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What Happens When We Pray?

I recently wrote a book (When God Talks Back) about the evangelical Christianity practiced by maybe a quarter of Americans in which people seek out a personal relationship with an interactive God.[1] In these faiths, God talks back. God is actively, supernaturally powerful—he can and may step in to improve the quality of your haircut—and God is intimate. He cares about your humdrum worries; he wants to hear about them; and he wants to talk to you about them in turn. In setting out to do the research for that project, I wanted to know how a human was able to experience God in dialogue. I took it as a special case of the way people are able to feel confident that God is real—a case that seemed to make the cognitive burden of belief particularly hard. I did not, and do not, think one can foreclose the possibility that the supernatural is present. But the supernatural is by definition non-natural: not materially available to the senses. Yet in this kind of Christianity, people talk about hearing God “speak.” I wanted to know what they meant.

What I saw in the church where I did my work was that knowing God in this way was not so much a matter of belief but a matter of skill—something that you learned to do—and that the main vehicle for the learning was prayer. People usually prayed informally, and in that prayer, they conducted daydream-like conversations with God in their minds. I could see that the church invited people to develop these daydream-like dialogues in particular ways.

For instance, the church invited people to think about their minds not as private, but as containing thoughts and images and sensations they might once have understood to be internally generated, but were in fact communications from God. Not all thoughts counted: people were encouraged to attend to the texture of thought and pick out thoughts that felt “stronger” or “louder” that others, or more spontaneous. (I think it is quite possible that around the world, spontaneous thought is more likely to be attributed to an external cause than thoughts that seem connected to the flow of awareness.) People were also encouraged to pick out only thoughts that were in various ways good: they made you feel good, and they were the kinds of things a good God would say. In short, even though the church invited this informal daydream-like prayer in which people had back-and-forth conversations with God, not all daydreams were equal. People were using their expectations of God and of prayer to shape the kinds of thoughts to which they attended and with which they engaged. I could see why this practice might make outsiders uneasy, but in general I thought that the Christians I knew who prayed in this way were thoughtful about the process, and they always remained aware that they might be wrong about what God was saying to them.

The church also invited congregants to practice their dialogue with God by in effect pretending that God was present: by going for a walk with God, or by asking God what shirt he wanted them to wear. I am not suggesting here that they considered God to be imaginary or that they were doing ”mere” pretend. C.S. Lewis entitles one of the chapters of Mere Christianity “Let’s Pretend.” He suggests that we pretend in order to experience as real. That’s the invitation here. You were supposed to learn to trust your conversations with God about the things that mattered because you were used to talking to him—even about things that didn’t.

The church also invited people to practice being loved unconditionally by God in a variety of ways. People learned to talk to God as they might to a therapist, and waited to hear what this wise, sensible person might say. They learned to remind each other to see themselves from God’s point of view—not as the weak, inadequate person they felt themselves to be, but as a loving and empathic observer would see them. And they stood in for God within the prayer circle, praying out loud to someone the words they felt that God was giving them to say.

These are ways to help people experience informal prayer as not just thought, mere daydream, but as abstract conversations with an external being. That was important, because these informal conversations are, and are not, a natural way to pray. On the one hand, talking to God in your mind is something people do intuitively. It’s like talking to your absent spouse, your dead grandmother, the person you had dinner with last night, your dog. On the other hand, experiencing those back and forth conversations and not dismissing God’s response as make-believe—that’s hard for people, particularly in a secular society. For some people, it may even be a stretch to call informal talk “prayer.” The great scholar of contemporary Catholic experience, Robert Orsi, remarked to me that before Vatican II, what most Catholics meant by the word “prayer” was the recitation of specific formal scripts. That was something the evangelical pastor Ken Wilson said to me, too. As a young boy, he explained, what it meant to pray was to recite something like the Our Father: words written by someone else and memorized by the person who prayed.  Not that his family prayed much, he said, but they said grace. Then came the sixties, and he met a man who “talked about Jesus as his friend, as someone that he knew.  It was language that we had never heard associated with God.” They had this man to dinner and invited him to give thanks—he was a religious man—and “he’d turn and he would just speak in a conversational tone of voice to God as if God was in the room.”  They were shocked—and soon hooked to a different kind of prayer life.

As an anthropologist, I could also see that newcomers to this kind of church would begin by saying that God didn’t talk to them. Yet after some months they would sometimes report that they could recognize God’s voice the way they recognized their mother’s voice on the phone. I could see, then, that having an informal conversation with prayer in your mind—what Christians in this church called prayer–involved learning. I also thought that the learning changed something about the experience of mind. Now I shifted my methods from ethnography to experiment to see if I could replicate these ethnographic observations and understand them more deeply. I brought in over a hundred people and randomized them to prayer practice or to lectures on the gospels, and I found that those in the prayer group were more likely to report more vivid mental images; that they seemed to use mental images more; that they reported more unusual sensory experiences and more intense spiritual experiences; that they experienced God more as a person, felt his presence more, and interacted with him more often.[2]

That part of When God Talks Back presents claims about religion I take to be generally true of this kind of prayer practice. I argued that paying attention to what one imagines makes the world of the mind more vivid, and that this was central to understanding imagination-rich prayer.

More specifically, I suggested that there is a specific practice (inner sense cultivation) common to spiritual traditions in which someone sees, hears, touches and so forth in the imagination, and that this practice has two consequences:

a.     that using sensory imagination makes what is imagined feel more real

b.     that attributing significance to inner sensation generates unusual experience: sensory overrides (or hallucinations, though the term is one that some people associate primarily with mental illness, an association I reject) but also a near tangible sense of presence and a range of other powerful spiritual phenomena

The ethnographic and experimental work supports a theoretical model which explains how such phenomena might emerge out of ordinary cognitive process. If, as some psychologists have argued, imagery and perception depend on many of the same neural structures, increased attention to mental imagery should have some effects on a range of image-related cognitive processes: on perceptual processing, on the use of imagery, on unusual sensory experience, and on the vividness of imagery itself. My work was able to show that the increased attention has the consequences implied by the model, but not until now supported by experimental evidence: that the practice of intentionally attending to mental imagery increases subjective vividness and increases the reporting of unusual sensory experience. These findings suggest that paying attention to mental imagery alters the subject’s awareness of such inner phenomena to the extent that that it alters the subject’s decision about what the subject perceives to be real.

Let me be clear: I am not claiming anything about whether God is or is not real, or about whether what someone reports to be a word from God is, in fact, God’s word. If you are reading this essay as a Christian, you should be asking: if God is always speaking, why do only some people hear? Instead, I am arguing that these prayer practices in which people imagine conversations with God in their minds really change people, because their inner world becomes more and more vivid over time. Prayer changes people not only because of what they say in prayer, but because the very act of imagining God and paying attention to the thoughts which count as God’s responses shape the very texture of inner experience. This is something the church fathers and the medieval mystics knew well. They sought to replace the human content of the imagination—the building blocks of the mind, the monks called them—with scripture, so that the stories and phrases from the holy text came alive to them and became the bedrock of the way they configured their world. My work suggests that these practices really work.

[1] A 2006 Pew Research Center survey found that they could identify 23 percent of Americans as “renewalist” Christians who sought an experientially vivid relationship with a personal God.

[2] This more experimental work is published in Luhrmann, Nusbaum and Thisted 2010; Luhrmann and Morgain 2012; Luhrmann, Nusbaum and Thisted 2013.


Discussion Questions

1. What do you think are the most important elements in prayer practice?


2. Do you see differences in personality or interest between those who like to pray a lot and those who do not?


3. Many people have observed that women pray more than men. It is also true that women score slightly more highly in absorption than men. Do you think that might account for the difference? What else might?

Discussion Summary


A number of commentators asked about what I’ll call the key elements of prayer and about what is fundamentally real. I’d like to ask, in this concluding comment, how my work contributes to the cognitive science of religion, arguably the most important theory of religion to have emerged from the social sciences for many decades. The striking achievement of these anthropologists and psychologists has been to demonstrate that a fundamental feature of human cognition–the differences between intuitive and reflective, or deliberative, belief–has significant implications for understanding religion. This is the difference between the way we think when we think quickly, automatically and near-instinctively and the process of slow rational analysis (see Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow). They have shown that the wide range of theologies we find across the world are undergirded by intuitions that have evolved to help us live in our everyday world. Stewart Guthrie (Faces in the Clouds) suggests that our need to be alert to predators probably led to a hyper-awareness of possible agents. People intuit invisible agents because they see animation in inanimate objects. Pascal Boyer (Religion Explained) argues that religion is in effect a by-product of cognitive evolution. The way we draw inferences has developed over time, and that development produces cognitive expectations. We look for social others, and the surprising sameness of gods around the world (gods are remarkably human-like) is probably not unconnected to the way we remember—that we attend to novelty, but too much of it. Justin Barrett (Why Would Anyone Believe in God) points out that (in addition to the above) the developmental trajectories of young children contribute to the expectation of an invisible, all knowing God. Children do not realize that others cannot read their minds until around three, but that expectation lingers in their sense of a God who still knows all they think. These expectations become cognitive modules, mental tools, that evolve to help us make sense of the world fast when we need to—and, as a consequence, lead us to find agents who know what we are thinking, demand our right behavior, and punish us when we do wrong. “Why would anyone believe in God?” Barrett asks. “The design of our minds leads us to believe.”

I think that my work demonstrates that there is a third category of phenomena: practices which create specific experiences deemed religious, to use Ann Taves’ (Religious Experience Reconsidered) useful phrase. While our intuitions may lead us to infer an invisible agent, sustaining the sense that God is present within our cool rational framework can be hard. That, I suggest, is what prayer does, and why it takes work. After all, when you look out of the corner of your eye, you might think that you see the cat on the sofa, but if it disappears when you look more carefully, you form the rational belief that the cat is not there. It is one thing to infer the supernatural late at night when alone in the house; quite another at noon on a sunny day. What prayer does is to enable the person praying to override the rational inhibition that would reject the presence of an invisible other by allowing the person a richer sense of an inner sensory awareness of God’s presence.

That work will be necessary in any social world. But it will be most important—or perhaps, most clearly emphasized as important—in a world where people explicitly struggle with secular doubt. That, I think, is why these experiential practices have grown more important in recent decades. In any setting, God is in effect made “real” by elaborate effort: chanting, asserting, building a costly cathedral in which such a powerful God might live. In any setting, the sheer effort people invest in connecting to their God suggests that they must overcome inherent doubt—not, perhaps, doubt that the ancestors are real, but doubt that the ancestors care, will listen or will respond. As the consensus about God decreases, however, it becomes more important for people to experience God’s presence personally and intimately. That emphasis probably explains the spread of experiential spirituality within the United States. It may also explain the rapid spread of Pentecostalism around the world.

Besides which, all that intense spiritual practice—it’s fun.  That’s not a solemn anthropological thesis. But it’s probably important.

New Big Questions:

  1. How do different social worlds—and, I would add different local ideas about what constitutes the mind—shape our spiritual experience?
  2. How much difference do different prayer practices make to the experience of God or the divine?