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Does Prayer Soothe the Soul? That Depends on the Person, Study Says

Holy Hotlines for Prayer ... For Worry, Fear, Temptation, Doubt, Sickness, Depression and LonelinessIs prayer a holy hotline that soothes the soul, that erases worry, fear, temptation, doubt and depression?

Not necessarily, according to a team of researchers in Texas. In a 2014 publication in the Sociology of Religion, Christopher Ellison and his colleagues use the Baylor Religion Survey to ask the simple question: if prayer soothes the soul, do those who pray more often feel more soothed?

The answer is, in the first pass, no: by itself, the amount a person prays is not associated with greater or lesser anxiety.  Neither is a habit of more frequent  prayer associated with either greater or lesser compulsion or obsession. More interestingly, the power of prayer turned out to vary according to how the person praying thought of the God they were praying to:

Prayer, Security and Anxiety in Ellison et al 2014

When people more strongly that someone agreed with statements like “God knows when I need support” and “I feel
that God is generally responsive to me” — that is, the more securely they felt that God was on their side — more frequent prayer was associated with lower anxiety. On the other hand, for people who more strongly agreed with statements like “God seems to have little or no interest in my personal problems” and “God seems to have little or no interest in my personal affairs,” more frequent prayer actually was associated with raised anxiety.

Which causes which? Does more anxiety among people who feel God is distant lead to more fervent prayers in the hope that anxieties will be lifted? Or do those more fervent prayers lead to anxiety and worry that God is distant? Do frequent prayers, on the other hand, lead to a soothing feeling and a simultaneous trust in God? Or are people who are already calm and feeling tight with God more likely to go ahead and pray?

The answers to these questions are not immediately forthcoming; the study is cross-sectional and so it cannot confirm or rule out any number of possible causal tales. But one thing is clear: there is no one single soothing effect of prayer; however the lines of cause and effect are drawn, what matters most in people’s feelings when they pray are their own states of mind.

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