The science of prayer

Around a quarter of the world’s two billion Christians now sign up to the Pentecostalist or neo-Pentecostalist belief that God talks to them. That includes some educated people like, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury. How is this possible, in an era of rising education and living standards? Is the world going mental? One social scientist who has looked into the question deeply is Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, who brought out an excellent book last year called When God Talks Back.

Members of the Vineyard Church bless the new Archbishop of Canterbury and his wife

Luhrmann spent two years among the members of Vineyard churches in Chicago and California. Vineyard is one of a new breed of charismatic Protestant churches, like Calvery Chapel, Saddleback, and HTB in the UK. This ‘neo-Pentecostalist’ sort of Christianity emerged in the 1960s, as baby-boomers raised on rock & roll and LSD returned to Christianity and sought a more intense, personal and supernatural relationship with God.

At the heart of this type of Christianity is the idea that we can build a intimate and loving relationship with God. The Almighty, Luhrmann suggests, has evolved in the last forty years from a distant and forbidding Father to a best friend, even a boyfriend, who loves us unconditionally, and to whom we can pour out our every thought (should I move to San Francisco, is that girl interested in me, does my bum look big in this?) God will talk back and tell us what to do, through words, images, dreams, signs and intense emotional experiences.

But how does God talk back? And isn’t hearing a Divine Voice a classic sign of psychosis? Luhrmann says that talking with God takes practice, and she follows some of the stages of training that charismatic Christians go through. Initially, for new Christians, it feels weird to pray to a God we can’t see or hear. Christian teachers encourage an attitude of ‘make-believe’, or what Luhrmann calls ‘adult play’. She quotes CS Lewis, who says of prayer: ‘Let us pretend in order to make the pretence a reality.’

One of the stunning paintings on the walls of San Marco in Florence, by Fra Angelico

Visualization exercises are a very good way of making the pretence a reality. The early Christians spoke of ‘painting the soul’ with images, and that idea inspired Christian art like the convent of San Marco in Florence, where in each room a mural depicts a scene from Christ’s life. It also inspired the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola, which Luhrmann tried out and which had a profound effect on her (she writes ‘Even now I can remember the weeks we spent en route to Bethlehem’).

She traces the emotional components of prayer – above all, learning to accept the idea that God loves you unconditionally. She reflects that charismatic churches offer their congregants a form of free therapy, ‘and whereas the human therapist takes the client’s money and goes away, God sticks around for all eternity. It is a remarkably effective system, if you can take it seriously.’

Charismatic Christians believe some people are naturally better at prayer than others, but that we can all ‘improve’ at prayer. Luhrmann suggests prayer-skill is correlated with the psychological state known as ‘absorption’, which means the capacity to have ‘moments of total attention that somehow completely engage all of one’s attentional resources’, giving people ‘a heightened sense of the reality of the attentional object…and an altered sense of reality in general’. She suggests that expert ‘prayer-warriors’ have naturally high levels of absorption, but we can all develop this skill though practices like imaginative prayer.

She tested out this out via an experiment. She found 128 Christians, and gave them one of three recordings to listen to each day, for a month. One involved listening to Psalms and imagining a conversation with Jesus; the second involved trying to empty one’s mind of any thoughts; and the third involved listening to an academic lecture on the Gospels. Those participants who followed the first exercise had, by the end of the month, much more vivid images of God, more of a sense of God speaking to them, and more peace. The daily practice of imaginative prayer increased their sense of God’s reality and presence, until they really felt that God was talking to them. (Listening to the academic lectures, by contrast, made participants feel more stressed!)

The fruits of prayer, Luhrmann suggests, are emotional – peace, gratitude, joy, hope and so on – but they’re also experiential. Charismatic Christians report ‘break throughs’ after practice, where they think God talks back to them. They begin to discern certain words or images in their stream of consciousness, which they take as divine messages. They then need to test the message out by asking others in their community their opinion, or checking the Scriptures, or perhaps by asking God for further confirmations or signs.

Luhrmann’s subjects are aware that this will sound insane to most people, and they preface their descriptions of God talking back with phrases like ‘I know this sounds weird but…’ She suggests that charismatic Christians’ need for a direct connection to God comes not from some primitive rejection of modernity but from a modern, Skeptical need to really feel God’s presence in their thoughts, feelings and life, rather than trusting in the testimony of Scripture. We are all doubting Thomases these days.

Does Luhrmann herself believe Someone is Out There? She seems to be a sort of postmodernist, or magical realist, believing that we make Gods almost-real by the daily practice of imaginative prayer. In an earlier study, she lived among neo-Pagans in the UK, and participated in their visualisation exercises for several months, until one morning she saw six druids standing outside her window!

She suggests a multiple worlds theory of reality, in which different cultures create different worlds through their imaginative practices, like programmers and players co-creating World of Warcraft or Second Life. And she seems to think, by the end of the book, that you could do a lot worse than joining and co-creating a virtual world filled with compassionate people, ruled by a God who loves you unconditionally. Building a vivid and loving ‘God-concept’ is, Luhrmann suggests, good for you.

The Anglican Cathedral in Second Life

At least, it is most of the time. If you believe in an all-loving, all-powerful God who cares about us all, you have to explain why the world is in such a mess and so many lives are blighted. Evangelical Christians do this, often, by having an equally vivid sense of the Devil’s agency. And believing in devils too vividly can mess you up. One of Luhrmann’s principle subjects, a lady called Sarah who prays for three or four hours a day, slides into mental illness when she sees an ‘imp’ run across her bed and becomes convinced she is possessed. She is ultimately hospitalized, released, and then becomes adamant that God has chosen her to be an evangelist about mental illness.

Luhrmann’s postmodernist attitude to religion is all the rage these days. It’s there in Book of Mormon, the message of which can be summed up as ‘hey, it’s a crazy myth, but isn’t everything?’ It’s there in recent books by John Gray and Simon Critchley, both of whom try to find a ‘sacred fiction’ they can sort-of-believe in. It’s there in Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists, which says, of course religion isn’t true, but it’s still useful. I even hear the imp of postmodernism in some Christians I meet, who say things like ‘I choose to believe, because the world would be a dull and grey place if I didn’t.’

But I don’t want to feel that I’ve somehow flinched in the face of reality, and taken flight into a fairy tale. I’m sure that wasn’t what CS Lewis or JRR Tolkien intended either – they both fought in the trenches of the Somme, after all, and knew something about how bad life can be.  I need my philosophy to fit with all the facts of life, not just the comforting ones. I want it not just to fill me with joy (though that’s important) but also to help me confront the true depth of human suffering and cruelty, and have the strength to carry on. Otherwise, as Major Thomas Jarrett puts it in my book, ‘your philosophy is a Starbucks philosophy’, and it won’t stand up long when the storms come.


In other news:

Here’s a piece on the scientific work of self-professed ‘neurotheologist’ Andrew Newberg, on how prayer affects our brains.

Here’s a Guardian piece on an interesting new study that shows rats’ brains still light up 30 seconds after their hearts have stopped, providing a possible insight into near-death experiences – could they be ‘the brain’s last hurrah’, a sort of scrambled last attempt to make sense of the body shutting down? Or could the brain scan be catching something else – a door opening rather than closing?

That study is a good example of some of the interesting cross-disciplinary work being done on ‘religious’ or ‘out-of-the-ordinary’ experiences at the moment. Here’s another – a piece by Chris French of Goldsmith’s on sleep paralysis, which is becoming better understood as a cross-cultural phenomenon, probably linked to what scientists call  the brain’s ‘hyperactive agency detection device’. We wake up, feel weird, and then attribute that to an imp or goblin or what-have-you.

In that vein, here’s a brief interview with Ann Taves, a leading scholar of religion, whose recent book, Religious Experience Reconsidered, lays out the groundwork for cross-disciplinary work on anomalous experiences like visions, voices etc.

Ritalin prescriptions for ADHD rose by 50% in the last six years in the UK.

This NYRB article on Rio’s violent favelas is stunning.

Here’s Professor Chris Gill, one of my colleagues in the Stoicism and Therapy project at Exeter, talking about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Here’s the new editor of the New Humanist, declaring a truce after the religion wars.

Here’s an article on how we’re entering the Third Carbon Age (or, as I like to call it, accelerating towards the cliff).

In a few weeks, I’ll be talking at the Happinez festival in Holland, where I will be discussing ‘learning to savour the moment, with the Book of Job’.

And finally, here’s a baby gorilla reacting to the cold of a stethoscope just after being born. I know, mate, life is full of harsh surprises!

See you next week,



  • carel muller says:

    Again an extremely well written piece.I aways enjoy your posts.

    By the way: it is 30 seconds, not thirty minutes the rat’s hurray.
    This finding has, for the time being, nothing to do with NDE,though NDE deniers jump on it gladly.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Ah yes, thanks Carel.

  • Olly says:

    There is a curiously strong connection between Shamanism and Evangelical Christianity, both of which you mentioned that Luhrmann has hung out with and observed. And interestingly both are in the spiritual ascendancy at the moment in the West. Both put a huge premium on direct experience, ecstasy (c.f. Eliade’s book “Shamanism: the archaic techniques of ecstasy”), music as a spiritual vehicle, imaginative flights into a visualisable transcendental world, and healing self/others through the mind and through a purification process. They also both take the problem of evil very seriously. They both put a big premium on bringing personal experiences to a community for discussion and validation, and both even have glossolalia phenomena. There are of course enormous differences too, and they don’t have much time for each other. Shame. I am signed up to do a course on shamanic journeying. Will be interesting to see what’s down the end of that particular rabbit hole!

  • Jules Evans says:

    Yes – I guess one link is Pythagoras and Plato, who connect a Greek tradition of shamanism and ecstasy to Christianity. There’s a link also to the mystery cults of ancient Greece – the corybantic and Eleusinian mysteries, which were big on dancing and music. Aldous Huxley once damned the Salvation Army by calling it ‘corybantic Christianity’, to which GK Chesterton replied, ‘all Christianity is corybantic’!

    My hesitation with Shamanism is that we have little remaining of the tradition, not much in the way of ancient texts, or of a continuous tradition of teachers. So is it fair to describe it as in some ways quite a recent invention, comparable to, say, Wicca? Which is not to say thats a bad thing – in Christianity, there’s plenty of Scripture, but that almost makes it harder, as you read some of it and think, crikey, I have to sign up to this?? Even the Psalms, it’s still so much ‘and then please God smite my enemy and take his land’. Well…I am starting a theology course in September, Saturday mornings. We shall see what all this wrestling produces. Which reminds me – Jacob’s dream of the heavenly ladder, very Shamanic!

  • Miraaj says:

    ‘I need my philosophy to fit with all the facts of life, not just the comforting ones.I want it not just to fill me with joy (though that’s important) but also to help me confront the true depth of human suffering and cruelty, and have the strength to carry on.’

    I struggle to understand why you would lay claim to a certain philosophy like that. It seems to be in bad taste to me. It seems a philosophy would probably have more power over you than you would over it.

    And it seems a philosophy that is strong belongs to nobody in particular, and should be available to all who are good and intelligent enough to recognize it.

    You also say you want your philosophy to fill you with joy and give you the strength to carry on. I think the kind of an attitude indicated by your words may be deleterious to the pursuit of Truth as it seems that you are taking the study of philosophy too personally.

    Richard Dawkins seems to take pleasure, which seems to be a form of joy, in the idea that he is strong enough to face the facts regardless of whether the Truth will be pleasant or not. It seems that although you value that kind of an attitude, you may be sullying the purity of such an impersonal sentiment by being so desirous or so conscious of the idea of joy.

    In other words I think when it comes to philosophy and the study of nature and Truth, the best qualities to possess would be things like honesty and sincerity, and I don’t think joy in itself should really be a tool by which an individual should seek to align oneself with the Truth.

    It was nice to visit your website.


  • Olly says:

    Indeed, shamanism has few texts that I know of. It’s not very texty. It’s pure practice really – a set of practices for creating an altered state of consciousness that allows access to spirit world, or ‘the antipodes of the mind’ to use Huxley’s phrase, with the intent of healing self or other. It’s origins are of course ancient, but its current form is new, I’m sure, insofar as in the past it would have been thick with indigenous mythology, but now it’s been shorn back to just the practices. I’ve now done two journeys with the shaman Zoe Bran, just using drumming as the stimulus (no drugs!). What was interesting is the mix of imagery. Everything from psychedelic pinky/red landscapes, cavemen, human/insect beings, loving spirit guides, singing angels, and even God replete with beard. At one point, I was led by a spirit guide, we were running down a white path which then disappeared into a mystical/ecstatic encounter with an almost featureless and luminous celestial realm/being (at which point I burst out crying). Powerful stuff. 2 down, 3 to go.

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