Prayer in Western culture is near exclusively Christian, whether Catholic or Protestant. Christianity stands alone in the major religions by its lack of a mystical tradition. Judaism, Mohammedanism, Buddhism, and Hinduism all have mystical elements in their histories. It is a sad legacy that Christianity does not; even with the Luther Reformation, no mystics.
Well, none that were allowed to leave a literary record might be more accurate. All the real or speculative reasons for this are moot arguments. Exploration of spirituality beyond the approved texts has been and continues to be, strongly discouraged in Western theology. This absence of a mystical tradition is a significant reason why the practice of prayer is so often a misguided one.
Prayer is Asking God for Something
In America, prayer is used almost exclusively to ask God for something that the one praying does not have. Even if the prayer is asking for a blessing, it is still a request and a plea for a gift. This is magical thinking, not much different from love spells and wishing on a star. It may seem simple, to ask for healing or safety during hazardous times. It is not simple; it is, in fact, simplistic.
The intention is to influence coming events by calling on Divine intercession in the ordinary course of events. This doesn’t work. This intention shows strong indications of barely-buried uncertainty, much akin to a child’s fear of the dark. If the person who prays feels better for having prayed, even if they did not receive their boon, it’s an unfair, inaccurate statement to say that in this instance, prayer worked because it produced an unintended derivative benefit. It’s like calling a taxi that never arrives but feeling really good about having used the phone.
There may be no other pursuit, except astrology, where the bar is set so low for success. A .250 batting average is considered dismal, yet it succeeds in one out of four attempts. Deceit, such as a placebo can make one feel better, too, but that was its intention. So using a placebo approaches some degree of honesty and if it doesn’t make the patient feel better, there’s nothing lost. Feeling better after prayer and not receiving the requested ‘gift,’ then saying that this worked is just dishonest.
When prayer and gift coincide
In the rare event, when prayer and gift coincide, it should stand up to some statistical analysis, and generate a percentage. The phenomena can’t and statistics like this are, again, strongly discouraged. Many people who don’t pray, including atheists, are as likely to get a windfall as those who pray conscientiously. For prayer to work, these folks should be excluded from benefits and it doesn’t work in that fashion.
Michael Greer in “Paths of Wisdom,” had what might be the best description of prayer. He said that the intention of prayer is not to influence the Almighty so that one can receive favors, but to influence the one who prays. In this, a connection is invited. It is also the primary intent in Muslim and Jewish prayer and, more importantly, this is how prayer can work. A key to prayer is that the connection is never induced, just fostered.
In this manner, prayer does not differ so much from meditation and being still. These activities also work for their intended aim. The distinctions between this kind of prayer, meditation and being still, seem irrelevant, and advocating prayer as the only means of attaining spiritual benefit is an unsupportable bias.