Prayer has always been the ultimate example of magical thinking. That means doing something that has no effect on a desired outcome, but the person doing it thinks it does anyway. And nobody knows that deep down quite like evangelicals do. As much as their Dear Leaders constantly push the practice, the flocks clearly don’t like doing it. The solution can’t involve demonstrating the supernatural effectiveness of prayer, since literally nobody’s ever demonstrated that anything supernatural exists.

So instead, one evangelical has come up with a way to snow evangelicals into thinking prayer is totes for realsies effective. And I bet it’ll work on at least a few of them.

(From introduction: The paper I referred to about the brain.)

Why humans can even experience magical thinking (like prayer)

Imagine trying to tell a squirrel in squirrel language that if it didn’t give you its acorn, it would go to Squirrel Hell. It would likely ask you in turn where that is. When you told it Squirrel Hell can’t be seen or visited until death, but it’s still completely real, it would probably laugh a squirrelly little laugh and eat its acorn. 

Squirrels can’t imagine something that couldn’t exist. Most animals can’t. Two parts of the human brain work together to allow humans to do that: imagine stuff that could not possibly ever exist in reality.

Scientists now think that all mammals have one part of the brain responsible for that kind of imagination, the anterior medial prefrontal cortex. One paper calls the prefrontal cortex “the most evolved brain region” (archive). And another site (archive) calls it the “personality center” of the brain. In humans, the prefrontal cortex in general helps with decision-making, operating in groups, impulse control, managing emotions, and making plans for future actions.

For most animals, though, the prefrontal cortex doesn’t look or operate much like it does in primates (archive). Another paper tells us that out of all mammalian brains, this part varies the most (archive). In mammals, it varies wildly in size, shape, cell composition, and more. Individual species evolved it to suit their specific needs, so it likely handles functions differently, too.

(By the way, when we talk about the brains of teenagers developing until they’re 25, this right here is the part of the brain we’re usually talking about. Until their prefrontal cortex is fully networked together, young adults have trouble understanding stuff like the consequences of their behavior.)

The second part of the brain that lets us indulge in magical thinking is the posterior cingulate cortex (archive). Located in the back of our brain, it writes our memories to disk, so to speak, and also retrieves them. It is also where we imagine future events. And only primates have it.

Together, these two Wonder Twins’ power activates in humans to become the Default Mode Network (DMN; archive). To vastly oversimplify things, it’s what our brains do when we’re not actively concentrating on something. When the DMN is active, we might seem rather dreamy or unfocused, but it’s working hard. It allows us to speculate about other people’s feelings and imagine stuff that couldn’t possibly exist…

… Like gods.

Here’s the funny thing about the DMN, though. It largely processes experiences that really happened and thoughts about ones that haven’t in the same basic way. As you might guess, that fact has some huge implications for the research of schizophrenia and psychosis (archive).

Sidebar: Finding hints of religious thought in our prehistoric past

Humans weren’t stupid at the dawn of our species. Not at all (archive). They displayed remarkable intelligence (archive), likely on par with ours today. They didn’t yet know how to think critically, perhaps. The scientific method was still many eons ahead of our first ancestors! Rather, prehistoric humans just didn’t understand a lot of stuff yet. 

So I don’t think it took humans long to imagine supernatural beings. Religious beliefs, after all, hijack the cognition processes that primitive humans would have used for simple survival. Those processes include our pattern-recognition abilities and our desire to assign functions and reasons for everything we encountered—which we call promiscuous teleology” (archive) and which small children almost universally still do (archive). They all jammed up against our DMN, making it perhaps inevitable that we’d land on supernatural explanations for anything we didn’t understand.

We don’t know exactly when humans began to believe in supernatural things, or when they began believing in any kind of afterlife. But we know it happened a long time before the invention of writing or even farming. The Lion Man of Bavaria (archive) stands out as one tantalizing clue about the origins of human religion. (At least, most archaeologists think it’s a male figure. Some think it represents a female lion.)

Carved some 40k years ago out of a mammoth’s tusk, this statue has a lion head on a mostly-human body. At the time, lions existed in Germany (archive). They probably represented a huge and pressing threat to humans! Around 12k years ago (archive), lions finally went extinct—millennia after Lion Man was carved. We have no idea exactly why someone carved it, but the British Museum’s experts think it took some 400 hours to make (archive).

Those same experts also theorize that Stadel Cave, where Lion Man was found in 1939, was not a long-term home for humans. It would have been very cold thanks to its north-facing entrance. Even beyond its comparative unpleasantness, it contains far fewer artifacts than cave dwellings tend to have. To archaeologists, that fact may indicate that Stadel Cave was used as a ritual or meeting space instead of as a home.

Perhaps even more tantalizing, in 2003 researchers found a smaller version of Lion Man (archive) in another cave called Hohle Fels. That’s about a 10-hour walk from Stadel Cave. That whole region was very active, archaeologically speaking (archive). The smaller lion figurine was carved at around the same time, suggesting that more than one human group shared whatever belief sparked the creation of the larger one. 

So we don’t know exactly when humans began to imagine supernatural beings, but we’ve got some clues.

Magical thinking (like prayer) is just part of the overall counterintuitive shape of religious thought

In 2009, Professor J. Anderson Thomson (he goes by Andy Thomson) theorized that religions all share a “supernatural template.” As he put it in a talk that year, they contain:

  • at least one “counterintuitive physical property” like a god who is everywhere, but also has a distinct form of some kind
  • “counterintuitive biology” like the Virgin Mary being totally a divine virgin, but also a regular woman
  • “counterintuitive psychology,” like a god who can hear everyone’s thoughts, but he still orders his followers to pray to him

These properties stick out in people’s minds, just as anything counterintuitive would. Our minds gloss over stuff that’s always the same, always what we expected to encounter. Instead, we remember unusual things. Well, religious thought amps up that tendency. But there’s still enough human elements to religious claims that they feel possible to many people.

To prehistoric people who didn’t understand much at all about their world or themselves, I bet religious claims sounded very, very possible. To people today who don’t, they still do.

Thomson also discusses how the evolution of humans’ “theory of mind” led to the expression of shared religious beliefs:

All of us know that other people have a mind with intentions, wishes and desires that may be different from our own, and that we have to ‘read’. These capacities come online when we are about three to four years old. [. . .]

1st order: I believe
2nd order: I believe that God wants
3rd order: I believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent
4th order: I want you to believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent (social religion)
5th order: I want you to know that we both believe that God wants us to act with righteous intent (communal religion)

We can see how religions utilise this cognitive adaptation that is crucial to our social interaction.

So now, let’s weave all these threads together to see why people are so susceptible to magical thinking.

Magical thinking is a very human behavior

Humans can completely uncouple our thoughts from reality. We can visualize events, people, and things that simply don’t exist in reality. Some of that stuff couldn’t possibly ever exist, even! But our brains can make them seem all too real to us.

We can assign functions and purposes to our surroundings with ease. We want it all to make sense, and our brains make that easy. The assignment of meaning doesn’t even have to do directly with whatever the recipient of that assignment is. That recipient’s assignment can be purely symbolic in nature—or imaginary, or even false.

So the sun doesn’t just set at night, leaving our ancient ancestors in a starry darkness. That sun is a symbol of something supernatural. It might even be, in and of itself, imagined as an imaginary supernatural being. Accordingly, its setting becomes a representation of a deeply symbolic, imaginary, and false supernatural cosmology. The stars that emerge in that darkness, as well, become imaginary and false beings inhabiting that cosmology.

We can imagine a veritable war in the heavens between the sun and stars, all without knowing a single thing about suns or stars beyond what they physically look like to us on Earth.

It isn’t a far stretch from dreaming up supernatural beings to thinking that religious rituals can please those beings enough to grant their performers real-world benefits like protection and knowledge.

And it’s an even smaller stretch from thinking that religious rituals do something in the real world to skipping the actual ritual practice itself and moving straight along to just psychically asking for those benefits.

And that last step becomes prayer.

Christians aren’t the only ones who think magical thinking does stuff in the real world

That’s why we say that prayer is the ultimate example of magical thinking. It’s very close to the apex of human religion: pure, unfettered thought as a way to induce supernatural beings to affect our world.

The apex, of course, is people who think they can affect the world using only their thoughts. They skip right past the supernatural beings to imagine that they, themselves, can affect the world with their thoughts.

Some 20 years ago and before she became a fringe fat activist and pseudoscience superspreader, the famously fake athlete Ragen Chastain wrote on her LiveJournal (archive) that “psychic people” at a work meeting were somehow trying to “crawl minds without permission.” So she devised a punishment for these filthy trespassers:

Instead of shielding (which is what I would usually do) I would wait until I felt them and then immediately start thnking really dirty sexual thoughts about them, then watch them get extremely uncomfortable. One guy nearly fell out of his chair. Once they were sufficiently disturbed I would say “Hi, I see you’ve found my mind. You actually aren’t welcome right now, but thanks for visiting.”

“It proved to be great fun throughout the day,” she gloated at the end of her post. “I love me.”

Chastain’s imaginary sexual assault is no different from evangelicals’ conceptualization of prayer. Hers just didn’t involve any specific gods doing anything.

Sometimes, I catch evangelicals trying to use pure thought power to affect the real world. When they “rebuke demons,” they usually invoke Jesus, but they clearly believe that without their input, Jesus wouldn’t do anything to those demons on his own. Perhaps they know deep down that they might as well cut out the middleman. They’d get the same results either way.

Trying to make prayer seem way more effective than it really is

Over the years, we’ve talked a few times about how evangelicals engage with prayer. For the most part, they all act like it’s completely, utterly, totally, always effective—though of course, they add a great many asterisks to the terms and conditions of prayer. Not only do they almost universally maintain this pretense, they also act like prayer is the most absolutely essential part of any project they undertake for their god and their religion.

Gosh, they warn each other, make sure you pray before you start evangelizing! Or studying the Bible! Or building a church add-on! It goes on and on and on.

But they live in the real world. That means that they’re well aware of prayer’s striking ineffectiveness as a way to affect the world. They might not openly accept that truth, but just listen to how they pray. It doesn’t take long for a casual listener to realize that yes, they certainly know. 

We saw that truth writ large last time we met up. It was such a sad situation: a very sick newborn baby needing a heart transplant. Being fervent fundagelical Christians, his parents begged for prayers from their faith community to augment the space-age, top-of-the-line care their son was receiving from the hospital.

They got ’em, too, in spades. Almost all of them were done in that extremely un-self-aware way of Christians who haven’t yet accepted that prayer does nothing whatsoever in the real world. The following screenshot was one of the worst offenders that way:

But despite all those prayers, Gus is still doing very poorly.

After getting off of ECMO (a heart-bypass machine), he’s back on it. His blood pressure is still worryingly low, and his lungs are worryingly inflamed. He’s been seizing, too, which is a really bad news. Though seizures aren’t great for anyone of any age, they are especially harmful to babies (archive). Every single one does a bit more damage to the baby’s brain. So Gus has definitely suffered some brain damage. The doctors won’t even know how much or how bad it’s getting till he’s off ECMO so they can run an MRI scan.

It hurts my heart to think that anyone could ever believe that an omnimax god is allowing all of this to happen to such a very tiny baby, much less that typed-out prayers will have any effect on that baby’s serious condition.

But it will have an effect in one very tangible way.

All those prayers tell the parents that the community sees them, supports them, and joins them in hoping for Gus’ recovery.

That ain’t nothing, and it ain’t small.

If a prayer gets made and nobody’s around to hear it, how would anyone know it even happened?

Many years ago, when I was still married to my Evil Ex Biff, I got a close-up view of how prayer works in Christians’ lives.

He’d never been one for prayer at home. With the exception of mealtime prayers and the little prayer for safety that Pentecostals at the time always offered before driving a car, I can’t remember seeing him pray by himself, ever. He prayed in groups, yes, and after church during altar calls. But never at home with just me there. He never joined me in prayer, either.

After I deconverted, we didn’t break up right away. It didn’t even occur to me that we might, not for a very long time. Though he started a lot of arguments with me about reconversion, all of them were attempts to manipulate me into at least attending church again to maintain his reputation at church, or to help him maintain his self-image as a godly man with a godly wife in a godly marriage.

At the time, we both worked. My schedule often required me to be at my office for hours after he got home from his job in the military. But after I deconverted, suddenly he needed to pray extra-loud and extra-hard for my reconversion. And he chose to conduct these prayers only when I was actually around to hear him doing it.

He’d spend a long time wailing, howling, groaning, and screaming in baby-babble “tongues” in our bedroom’s walk-in closet. Meanwhile, I played video games in the living room. Since I am a nerd and tend to monofocus while working or playing on the computer, his racket always became a buzzing background noise. When he emerged, he’d be red all over, sweaty, tear-streaked, disheveledand pompous. He always glared daggers at me, too, like somehow I’d forced him to go to all that effort. How dared I?

Eventually, I realized he just wanted my attention. He wanted me to feel guilty for reducing him to such a state. So I began going outside the moment I saw him going into his “war room.” I’d ride my bicycle while he presumably wailed and screeched by himself. Here’s the funny thing, though:

I didn’t have to do that more than once or twice before I returned home to find him looking perfectly normal and doing stuff like normal at our home. No red face, no evidence of sweating or tears, hair looking normal, clothes all in place. 

If I wasn’t there to hear him and see the after-effects, he didn’t want to do it at all.

If you’re wondering, yes: I knew what message he communicated without realizing it, too: If I didn’t physically see and hear him praying, nothing tangible would ever tell me it happened otherwise.

Evangelicals still don’t realize they’re sending this message with how they talk about prayer

This topic’s been on my mind today, ever since I caught yet another evangelical post about prayer (archive). It appears on Baptist Press, which is the official website of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This one’s called “Praying for the lost before it’s too late,” by Kie Bowman.

He’s a big name in the SBC, an Old Guard stalwart. We’ve mentioned him before. For a long time, he pastored a two-campus church in Austin, Texas. Last year, he left that position (archive) to begin working for the SBC as their “National Director of Prayer.” 

This is a new position, one the denomination’s members demanded. It seems to distress evangelicals to know how little they actually pray. So they now pay Bowman to goose them into praying more, since nothing about prayer intrinsically sparks a need to do it regularly.

Today’s OP (Original Post) is just his latest attempt to do that.

Here’s the story he thinks will totes accomplish the goal this time:

In the 1970’s Earl liked to drink and get high with his buddies from school. When he got home late at night, reeking of weed and alcohol, he tried to tip-toe past his parents’ bedroom on the way down the hall to his own. But Earl’s parents were prayer warriors, and he often saw and heard them kneeling beside their bed, praying their son would give his life to Christ.

Eventually, Earl did repent and was saved, partly because of his parents’ persistent, loving prayers. Remembering those nights years later, Earl posed a simple question, “Can you imagine what it’s like to come stumbling home after a night of partying only to see your parents on their knees, praying for your soul?” It’s a powerful question.

Both of them think that Earl’s parents’ prayers moved their god to strong-arm Earl into belief. They think this “intercessory prayer” did something supernatural. Therefore, all evangelicals should be doing this same thing for their friends and loved ones, because look at Earl! Earl converted eventually, partially because of those prayers! Not entirely, but partially at least!

You know, this reminds me suddenly of all those magical healing miracle claims where we find out the person magically healed was in the hospital getting modern medical help for their problem, and the person’s recovery ran along wholly expected lines. But but but prayers totally helped! Partially! Sure, some tiny bit of it was the hospital and modern medical care, but prayers totally helped! Yep yep! 

I bet if we ever learned the other factors drawing Earl to conversion, we’d find none of them particularly compelling on an objective level. I think that because Bowman would have told us if they’d been similarly impressive-sounding.

Emotional manipulation vs supernatural effects of prayer

Bowman (and Earl) interpret that anecdote way differently than I do. I see it more as the parents’ emotional manipulation paying off for them in the form of a victory story they could tell at church, and the Jesus Points they get for being “partially” responsible for their wayward son’s conversion. As Bowman writes:

Intercessory prayer for lost family members and friends makes a difference when nothing else will. Prayer reaches hearts even when minds have closed.

But that’s true only if someone knows the prayer occurred and can potentially be manipulated, and even Bowman knows it. Though I don’t know who convinced my ex Biff to try very loud prayer to shame me back into compliance or impress me with his dedication or whatever, that person clearly thought it’d be effective. When it wasn’t, Biff immediately dropped the idea and fished around for another.

Earl, though, was in a different headspace. When he encountered his parents doing it, he felt shame. He felt impressed with their dedication. Those factors eventually played “partially” into his conversion.

Earl would not have known his parents prayed at all if he hadn’t personally seen them at it. That makes me wonder: If they’d never breathed a word to him about praying for his conversion, would it have happened at all?

I’m not sure Bowman actually wants his message to be: y’all can use prayer to powerfully manipulate people. But that is the one he’s sharing here.

Two ways to wage imaginary war using prayer

Mostly, Bowman wrote his OP because he’s upset about the brand-new Pew report about Nones. Yes, None-of-the-above people now outnumber all other religious groups in America. On Xitter, he’s mentioned it a couple times already, along with his usual deepities about prayer generally:

Someone’s losing a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent.

In the rest of the OP, Bowman offers two different kinds of intercessory prayer, for those evangelicals who would like to wage imaginary war on imaginary enemies for imaginary results on two imaginary fronts:

  1. The “straight-line prayer” for a specific person or group to convert
  2. Prayers for Jesus to strong-arm more Christians into evangelism and missionary work

Why not both, I suppose. It’s not like either one’s going to do anything unless the target(s) of the prayer get wind of them being made.

And the hilarious part is that Bowman even reinforces his underlying message by referencing a second anecdote in his post. Franklin Graham likes to repeat this obvious porkie pie about his father (archive):

My grandfather W. Frank Graham was part of the prayer group, and on this occasion in May 1934, he hosted the gathering on his dairy farm. That day a paper salesman named Vernon Patterson suggested they add a bold new prayer, that God would raise up someone from Charlotte who would take the Gospel to the ends of the earth.

My father, Billy Graham, who was only 15 years old, was at that moment in the barn (right) doing his after-school chores. The men were gathered at the end of the far pasture on what the family called “the second ridge”— a long, low hill beyond a small stream. None of those who prayed were thinking of young Billy, who had not yet even given his heart to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. And my father, pitching hay to the mules, was daydreaming about a career as a professional baseball player. He did not learn of the pasture prayer until years later.

Sure, I totally believe that. Don’t you? Yep. No problem. Billy Graham had no clue in the world “until years later” that his dad was part of a prayer group, that he’d convened a meeting of it at the farm, and that they were praying for Jesus to send them an evangelist. Nooooope, little teenage Billy was all the way across the farm at the time! Dude wasn’t even really a Christian at the time! He couldn’t possibly have heard them praying like that! And in addition to not hearing the prayer himself, nobody in that entire group breathed a word of their prayer to him at any point!

Yes, only a supernatural being could possibly have made Billy Graham’s evangelism career possible! It’s totally not something Billy would ever have thought to do on his own!

Pull the other one, Franklin. It’s got bells on it.

Prayer only works because of humans’ psychology and social cognition

Insofar as prayer works at all or does anything in the real world, it only happens on a personal or social level. Prayer can’t magically heal anybody, nor resurrect anybody. It can’t bring about peace, love, or even unity (as Jesus would have found out, had he been real). But it can have effects similar to meditation, and it can influence those who hear the prayers.

And that happens because of the unique way that humans’ brains have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years.

The same qualities that make people so sublimely creative and imaginative, that have made us so stunningly effective in groups, can lead us into all kinds of false ideologies. We’re just so acutely attuned to ourselves and how we relate to others. Even those of us who don’t speak fluent People, like me, use those beautifully elegant brains to make art, to hang out with those we love, to care for animals we barely even understand, to learn and grow in a thousand thousand different ways. 

In a way, religion represents (for me at least) the pitfalls of that evolution. It’s so easy to fall into those naturally-grooved lines when we experience something we don’t fully understand or encounter hard-sales emotional manipulation. It’s so easy to take ludicrous claims at face value if they make us feel good.

But we’re not prehistoric. We can do better.

And I hope that the “long arc of history” leads us to continue doing so.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

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