Does Prayer Work? Does Mormonism Work?

The answer to this question, as is so often the case with questions of this type is, “That depends on what you mean by ‘works'”. Let’s explore this interesting issue. I will set out my thoughts and would be interested to hear the impressions and experiences others have had along similar lines.

In a recent thread (…) I posted the “rest of the story” regarding a well publicized study a year or two ago that alleged prayer to be an effect meanings of curing certain illnesses. And not the usual kind of prayer where the ill person is sitting and listening as someone prays for her. Rather, this was about prayer for an ill person who does not know she is being prayed for. This later type of prayer has been shown to have no measurable effect on health.

While I no longer pray in the way I used to, I still regularly (and in fact more often than before) express gratitude and love toward others for whom I care. And I am sure that this has a positive effect on both them and me. I will explain why below. And I believe that Mormon prayer and certain of its rituals that involve prayer are effective in a sense for this reason as well.

There is a large body of psychological literature that explores the way in which expressions of gratitude, love and encouragement affect both the persons giving and receiving them. The person expending energy to make the expression perceives herself to have been energized by the experience, and the person receiving the expression tends to react similarly though along different psychological correlates. This is a great deal for all involved. 2 + 2 = 6.

The various ritual behaviors used within the Mormon and other religious traditions harness the power of this long understood phenomenon in at least two important ways. First, it is used to make people feel good about themselves and others. And second, it is used to strengthen the perception that the Mormon institution is the source of this wonderful aspect of human experience. Let’s look at the second aspect of how Mormonism uses this part of human experience.

Frequently Mormon prayers are not prayed in private. Meetings open and close with prayer. Mormons pray over meals. Fathers’, priesthood, baby and patriarchal blessings are usually performed before groups of people. At the core of the marriage ceremony we find a prayer. The expression of testimony is close to a prayer in that while it is addressed to the group, it closes in the name of God. “Prayer lists” are maintained in Mormon temples. The temple “prayer circle” is a particularly interesting form of public prayer that gives a feeling of privacy and exclusivity since only the “most worthy” are permitted to participate. Missionary companions and married couples are encouraged to prayer together, day and night, and to pray audibly as well as silently.

In each of these prayer forms, Mormons are encouraged to do various things having different purposes that are intertwined by the act of praying about them at the same time. For example, Mormons are encouraged to express gratitude both to God and to other people, often people who are present or if not present who will become aware that the prayer was said. The temple prayer circle is particularly interesting in this regard. The names on the prayer roll are not a matter of public record. But frequently the word makes it back to the “sufferer” (my name was various prayer rolls for a long time as I left Mormonism and for all I know, still is) that her name had been put on the prayer roll at one temple or another (sometimes simultaneously at several) as an act of love; acts often performed by “insiders” who are more worthy toward “outsiders”. This simultaneously lifts the insider by making her feel good about having acted in a loving manner, while highlighting the insider v. outsider lines more clearly in her life.

The act of expressing gratitude, as noted above, has been shown to have a powerful positive effect on how both the person expressing and the person receiving the expression feel. All others present tend to be positively moved as a result of witnessing what has happened. This binds the social group together. By causing this to occur in the context of Mormon ritual, the Mormon institution can take credit for the good feelings produced by these universal human mechanisms, and so strengthen itself.

Another important aspect of expressing gratitude is that the thing we express gratitude toward becomes more precious to us. This is the case when we silently express gratitude, and the more public the expression becomes, the stronger the effect. This is why testimony bearing, or witnessing, in particular is stressed within Mormonism and other faiths. And this is why prayer is a stepping stone toward testimony bearing both for children and for those “invesitgating” Mormonism. The evolution of many rituals can be explained in this way. For example, this is one of the reasons psychologists and anthropologists believe the ritual of public marriage ceremonies evolved. The community has a stake in encouraging stable marriages for various reasons that I won’t go into here. The public nature of the commitment, expression of love, expression of gratitude by the couple for each other, etc. were found over time to help stabilize the marital relationship. And everyone likes an excuse to party anyway.

In Mormon prayer and prayer-like rituals, expressions of love and gratitude for those closest to us are intertwined with expressions of love for God. And these are confounded both with each other and expressions of love for the Mormon institution and its symbols – Joseph Smith; the temple where absolute obedience to Mormon authority is promised; the current prophet; other current leaders; etc. So, much of the good feeling and energy that results from expressions of love and gratitude end up solidifying the relationship between the individuals giving, receiving and witnessing these expressions and the Mormon institution.

In fact, when required to choose between the Mormon institution and any of these loved ones, the choice is intended by the Mormon institution to be clear, though few Mormon leaders will admit this. The Church comes first. The Celestial Kingdom is more important than Earthly life. But rather than counsel marital break up, most Mormon leaders will stand aside and let the chips fall where they may when one spouse seems clearly committed to leaving Mormonism and the other intent on staying. And this should not surprise us since many social groups historically have operated on this basis, and this teaching is at the core of Christianity. Christ’s message was intended to divide families as well as communities over the issue or religious faith, if it came to that. The only thing unclear about the many New Testament passages that make this point in different ways is whether Christ himself said what they say, or whether those building the Christian community after Christ’s death remembered Christ saying what was so obvious to them and so added these sayings to his record themselves and so invoked his authority.

Because the powerful feelings I have just tried to describe occur in circumstances that the Mormon Church creates, it is reasonable for a person with little or no experience outside of Mormonism with regard to these things to conclude that Mormonism is responsible for them.

This brings us to the emphasis on pageantry, solemnity, reverence etc. that accompany many Mormon rituals. These individual and group actions are well known to produce powerful emotional experiences that humans like. Combine that with the power of the personal expression of love and gratitude, and a wonderful cocktail has been mixed.

And then there is the so-called placebo effect. It is well established in the medical as well as psychological literature that if we believe that something will have a positive effect on at least some aspects of our physical health (herpes, for example, reacts positively to placebos), emotional well being (depression reacts particularly positively to placebos) or perception of pain, it probably will have. An article in a recent Economist magazine summarized current medical studies that have been done in this regard. These studies linked the lastest brain imaging (PET) scans to traditional placebo studies to see what was happening in the brain when people were under the influence of a placebo they believed would reduce their perception of pain. It was shown that the brain produced increased levels of endorphins, the body’s natural pain killer, when the participants thought they were receiving a pain killer but in fact were only receiving a placebo. And they of course reported significantly decreased levels ofpain.

I can think of no reason for which the placebo research would not apply as well to Mormon prayer and priesthood blessings as it would to sugar tablets and saline solution thought to contain effective medication. This would reinforce the idea that something supernatural was possessed by the Mormon institution in the form of priesthood authority, furthering the reverence, deference and obedience reasonable people would tend to show to that institution.

So yeah, prayer works. It does all kinds of powerful things when linked with the right social and psychological mechanisms that are known to be effective in many other contexts.

Does this mean that there is no God and that faith and prayer have no other effects? In my view, the evidence does not go that far. What this line of research clearly indicates is that many of the supernatural aspects of human experience that are attributed to prayer and faith as the result of misunderstood natural phenomena. And the most important lesson for me in all of this is that I was hoodwinked into believing that the Mormon institution had unique power to make me feel good; to heal me; to foster loving relationships; etc. when in fact it was simply misdirecting my attention from the most probable nature of the mechanisms that were having their expected effect in my life, and taking credit for wonderful aspects of life in ways that were deceptive.

Now we have unwoven part of a rainbow. The wonder and beauty of Mormon life lays smashed on the floor all around us. Mormons are often critical of the “anti-Mormons” for the manner in which we tear down without building up. So let’s do a little building up, and notice how easily this occurs.

It took quite a while on my way out of Mormonism to pick apart the threads I just described. As I did so, something happened that I believe to be the normal, sensible response to what I had experienced. The key to understanding this is to appreciate the nature and importance of perspective, and what we should expect to happen to us once our perspective changes about anything that is important to us.

Once I understand how important the expression of gratitude was (thanks to Martin Seligman’s psychological studies), I made it a point to express gratitude more often. Each time I do this, it lifts me. Thanks Martin!!! Even that made me feel good. And the understanding that this is something natural, available to all, that has nothing to do with Mormon or any other kind of authority, fills me with joy. It felt wonderful, for example, to get rid of the idea that there was something unique and special about the feelings of joy a Mormon couple have as they promise to love each other in a Mormon temple and there express gratitude to a few crying, oddly dressed family members and friends. This is a universal human response to that kind of circumstance. So it makes perfect sense that once I understand this, I would simply go out of my way to find opportunities to express sincere gratitude for those in my life.

The same thing applies to expressing love. The same thing applies to expressing encouragement. The same thing applies (to a point at least) to helping other people.

And having learned a few useful tricks from people like Seligman, I was encouraged to see what else they can teach me. The importance of forgiveness is something else I have learned from them. The importance of being involved for a significant part of each day in “flow activities” is another important point. The importance of identifying my “signature strengths” and focusing on doing as much as I can with them instead of worrying about fixing what I perceive to be “character flaws” that I am likely never to overcome. We seem to go further and enjoy the ride more if we concentrate on doing what we can with our strengths instead of beating ourselves up for what we are not so good at doing.

Etc. My intent here is not to try to write a life manual, but rather to indicate that there is a vast world of information out there, well organized and back up by solid empirical studies, that we can use to guide ourselves toward lives that we have reason to believe will be more joyful, productive and fun than anything the well intended but ego blinded old guys in SLC could possible offer from their point of view. The basic reason for this is simple and clear. Their primary objective is not to create the strongest, healthiest, happiest individuals possible. Their objective is to create the strongest Mormon institution possible. And that often requires sacrifices to be made by many individual Mormons.

Like us. Or like us as we were.

All the best,


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