Science on Religion

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The social power of prayer

Prayer excuseResearch has yet to show the medical efficacy of prayer. If prayer doesn't increase the chances of getting the thing prayed for, then it would seem to be of little use. However, prayer has more than a merely miracle-seeking function — it also has an important social function. Looking at the social function of prayer, sociologist Shane Sharp (Northern Illinois University) found that people use prayer to justify problematic or questionable actions.

Appealing to prayer to justify otherwise unseemly actions has particular persuasive power in America, where (as of 2008) 75% of Americans pray at least weekly and 58% at least daily. Because of prayer’s prevalence in the US, prayer utterances can serve at “aligning actions.” An aligning action is a verbal utterance that people say in order to align their behavior with their culture’s norms, values, and expectations. Breaking cultural “rules” calls for aligning actions. When listerners “honor” an aligning action, this means that they accept the speaker’s aligning action as legitmate, and so the relation between the two parties can proceed as normal.

Sociologists have identified two types of aligning actions: accounts and disclaimers. Accounts occur after the offensive action has already been commited. Accounts themselves have two types: excuses and justifications. Excuses mitigate personal responsibility for committing the offensive act, while justifications admit responsibility but mitigate the offensiveness of the act. For example, an excuse for not showing up to work would be “My car wouldn’t start,” while a justification would be “I was sick, and I didn’t want to get anyone else sick.” Finally, unlike accounts, disclaimers occur before the offensive action is made. Examples of common disclaimers include, “I’m no expert, but...”, “I know this is against the rules, but...”, and “This may seem strange to you, but...”.

Prayer utterances, when used as an aligning action, typically take the form of a disclaimer rather than an account. Prayer utterances usually follow the lines of “after praying over the choice for a while…,” after which the speaker states the offensive or questionable action. Sharp emphatically states that he does not intend to make a cynical argument or question the sincerity of those who say they have prayed over a decision. Regardless of whether a person actually did pray before an important decision, they still decided to make their prayer publicly known and to use prayer as an aligning action (specifically, a disclaimer) when announcing their decision. In other words, Sharp cares about how people use prayer as aligning actions and not whether they actually prayed. He wants to know about prayer’s social function.

Sharp looked at three examples of public figures using prayer utterances as disclaimers: Oprah Winfrey’s announcement that she was ending her show, Alabama State Supreme Court Justice Sue Bell Cobb’s announcement that she was resigning, and President Barack Obama’s speech about military intervention in Libya. In all three cases, the public figure relied on prayer utterances to buffer the bad news to his or her audience.

If Sharp is right, then prayer may have great social power (at least in America). Politicians, celebrities, and everyday people alike can use prayer to make their bad behaviors or questionable decisions more palatable. But whether to use prayer solely for manipulative purposes is something to pray about.

For more, see “Prayer Utterances as Aligning Actions” in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

 

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