The Usefullness of Prayer: Evolution’s Spiritual Duct Tape

Some believe that prayer works. There are actually two factions of this belief. On the one side you have theists who believe that they can influence an unseen deity and petition to enlist its support on their behalf or the bahalf of someone or something. Why one would have to coerce an all-knowing, all-loving god to intervene on their behalf and go against “it’s plan” is a blog post all its own. Until that’s written, this one from the blog will have to do.

? Why is there a “gap” ?

“Just like tape adheres one thing to another, you can adhere or tape prayer to another person. The Bible calls it ‘standing in the gap’. “

But on the other side you have those that have measured some negligible, if not consistent, effect where prayer has been invoked in one’s own behalf or on the behalf of another. The underlying theory regarding the latter being the benefit of positive thinking or the Placebo Effect.

While there is yet no hard data that shows prayer as either consistently effective or consistently ineffective, there is good reason behind this unique and innate human tendency to plea to external forces to act on their behalf.

Some dismiss prayer out of hand. Mostly because the word “prayer” has an inherent association with religion, and thus, with belief. It is defined as:

“an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication.”

But this association, while understandable, begs further inspection. Some anthropologists believe that the earliest intelligent modern humans practiced a form of prayer.(1) Which seems to make prayer an inherently human act. When you examine the plight of the earliest modern humans, you can imagine why this behavior may have evolved. At some point, the earliest humans began to piece together the reality of their situation; that they existed in a world where they evidenced natural phenomena, which seemed to show indifference to their existence–seemingly randomly fluctuating between subjectively non-favorable acts like lightning and floods in one instance and subjectively favorable acts or complete indifference the next. Realizing a complete lack of control over and understanding of this phenomena lead them to form the assumption that there was some other force at the helm of the their world. This indifferent force being virtually unseen, sans the aforementioned evidence of its agency, left early humans with seemingly one option–to subjugate themselves to it with the hope of remediation of non-favorable phenomena and maximizing the favorable. In this we can see the beginnings of formal religion.

Even in modern times this subjugation is still very much a part of our nature. Because even though, through science, we’ve begun to understand and demystify a considerable amount of things for which the earliest humans had no answer, there remains a great deal of phenomena (some of the exact same phenomena as experienced by early humans) over which we have no control as well as things concerning the world we inhabit about which we have little or no explanation–to say nothing of the seeming vast and infinite universe. So, like our early counterparts, we still have a reason and a desire to want to minimize the bad and maximize the good. But unlike our early counterparts, through the discovery afforded by science, we have less reason (if any at all) to rely on prayer in this endeavor. Prayer has become a behavior that bookends scientific inquisition and effective action; a knee-jerk, reptilian first reaction on the one hand and a last-resort when even science falls short. But even in this lower consignment, prayer is still an act humans still feel behoved to participate in(some more readily than others). Perhaps there is a good reason for this. Being that prayer is usually an act that one resorts to in the absence of any kind of effective personal practical agency–a sort of “just because there’s nothing you can do, doesn’t mean you should just do nothing” proposition–prayer is literally, the least you can do when there’s nothing else that can be done.

This is not to minimize the act of praying, but to put its use into proper perspective. That use is as signaling. Economist Robin Hanson explains the signaling theory of human behavior as the motivation for our choices about school, shopping, medical care, and so on, (their pragmatic benefit aside) that have evolved primarily to shape other people’s perceptions of us(2). In the case of prayer, some may believe it has a pragmatic effect, but what we are really doing is signaling to others we care about them, or in the case of the aforementioned all-knowing, all-loving deity, to let him know you respect his power and enlist its use–never mind the cognitive dissonance of having to ask an all-knowing, all-loving deity to intervene in a situation.

Leaving the merits of deistic prayer for another discussion, it’s suffice to say that the effectiveness of prayer, in its most easily measurable level of effectiveness is not evident in the mere quality of the plea or quantity of participants and their level of intent, but in its reception–not by an all-knowing and seeing progenitor deity, but by the person to whom the prayers are directed. This also applies indirectly to a situation over which one is praying, but it still comes down to a sentient agent’s reception of the plea and their ability to take action in hopes of affecting the situation.

For example, when one can pray for the alleviation of hunger in a certain part of the world, we can be fairly certain that the mere act of praying alone (or “liking” on social media) has zero effect on the alleviation of that hunger, but it can, at least, be useful in several other aspects.

One aspect is the raw acknowledgement on the part of the one offering the prayer, that hunger is a problem and that actual people are suffering. The second perspective is that of the hungry. They can become aware that their plight is acknowledged and that, perhaps something will be done to alleviate their hunger–hope is a good thing in itself. The third perspective, that of the person or people so inclined to do something to alleviate the hunger, and that they will, in fact, do so. The Sally Struthers Effect, if you will. A scenario that could have likely played out thusly: Person A prays for an end to hunger. Person B is now aware there is a hunger problem. Person B visits a third person, Person C–the hungry, and campaigns on behalf of Person C in the presence of Person C, inciting a fourth party, Person D, to provide the necessary means to provide the food to give to Person C, that will alleviate their hunger. Here, one could stretch and over-simplify the course of events of this scenario as: prayer helped alleviated hunger.

Though you could easily argue that the act of prayer is wholly unnecessary in the above scenario–and you’d be right. Person B is dependent upon Person A only in the sense that this may have provided first inclination that Person C even existed. You could have easily substituted a newscast in place of the prayer in the above scenario as the thing that made Person A aware of the hunger problem. But what prayer signifies in these kinds of scenarios is a kind of quality or level of importance to the problem hunger in this scenario.

As stated above, given that prayer is usually invoked in situations in which one feels a sense of helplessness, it conveys a qualitative sense of importance of a situation and as a plea to enlist the action of those in a position to help in a given situation. So, you could argue that even if a newscast was the impetus for making someone aware of a hunger problem, mentioning within the newscast that perhaps “millions are praying for a solution to the hunger problem” human nature being what it is, affords a qualitative degree of importance and caring–This problem is “this” important and we care “this” much. If only in this, prayer is a unique tool.
But the result is not always good. Some studies have indicated increased medical complications in groups receiving prayer over those without.(2)(3) This negative aspect of prayer fits with the theory that the effectiveness of prayer (as signaling) is ultimately dependent upon how it’s received. In this study where prayer had a negative effect upon medical patients, you can argue two positions. One, that the mere fact of knowing that you are being prayed for could be taken as an indication, by the prayee, that their situation is of such dire circumstance and perhaps of such great import to a great many people, that its alleviation is insurmountable or hopeless. The other, more obvious and likely position being that the medical reality of the situation is beyond capabilities of the placebo effect and ultimately, beyond medicine’s current ability to alleviate it.

So even though the act of signaling “is as basic an endowment of man as his vision, hearing, taste and smell”–this “desire to be heard, known, and felt deeply”(4), as it manifests as prayer, it is little more than spiritual duct tape; it’s what you use when you don’t have your most effective tools at the ready.

4. Psychology Today: June 25,2015, pg. 31; The Empathy Trap (Robin Stern, Ph.D., and Diana Divecha, Ph.D.)


The Exploitation of the “least reasonable man”

Watching a segment of The Daily Show with John Stewart, it suddenly occurred to me that a classic persuasive tactic was being exploited. The segment featured Republican Senator James Inhofe’s (R-OK) attempt to nullify decades of research supporting man-made climate change, by presenting as evidence, a snowball from a recent Washington D.C. snow–freshly molded right from the Capitol steps and brought to the house floor.

The Daily Show (March 2, 2015)
The Daily Show (March 3, 2015)

The Senator’s remarks, while neither overly pedestrian nor replete with scientific data to support his claim, did site a Goddard Institute of Space Studies study that found that “there (is) only a 38% chance that 2014 was the warmest year on record”. Now, the average person, left to their own devices to decipher and put that into perspective, might jump to the conclusion that that percentage of likelihood that 2014 was the warmest year on record, had some relevance or correlation to the validity of the ill effects of climate change research in general. Not so. It is only a qualification therein–the “if this, then not that” line of reasoning that doesn’t consider the findings that “climate change and extreme weather events are linked.”(NOAA)

Now, you’ve got to at least hope that the Senator, a man with some considerable position and degree of influence as chairman of the Senate’s Environment and Public Works committee, is not jumping to the aforementioned incongruent conclusion out of ignorance, but that he is merely taking advantage of how these neat little falsely juxtaposed factoids sound to those who are, shall we say, less reasonable in their cognitive reasoning facilities–a “least reasonable man”, if you will.

I was first made aware of the principle of the “least reasonable man” in an advertising class while working on my Media Arts degree. It was described in terms of a precaution taken by-product manufacturers to protect those who might least be expected to manage reasonable or safe use of their products

donoteatExamples currently in use on products are the “Do Not Ingest”warnings listed on the silicon packets placed in product packaging to absorb moisture that might otherwise damage the product during shipping or during it’s shelf life.

The primary use of these types of warnings is likely the protection of manufacturers against litigation resulting from improper use of their products, with general public safety coming in at a close second–at least from the perspective of he most affected by “the bottom line”.

Now days, it seems warnings like these are conspicuously absent where Joe Citizen’s easy access to and voracious ingestion of punditry and partisan politics is concerned. Where “least reasonable man” is the “low-hanging fruit” waiting to be picked (read persuaded) and collected in the fruit baskets of loyal constituency, re-election and lobbyist sponsored political sway.

Enter political satire.

Political Satire has likely been around since the first politician first spoke out of the side of his neck. But recently, a new, more potent brand of satire has hit the shelves. News-satire offerings like the now defunct Colbert Report, the soon to be re-imagined The Daily Show, and long running shows like Real Time with Bill Maher have stepped in between these actors and acted as a rather efficient poop filter in the cloudy fish tank that is American politics.

Shows like these, while entertaining, do actually mange to simultaneously entertain and educate. The Daily Show “Inhofe’s Snowball” segment alone featured these general factoids and insights about our political system:

• Our legislative system is run by committees
• Each committee is headed by a chairperson
• Each chairmanship is awarded, not by merit, but overwhelmingly by seniority
• The matchings of chairmen to committees is suspect; chairpersons seem to have fundamental opposition to the very programs and agencies affected by the decisions of their committees.

For example, in the case of Sen. Inhofe(R-OK)–a denier of the science supporting man-made climate change heading a committee on Environment and Pubic Works–who’s also been known to site the Bible in his rebuttal of said science. Coincidence?

One could argue that it would be suspect for the head of a committee to be biased even in favor of their committees charge, but these polarities being what they are(you wouldn’t likely find a moderate with enough experience in the committees charge-again, not that experience is the pre-requisite), one would expect that regardless of one’s position, one could muster measured reason and set aside whatever internal bias for the sake of the greater good. But maybe that’s asking too much of a politician. Which begs the question, why do we keep electing them. Cognitive dissonance begets more cognitive dissonance, I guess.

Now granted, the first two of the above factoids are your basic government 101 fare, but the bottom two, not so much. They virtually beg you to question why and how the process works that way.

So, traditional media, having dropped the ball with it’s obsession with celebrity and other fluff, punditry and opinion, it’s newly adopted knee-jerk style of “report first, fact-check later” and the false memory of its anchorage, has as it’s counter, programs like The Daily Show to fill the void of protecting “least reasonable man” from himself and the public at large from his inability to reason independently…or at all.