Atlantic on Thoughts and Prayers

After a tragedy, pious congressmen and popes invariably offer their prayers. What Science Says About 'Thoughts and Prayers' is a thoughtful review of the practice and its effects.

First, this is a favorite activity of congressmen: “Since the start of the legislative session on January 4, 1995, the Congressional Record identifies some 4,139 instances in which a congressperson took to the Senate or House floor to express their ‘thoughts and prayers.’ …. this equates to close to one ‘thoughts and prayers’ entered into the record per workday on the Hill.”

While the author claims this “is a uniquely American phenomenon,” he does not keep tabs on the pope, whose record is broadly similar. The author notes that broadcasting such prayers on social media is increasingly popular, and “contains an element of performance.” (Popes have a much greater platform, with more than “an element” of performance.)

The article cites a study by Macintosh concerning the effects of prayers following 9/11. It turns out that those praying feel better emotionally, and if they also regularly attend church (which rules out serious problems), they have “fewer new mental ailments and fewer intrusive thoughts about the tragedy.” There were no results concerning its effects on victims or terrorists.

There is also a lot of research on praying for those who are sick or in danger. The author’s summary: “A decade-long study of over 1,800 cardiovascular patients found that complications arose for the people prayed for within the experiment at nearly identical levels to those not prayed for. A meta-analysis published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that across 14 different studies on the topic there was “no discernible effect for IP [intercessory prayer].” I suspect popes’ track record is no better.

The author notes, “Religious people as a whole—those more likely to offer prayers in the wake of tragedy—are also more likely to own guns than those who aren’t religious.” They much prefer prayer to gun control or useful political action.