipotent entity? Praising is difficult to do without describing, yet how can a finite human being know anything about the entity's ultimate nature? This question was the subject of heated debate among many religious philosophers; one such debate took place in the 14th century between Gregory Palamas and Barlaam of Calabria.
  • The prerequisite of asking for a favour is faith in the recipient of the prayer. But asking to change an aspect of creation seems to be expressing a dissatisfaction with the way things are - and hence not trusting the "plan"

Many of these questions have been discussed in Jewish, Christian and Muslim writings from the medieval period onward. The 900s to 1200s saw some of the most fertile discussion on these questions, during the period of Neo-Platonic and Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. Discussion of these problems never ceased entirely, but they did fall mostly from the public view for several centuries, until The Enlightenment reignited philosophical inquiry into theological issues.

All of these questions have been discussed in many Jewish, Christian and Muslim religious texts. There was much intellectual cross-fertilization between Jews, Christians and Muslims during parts of the middle-ages, and so there is much convergence among some of the rationalist philosophers of that era. Many of these texts offer proposed resolutions to some or all of these paradoxes.

The educational approach

In this view, prayer is not a conversation. Rather, it is meant to inculcate certain attitudes in the one who prays, but not to influence. Among Jews, this has been the approach of Rabbenu Bachya, Yehuda Halevy, Joseph Albo, Samson Raphael Hirsch, and Joseph Dov Soloveitchik. This view is expressed by Rabbi Nosson Scherman in the overview to the Artscroll Siddur (p.XIII); note that Scherman goes on to also affirm the Kabbalistic view (see below).

The Kabbalistic view of prayer

Traditional kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) embraces the social approach, in which prayer is viewed as a dialogue. It further refines the approach by presenting exact kavanot, directions of intent, to specify the path the prayer ascends in the dialog to increases its chances of being answered favorably. Among Jews, this approach has been taken by the Chassidei Ashkenaz (German pietists of the Middle-Ages), the Zohar, the Arizal's Kabbalist tradition, the Ramchal, most of Hassidism, the Vilna Gaon and Jacob Emden.

Many people involved with kabbalah outside of traditional Jewish training follow an approach that often rejects rationalist reinterpreations of prayer outright, but also rejects the social approach, in which prayer is viewed as a dialogue. Instead, this approach ascribes a higher meaning to the purpose of prayer, which is no less than affecting the very fabric of reality itself, restructuring and repairing the universe in a real fashion. For these Kabbalists, every prayer, every word of every prayer, and indeed, even every letter of every word of every prayer, has a precise meaning and a precise effect. In Kabbalah and related mystical belief systems, adherents claim intimate knowledge about the way in which the divine relates to us and the physical universe in which we live. For people with this view, prayers can literally affect the mystical forces of the universe and repair the fabric of creation.

The rationalist approach

In this view, ultimate goal of prayer is to help train a person to focus on divinity through philosophy and intellectual contemplation. This approach was taken by Maimonides and the other medieval rationalists; it became popular in Jewish, Christian and Islamic intellectual circles, but never became the most popular understanding of prayer among the laity in any of these faiths. In all three of these faiths today a significant minority of people still hold to this approach.

The experiential approach

In this approach, the purpose of prayer is to enable the person praying to gain a direct experience of the recipient of the prayer (or as close to direct as a specific theology permits). This approach is very significant in Christianity and widespread in Judaism (although less popular theologically). In Eastern Orthodoxy, this approach is known as hesychasm. It is also widespread in Sufi Islam, and in some forms of mysticism. It has some similarities with the rationalist approach, since it can also involve contemplation, although the contemplation is not generally viewed as being as rational or intellectual. It also has some similarities with the Kabbalistic view, but it lacks the Kabbalistic emphasis on the importance of individual words and letters.

Experimental evaluation of prayer

A famous statistical experiment to determine whether or not prayer was effective was conducted by Francis Galton in 1872. Galton hypothetized that if prayer was effective, members of the British Royal family would live longer, given that thousands prayed for their wellbeing every Sunday. He therefore compared longetivity of the British Royal family with that of the general population, and found no difference. While the experiment was probably intended to satirize, and suffered from a number of confounders, it set the precedent for a number of different studies, the results of which contradictory.

A number of studies have suggested that patients who are being prayed for recover more quickly or more frequently. One such study (Byrd, 1988), with a double-blind design, suggested that intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian God may have had a statistically significant positive effect on a coronary care unit population. Sicher et al suggested statistically significant benefits to a group being prayed for ten years later (Sicher et al 1998). Another such study was reported by Harris et al 1999. Many similar studies have produced negative results as well, and it has been suggested that given the number of studies some will be favorable by pure chance.

Critics claim that Byrd's 1988 study was not fully double-blinded, and that in the Harris et al 1999 study, patients actually had a longer hospital stay on average if prayed for than if not prayed for, once one discounts the patients in both groups who left before prayers began. Critics also point to a number of studies where no similar effect was found (e.g. O'Laoire 1997). Neither study has presented repeatable results subject to scientific scrutiny.

A 2001 double-blind study of the Mayo Clinic found no significant difference in the recovery rates between people who were (unbeknownst to them) assigned to a group that prayed for them and those who were not (Aviles et al). Similarly, the MANTRA study conducted by Duke University (Krucoff et al 2005) found no differences in outcome of cardiac procedures as a result of prayer.

Many accept that prayer can aid in recovery, not due to divine influence but due to psychological and physical benefits. It has also been suggested that if a person knows that he or she is being prayed for it can be uplifting and increase morale, thus aiding recovery. Many studies have suggested that prayer can reduce physical stress, regardless of the god or gods a person prays to, and this may be true for many worldly reasons. According to a study by Centra State Hospital [1] "The psychological benefits of prayer may help reduce stress and anxiety, promote a more positive outlook, and strengthen the will to live." Other practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi, and Meditation may also have a positive impact on physical and psychological health.

Historical polytheistic prayer

In Graeco-Roman paganism, ceremonial prayer was highly formulaic and ritualized. The Iguvine Tables contain a supplication that can be translated, "If anything was said improperly, if anything was done improperly, let it be as if it were done correctly."

The formalism and formulaic nature of these prayers led them to be written down in language that may have only been partially understood by the writer, and our texts of these prayers may in fact be garbled. Prayers in Etruscan were used in the Roman world by augurs and other oracles long after Etruscan became a dead language. The Carmen Arvale and the Carmen Saliare are two specimens of partially preserved prayers that seem to have been unintelligible to their scribes, and whose language is full of archaisms and difficult passages.

Roman prayers and sacrifices were often envisioned as legal bargains between deity and worshipper. The Roman formula was do ut des: "I give, so that you may give in return." Cato the Elder's treatise on agriculture contains many examples of preserved traditional prayers; in one, a farmer addresses the unknown deity of a possibly sacred grove, and sacrifices a pig in order to placate the god or goddess of the place and beseech his or her permission to cut down some trees from the grove.


Some modalities of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) employ prayer. A survey released in May 2004 by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, part of the National Institutes of Health in the United States, found that in 2002, 43 percent of Americans pray for their own health, 24% pray for others health, and 10% participate in a prayer group for their own health.

See also

References and footnotes

  • Aviles JM, Whelan SE, Hernke DA, Williams BA, Kenny KE, O'Fallon WM, Kopecky SL. Intercessory prayer and cardiovascular disease progression in a coronary care unit population: a randomized controlled trial. Mayo Clin Proc 2001;76:1192-8. PMID 11761499.
  • Byrd RC. Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. South Med J 1988;81:826-9. PMID 3393937
  • Galton F. Statistical inquiries into the efficacy of prayer. Fortnightly Review 1872;68:125-35. Online version.
  • Harris WS, Gowda M, Kolb JW, Strychacz CP, Vacek JL, Jones PG, Forker A, O'Keefe JH, McCallister BD. A randomized, controlled trial of the effects of remote, intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients admitted to the coronary care unit. Arch Intern Med 1999;159:2273-8. PMID 10547166.
  • Krucoff MW, Crater SW, Gallup D, Blankenship JC, Cuffe M, Guarneri M, Krieger RA, Kshettry VR, Morris K, Oz M, Pichard A, Sketch MH Jr, Koenig HG, Mark D, Lee KL. Music, imagery, touch, and prayer as adjuncts to interventional cardiac care: the Monitoring and Actualisation of Noetic Trainings (MANTRA) II randomised study. Lancet 2005;366:211-7. PMID 16023511.
  • O'Laoire S. An experimental study of the effects of distant, intercessory prayer on self-esteem, anxiety, and depression. Altern Ther Health Med 1997;3:38-53. PMID 9375429.
  • Sicher F, Targ E, Moore D 2nd, Smith HS. A randomized double-blind study of the effect of distant healing in a population with advanced AIDS. Report of a small scale study. West J Med 1998;169:356-63. PMID 9866433.

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