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EPISODE 63: Research About Prayer
The Bible has a lot to say about why we should pray and how powerful prayer is. But did you know that academicians study prayer to see how it effects the person praying? My guest on this podcast is my son, David Newman, who has a PhD in Social Psychology and has recently published a paper about prayer, studied from a social science perspective. The implications for Christians are varied and quite helpful.
Welcome to Questions That Matter. This is a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute, and I am your host, Randy Newman, and I am so delighted. Today, my conversation partner is my son, David Newman. David, welcome to Questions That Matter.
Thanks so much. It’s great to be here.
David, for those of you who haven't heard me brag about him before, is Dr. David Newman, and so we both love to tell each other that we're the two Dr. Newmans. I always like to tell him I got my doctorate first, but we're not going to talk about that too much on the air. David did his undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia, did a graduate master's degree at the College of William and Mary, and then went on and got a PhD in Social Psychology at the University of Southern California. And I always love to talk to David about his research and what he's writing and what he's learning. And he just recently was able to have a paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. It is about the dynamics of prayer in daily life. And I thought listeners to Questions That Matter would be intrigued to hear about what we're learning about prayer, not necessarily from the Scriptures, although we have tons of input from the Scriptures about prayer, and other sermons and lectures and books, and we have quite a few great resources at our website that we'll link to in the show notes.
But, David, you've done some research on a very academic level about the dynamics of prayer in daily life. Let me read just the first line from this study that you've had published. It says, “Prayer is an important part of many people's daily lives, and yet little is known about the relationships between prayer and daily experiences and well being in our lives.” So, David, tell us some of the things you've learned about prayer, coming at it from an academic angle.
Sure. So this work, it’s about understanding prayer, the dynamics of prayer in people's lives, and in a lot of the studies I do, I like to ask participants at the end of their day about their daily experiences, about their thoughts, about their states of well being. And we do this typically over the course of two weeks. So we ask participants each day, at the end of their day, to tell us a little bit about their day. And the really nice thing about these studies is that we can look at some of these dynamic processes about how, say, for example, prayer may relate to our happiness on a particular day, may relate to certain types of daily experiences. We can also look at how prayer on one day may influence our well being on the following day, and this is really, in a sense, a novel procedure for prayer, because much of the research on prayer has relied on surveys where participants are asked at one time to just think about their life and to report the extent to which they… how frequently they pray or maybe what they pray about.
So this really tells us a lot more about sort of the daily experiences of prayer. And in this study, we analyzed the data from three different semesters of data. These are undergraduate students who are completing these reports. And one of the key things we did is we looked at the ACTS taxonomy. ACTS stands for adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. And this is a common taxonomy among Christian traditions. And so we ask participants each day the extent to which they engaged in these different aspects of their prayer. We have some… some participants are religious, some participants are not, and we just look and see how this tends to relate to people's experiences. And we generally find that people express thanksgiving and adoration when the day is going well, that is when they're engaged in events that are more positive, like engaging in pleasant interactions with friends, when they are doing well in their schoolwork and so forth. And so those are some of the some of the key findings or some of the main findings, and I'm happy to elaborate a little bit more, but that was sort of the gist of what we did.
Oh, man! I love it! So there’s a whole lot of research where people just ask people to fill out a questionnaire. You've talked about this. So it's how often do you pray? How many minutes a day do you pray? What kind of things do you pray about? And then there would be, on the other side of the spectrum, probably more elaborate interviews, maybe 30- to 45-minute interview, sit down and talk to people. Your technique is you have people check in. Is it once a day? Do you send them a text and, “Tell me about your experience today?” Was that kind of how it was done? And so you got a report every day over the course of two weeks?
That's right. Yes. So in many of the other studies, it is usually just a single time assessment, whether that's an interview or a questionnaire. And the studies we do, we send out questionnaires just by email, and there's a link in their email to a questionnaire for them to complete. And we send those out typically at 9:00 p.m., and we ask them to complete it just before they go to sleep. So they receive that email each day for two weeks.
So I'm going to jump way ahead. Does prayer make people happy?
Well, it's interesting. Does it make people happy? So what we found was that generally, if you express thanksgiving or adoration on that particular day, you're generally pretty happy on those days. You're less happy on days when people, when they express supplication, when they're asking for things in prayer. Now, the interesting thing we found was, when we looked at the relationships from one day to the next, we actually see that, for most aspects of prayer, other than confession, there's actually a negative effect on people's well being. They actually tend to feel a little bit more stressed, a little less peaceful and calm, a little less satisfied with their lives. This, however, was modified—or moderated rather—by how frequently people engage in prayer. So among people who pray every single day, we actually don't see this negative effect. Among people who don't pray every day, then the negative effect was quite strong. So it suggests to us that, if you're the kind of person who prays every day, that prayer actually has a little bit more of a beneficial effect. If you're somebody who only prays sporadically, that might be an indicator that these are the kind of people who are praying just when they need something or just when they remember. And prayer might actually function in a different way. It might indicate to them that, when they pray, they might have some certain heightened expectation that it will make them happier, that everything will go well the next day. So that's a little bit about some of the findings that we had.
Yeah. I thought it was interesting in the study you were quoting that, according to—I guess it's Baylor research. It says, “Between 44% and 55% of Americans pray on a daily basis.” And that's sort of like regardless of what kind of religious position they identify with. And then you quoted Robert Woods, now, sociologist, that, “Americans are more likely to pray than they are to engage in any other religious activity.” So it's that there are people who would say maybe that they're not religious or they don't go to church, but they do pray. I think I even read somewhere that there was a certain percentage of people who identified as atheists, but then when they were asked if they pray, said yes. Am I remembering this correctly? Did you tell me this? Or where did I hear about this?
I don't remember where you heard about this. It sounds like something I may have told you. But yeah, there are some of these interesting trends. Some of these data comes from the Baylor Religion Survey. There's also data from the Pew Research Center. And these are some studies where they have a large—I believe they're representative samples of Americans. And so they do ask them how frequently they pray. And some of the interesting findings from those studies is that there actually are a decent number of people who don't identify with any religion or may even say that they're atheists, but yet they do pray on some occasions, or they indicated that they do pray on some occasions. Some of the other interesting trends from this is that we see that the number of people who identify with a particular religion do seem to be declining, but the number of people who say that they're spiritual but not religious seems to be increasing. There's people who are leaving organized religion, but they do tend to still be interested in a lot of spiritual topics, and so they might say they believe in God or a supernatural power. And so I think the reason why they may be more likely to pray is that it's something that you can do on your own. It's not something that requires an organization, so those have been some of the recent trends from this area of research.
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I'm reminded—this probably shouldn't be inserted into talking to an academician like you, but I'm reminded of this interview I read of the other Randy Newman, who doesn't have a doctorate, by the way, the Randy Newman who wrote the music to Toy Story and wrote the song Short People. He was asked one time in an interview what his religious beliefs are, and he said, “I'm an atheist except when I'm sick.” I think that may be true of a lot of people. All of a sudden they pray, “Please, whoever you are out there, please heal me.” So so far in your research, am I correct? You have not distinguished, how does the practice of prayer of Christians compare to the practice of prayer by people who would identify with other religions? Have you done that comparison?
We have not done that comparison. So most of our research so far has been with undergraduate students, and those who identify as religious are predominantly Christian. We do have a few participants who do identify as some other religion, but we just are not able to look at those comparisons. Just statistically speaking, we don't have enough data from people of other religious groups, and that is a limitation of some of our research, and something we'd like to do in the future is to look at how prayer differs across these different religious groups.
Now can you tell us: Is this a—I don't know—a growing field or a growing interest among academicians about studying about prayer? Because—correct me if I'm wrong—I seem to recall that the two other authors that you've worked with on this paper and some other research studies are not necessarily Christians, and yet they're interested in studying practices, religious practices and prayer in particular. Is that right? Am I remembering correctly?
Right. So, for the first part of your question, I'm not sure if the topic of prayer is one that's gaining more attention. I don't know if it's gaining any more or less attention, but in terms of the two collaborators, they're actually my former advisor and co-advisor from my master's program at William and Mary. And I think one of them would identify… Oh, I'm not quite sure, actually. So one of them I'm pretty sure to say that he's not religious. The other one, it's interesting. He is somebody I never would have thought of as someone who's religious. But recently we've been having some more discussions about religion and spirituality and the belief in God, and he's become more interested in this topic. I actually think he would say that he believes in God. I don't know if he would identify as a Christian, but he is somebody who's been very interested in prayer. And it was interesting: When he found out that I am a Christian, he sent me this idea about a prayer study. He had been wanting to study this for a while, and so he kind of stereotyped me. And once he realized that I'm a Christian, he thought, “Oh, David, you'd be interested in doing this.” And it turns out he was right. I was interested in this, and so it worked out nicely. But it was an idea that he had been interested in for a while. He's somebody who's interested in daily experiences more broadly, and he uses these kinds of methods. And so he had been interested in prayer for a little while.
The evangelist in me is thinking, as we find out results of these kinds of studies, it could open up really good conversations with people. And I think what struck me in reading your paper was people may be more religious… Excuse me. Let me try that again. People may be more religious or more spiritual or more thinking about religious things than we tend to assume. There's probably a whole lot going on sort of behind the persona, behind the face. I mean, the fact that maybe more than 50% of Americans pray, that's really quite significant, I think.
Let me jump in another direction. Has any of this study—and am I correct? You've done several studies, right? This isn't the only study you've done about prayer, is that right?
I have been working on more studies right now. This is the only study I have published so far, but I have been working on… I've been collecting more data and running more studies on this topic.
Okay, this could be embarrassing. Let me just put this—so this is a father talking to his son, so this could be a little weird. So has it affected anything about the way you pray?
You know, I don't think this has really affected the way that I pray. I think that the psychological study of prayer is something I find really interesting and fascinating, and I am interested to know when people pray and how that influences their well being. Yeah, I don't think it's really affected my prayer life too much. The other thing, too: I think that it's interesting to study the psychological effects of prayer, but when I think about what the Bible says about prayer and should we pray, I tend to think that the Bible says that we should pray, and we should have conversations with God. And I wouldn't decide to pray or not pray based on the results of a study that may or may not indicate that it's good or bad for your well being.
Yeah. And so I imagine that there's some people listening to this, and they may be thinking, well, that's a terrible motivation to pray. I'm not going to pray because it would make me happy. So, no. I don't think that's why we should pray. I think we should pray because God commands it and because it is us being involved in the growing of God's kingdom. I'm constantly struck by the fact that part of the Lord's Prayer that Jesus gave us includes praying, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” It may have been C.S. Lewis who said God gives us the dignity of causality. We get involved in the building of God's kingdom, which is absolutely amazing. However, I quickly jump in and say, there is that promise in Philippians 4 about, “Don’t be anxious, but in everything, with prayer and thanksgiving, let your request be made known to God, and the peace of God will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” So there is this promise of peace and calm. Again, it's not, “You should pray, so that it'll calm your anxiety,” or, “You should pray because it'll make you happy,” but we are told that prayer does have an effect on the person praying, not just out into the world of the kingdom.
So I'm just ranting and going on, but that's what I'm supposed to do as the host of the podcast. So that's the way it goes. Has any of this study affected maybe not necessarily the way you pray, but the way you think about prayer?
That's an interesting question. I've actually thought a little bit more of the other direction, where I've thought about what I've read in the Bible and what I know about prayer and how that may inspire me to ask certain types of questions about the psychological aspects of prayer. So I tend to think about the Book of Psalms, and when I think about the prayers that David and the other psalm writers bring to God, they're very emotional, and they touch on a wide range of emotions. There are some psalms that are very joyous in nature. They're offering praise to God and thanksgiving, and it's a very happy type of experience. And there's other psalms that express great levels of sadness. There's other psalms that express a lot of anger and frustration. And I found that really interesting, and it kind of led to the hypothesis or the idea that we may express different types of prayer based on the events of our lives and based on the emotional experiences that we're having. And so I've kind of thought about it from that direction.
So in terms of then thinking about, “Well, what do the results from psychological studies teach us about our own prayer lives?” And I tend to think that when the Bible makes these types of statements about your anxiety and about your happiness and well being, I tend to interpret that as not in a super scientific manner, in the sense that I don't think the Bible specifies clearly that you'll fall on this range of a survey if you engage in this kind of prayer, and that will occur at this time point and not at that time point. And there's a lot of details that we specify when we run these psychological studies. And I tend to view the biblical promises as these broad types of things that might be difficult for us to measure scientifically.
And then one final piece I'll mention: When we think about the psychological effects of what psychology tells us about prayer, it can be really informative and helpful for us from an evangelical perspective, or from a perspective of how we go about evangelizing to other people, because it tells us a lot about why people pray, when they pray, and what they're thinking about and their emotions. And that can help us to understand how to have conversations with people and to relate to them. Because we may have certain ideas about how we pray based on what the Bible teaches and what we've heard from other Christians, but there are a lot of people who may not believe the same things we do, but they still engage in some prayers, and so these kinds of studies can help sort of bridge that gap.
One of the many, and I do mean many, wonderful aspects at our award winning website is our topics area. It's a place where you can go in and go to topic and explore all sorts of topics. So pick a topic, and the one in particular that we would encourage you to go to is prayer. And so the way to get there is you go to cslewisinstitute.org/prayer, or slash pick another topic. But there are quite a few resources there about prayer which dovetail with my Questions That Matter episode about prayer. And I hope that that website and so many of the resources there are tremendously helpful for you. Thanks.
As you’re talking, I’m reminded. I think we Christians tend to be reluctant to say to non-Christians that we know, when we hear about things going on in their lives or whatever, we might be tempted to say, “Well, I'll be praying for you,” or, “I'll be praying about that.” And then we hold back and think, “Well wait a minute. They’re not a Christian. They may not believe in that.” But I actually think that that's a really powerful thing to say to people, and not just to say it, but to really mean it and to actually pray for people. And I've said that to some people who are very much… who would say they're not religious at all. And when they've told me about a difficult time in their life or something, and I say, “Well, I'm not quite sure what you'll think about this, but I really will be praying for you,” people have been very, very appreciative and touched by that. And so there may be a very powerful ministry we could have in telling people that we'll be praying for them and then to actually pray for them.
So let me dig in a little bit more about that acrostic or acronym, I never remember which term is correct, but the ACTS, A-C-T-S, a very common process, adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication. And quite a few people have pointed out that this isn't just a cute way to remember things, but it really does follow the shape of the Lord's Prayer, that begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.” It includes those ingredients. Many of the psalms follow the same kind of things. Has any of your research—or just your reading and thinking—helped you think about those different aspects of prayer, the adoration versus the confession? You mentioned that adoration and thanksgiving tend to be more frequent with people who are having a good day or good days. Can you speak to any of that?
Yeah. Let's see. So one thing I've learned is that thanksgiving and adoration are probably the two most similar aspects of prayer that we've found, in terms of how they correlate with each other. Meaning that, on days when people express thanksgiving, they're probably also expressing adoration. Supplication and confession look a bit more different. We've also found that the most frequent aspects of prayer are supplication and thanksgiving. Then that's followed by adoration, followed by confession. So people don't express a whole lot of confession, which I think makes sense, in the sense that confession is sort of the least desirable aspect of that, as you might think. I mean, you're forcing yourself to… You're confronting your own sins that you've committed, and it's not a pleasant experience. Asking for things in prayer is something that people feel more comfortable doing. Expressing thanksgiving and adoration also seems a bit more comfortable. So I found it interesting just to look at how these different types of prayer tend to correlate.
The other thing I'll mention, at the risk of getting a little too nerdy and a little too academic, but I will mention one interesting thing that we've also discovered is that, if you ask people at one time to fill out this questionnaire about their prayer, and we ask them the extent to which they engage in those four different aspects, what we find is that you actually can't distinguish them when you look at it at an individual level. So what you tend to see is that people who engage in thanksgiving also express supplication and adoration and so forth. And the only thing that you can distinguish them from is other people who don't pray. So when you ask them at one time, you can distinguish people who pray and people who do not pray.
However, when you ask people every single day, over the course of two weeks, the extent to which they engage in these different aspects, now you can distinguish these different types of prayer, which means that it could be the case that on some days people express thanksgiving, but they don't express confession. On the following day, maybe they express supplication and not much else. Maybe the following day they might express adoration and some thanksgiving and maybe also supplication, but they don't express confession. So you can sort of tease apart these differences a bit more easily when you ask people each day about what they focused on.
Yeah, yeah. I don't think that was too nerdy, but we'll see what kind of comments we get.
This idea of including adoration, confession, thanksgiving, supplication in prayer, you know, it's a really great way of forcing ourselves to expand…. If I can put it this way, it expands our prayer palette, so to speak. I think if we don't force that or don't use The Lord's Prayer or the psalms as templates for our prayers, we can just get into a gimme gimme, gimme. Here's my list. “Gimme, gimme this. Give me this.” I'm reminded of what Richard Pratt says in his really excellent book—I'll put a link to this in the show notes. His book is called Pray With Your Eyes Open. And he has a very long section in the book about the importance of, at the beginning of our prayer, spending time focusing on the God we're talking to, and think carefully about the names of God that we choose. And think carefully, before we launch into our requests, saying, “Lord, I'm reminded that You created the world simply by saying words. Lord, You’re the one Who gave me life and gave me breath,” and spending time thinking about Who it is that we're talking to. And Pratt says a whole lot of us, we don't really think about this at all. We just have our favorite name for God. Lord, God, dear God, Heavenly Father, whatever, and we don't really think about it very much. And he says, painfully, for all the attention we give it, most of us might as well start our prayers with, “Hey, you up there.”
So I just think the idea of including time of, let's remember who we're talking to, and then with thanksgiving, before we get to the gimme, gimme, gimme part, which is perfectly good for us to include. Jesus did say we should include prayers like, “Give us this day our daily bread,” but to also give thanks. Now, you've done a whole bunch of research also about gratitude and thanksgiving. Is there some of the lessons you've learned there that shed light on this aspect of prayer, thanksgiving?
I have done some work on gratitude, and, well, before I mention that, just to kind of echo some of the points you were making as well. I have thought a lot about the taxonomy quite a bit, even before beginning the study on prayer. And I do think that going through each of those aspects is really helpful, those processes. It is really important to just recognize Who you are praying to and to note that you should express gratitude to God. You should express adoration, and I think we have a natural tendency just to ask for things. And so I think it's really useful to go through the Lord's Prayer and some other prayers as well in the Bible that really touch on these different themes.
In terms of gratitude. So there's been a lot of research on gratitude more broadly, and a lot of that research shows that gratitude is a very positive thing. People who are grateful tend to be happy, and the act of expressing gratitude tends to improve your well being. It tends to improve your relationships with other people. It's kind of known as a social emotion or a binding emotion, because when you express gratitude to someone, they like that. It’s a positive experience for them and makes them feel more closely connected to you. And there's actually been much less research on gratitude to God. But similar to gratitude to other people? How does it differ? Do people also similarly feel really happy or positive? The relationship you have with God is obviously different from the relationships you have with other people, but there are some similarities. And so that's been some of my sort of ongoing research.
I love it. Well, I do love it, but I'm sure a whole lot of that is tied to the fact that I'm your father. And so look at my brilliant son. Look at this research he's doing. But like all of our C.S. Lewis Institute Questions That Matter podcasts, this one needs to come to an end. We hope that this question that matters, what difference does prayer make and how does prayer affect us, is an intriguing category for you. We're going to list some resources. We have a lot of resources on our website about prayer. David, any last thoughts? Anything that you were really hoping to say, and I just never got around to asking it? Or any other thoughts about this intersection of academic research and prayer?
No. I think I'll just close by saying thank you and express my gratitude to you, Dr. Newman, for having me on for this, and it's been great to chat with you about prayer.
Well, and thank you, the younger Dr. Newman. And, to all of our listeners, thank you for listening in. We hope all of our resources, like this podcast and the many, many resources we have at our website will be helpful for you as you grow in grace and love of the Lord and that you grow in your ability to love the Lord your God, with all your heart, soul, strength and mind. Until next time. We'll see you again.