The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







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

There are a variety of approaches to understanding prayer:

  • The belief that a god listens to prayer, and may or may not respond;
  • The belief that prayer is intended to inculcate certain attitudes in the one who prays, rather than to influence a god;
  • The belief that prayer is intended to train a person to focus on a god through philosophy and intellectual contemplation;
  • The belief that prayer is intended to enable a person to gain a direct experience of a god;
  • 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 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 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

The siddur is the prayerbook used by Jews the world over, containing a set order of daily prayers. The siddur article describes the general order of Jewish prayer services, and how the siddur has developed. There is a separate entry on the specific prayers that appear in the siddur, what they mean, and how they evolved Jewish services.

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

Muslims pray a brief ritualistic prayer service called Salah in Arabic, facing Kaaba in Makka, five times a day. The "call for prayer" is called Adhan or Azaan. 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.

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 is recited at noon. 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 Eastern religions

Prayer in Hinduism

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.


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 God to give him the thing he prays for, why doesn't God give it to him, 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 God know the thoughts of all people?
  • If God is omniscient (all-knowing) then doesn't God know what we are going to ask Him for even before we pray?
  • How can a human being hope to change God's mind? Why should human prayers affect God's decisions?
  • Do human beings actually have the ability to praise an omniscient and omnipotent God? Praising God is difficult to do without describing God, yet how can a finite human being know anything about God'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.

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 with God. Rather, it is meant to inculcate certain attitudes in the one who prays, but not to influence God. 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). Among Christian theologians...(please add examples here) Among Muslim theologians....(please add examples here).

The Kabbalistic view of prayer

Traditional kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) embraces the social approach, in which prayer is viewed as a dialogue with God. 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 Hassidei Ashkenaz, the Zohar, the Kabbalist school of though created by the Ari, the Ramchal, most of Hassidism, the Vilna Gaon, and rabbis such as Yaakov Emden and Kalonimus Shapira.

Many people involved with kabbalah (esoteric Jewish mysticism) 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 with God. 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 God 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.

In the 1800s some European Christians were influenced by Kabbalah...(please add information here)

The rationalist approach

In this view, ultimate goal of prayer is to help train a person to focus on God 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 God (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.

Claims of evidence for the effectiveness of prayer

A famous statistical experiment whether prayer was effective was conducted by Francis Galton. 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 that confirmed his findings. Nevertheless, other studies concluded that prayer can have health benefits (e.g. Byrd RC, see below).

Alternative medicine

Some modalities of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) employ prayer, and a number of studies have claimed that patients who pray for their health or are being prayed for recover more quickly or more frequently. One such study (Byrd RC, 1988), with a double-blind design, showed with a p-value of 0.0001 that intercessory prayer to the Judeo-Christian god had a positive effect on a coronary care unit population.

Critics have attributed this recovery to the placebo effect. Typically, the scientific establishment ignores studies of the occult and esoteric, but in 1999, media reports on prayer studies prompted a comprehensive review of such studies in The Lancet. The result: "Even in the best studies, the evidence of an association between religion, spirituality, and health is weak and inconsistent." 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 (five people praying once a week for 26 weeks), and those who were not. In 2003, a second MANTRA study by Duke University contradicted the first MANTRA study's findings that intercessory prayer improved recovery rates in heart patients.

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.

For those who believe in a God that can and does answer prayer, such studies do not prove nor disprove their notion that praying can result in miraculous healing. Many religious believers hold that God "cannot be tested" and such a study cannot be conducted without God "being blind" to the study, which would be against His divine nature.

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.

See also

References and footnotes

  • Byrd RC. Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population. South Med J 1988;81:826-9. PMID 3393937
  • Moshe Greenberg, Biblical Prose Prayer as a Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel
  • Abraham Joshua Heschel, Man's Quest for God Scribner, NY, 1954
  • Seth Kadish, Kavvana: Directing the Heart in Jewish Prayer, Jason Aronson Inc., 1997
  • Charles Hugo Doyle, Guidance in Spiritual Direction, The Newman Press, 1959
  • Father Gabriel, Divine Intimacy, Tan Books and Publishers, Inc., 1996, reprint edition.
  • Geoffrey K. Mondello, The Search for Coherence
  • 1 See, for example, "Unigenitus", published by Pope Clement VI, 27 Jan., A.D. 1343.

External links

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