Prayer: How does it work?

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Prayer: How does it work?

Surveys show that 75 percent of Americans say they pray at least once a week. Studies have associated prayer with various social, economic and health benefits. But by what mechanism does an intimate “audience” with God confer those benefits?

Woman's face from nose up; she has her eyes closed, hand held to forehead, and looks sad

Photo: flickr
A new study suggests how prayer may alleviate some of the distress caused by domestic violence.

Those questions are begging for answers, says Shane Sharp, author of a study published this week that looked at prayer among 62 past or present victims of domestic violence.

Using interviews, Sharp, a graduate student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, inquired about the impact of prayer. “I got into this sort of serendipitously,” he says. “I was looking at how religion influences the experience of intimate partner abuse victims, and I found that often prayer was helpful in managing negative emotions: anger, fear, depression. I looked at this as an opportunity to explain just how prayer was helping these individuals manage emotions.”

Power of interviews

Young man in military uniform on one knee with rosary dangling from his right hand

Photo ca 1951, U.S. Dept. of Defense
A Marine prays for his unit just before an offensive against entrenched communist troops in Korea.

While sociologists traditionally rely on statistics to paint their pictures of modern lives, Sharp prefers in-depth interviews, a semi-journalistic approach that can take as long as two hours per person. “We try to understand social processes from the individual’s perspective,” he says. “I wanted to know how this was working through people’s eyes.”

Sharp contacted women in shelters in the Midwest, South, San Francisco and East Coast, and explored prayer in the context of the abuse experience. To those who wondered why a man might be interested in domestic violence, Sharp explained that he’d witnessed it as a child, and wanted to relate his interest in religion to the issue.

About 95 percent of the women Sharp talked to had experienced both physical and psychological abuse, he reported; the others had faced a single category.

Although there are, reputedly, “no atheists in foxholes,” Sharp did turn up a few atheists in the shelters. The others affiliated with a variety of Christian denominations, and “the vast majority” did pray in response to abuse, he says.

Sharp says one woman told him that prayer helped manage her sadness and depression. “When she prayed to God, she felt like there was somebody out there who cared about her, who saw her as someone of value.” In the words of a second woman, “When I pray, I feel like I am worth something. [Otherwise] I don’t feel like anyone values me.”

Sharp said prayer can help an abuse victim by allowing her to

express anger and frustration to a loving, caring, and non-judgmental “other”

hear a positive voice that contradicts the abuser’s verbal slurs

feel that her situation is less dangerous, since God would protect her

tiny cross allow her to “zone out” and briefly forget a threatening situation

forgive her abuser, emulating a forgiving God

The last example shows a negative side to prayer, Sharp says. “Forgiving might help her deal with her anger after she has left the relationship, but if it takes away the emotional motivation to leave, if she forgives and remains, prayer could be a double-edged sword.”

In a recent study of the wives of conservative Christian abusers, Sharp found, “They often remain in abusive marriages longer than they want to because of biblical prohibitions on divorce. But some reinterpreted scripture to develop a religious justification for divorce. There is good and bad here. Religion can keep you in an abusive situation longer than you’d like, or it can help you escape it.”

African man and woman in dress clothes with praying hands held up. more African churchgoers in background

Photo: flickr
A new study finds that conversing with an “imaginary other” can explain many of the emotional benefits of prayer.

Who’s on the other end?

Sharp views prayer as interacting with an “imagined other,” which, almost paradoxically, requires that the person doing the praying believe that God is real. “I define prayer as an imaginary interaction with a deity; if people said they were talking to God, that was good enough for me,” he says.

The form of the prayer was irrelevant, Sharp adds. “Whether they held their hands up or were just lying down in bed, whether they were doing it in a community or in isolation, they were interacting with God. You believe there is somebody, some other, that is hearing you.”

An “imagined other” has advantages in the context of domestic violence, Sharp adds. “In a lot of cases, victims, because of the isolation tactics of abusers, don’t have anybody else. In the moment of conflict, when you need something to calm yourself down, to alleviate your fear, God is right there.”

There’s another benefit. “Because of the stigma of abuse, women are often ashamed and don’t want to talk to others, but they already think God knows everything, and so they can open up.”

— David J. Tenenbaum


Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


  1. Pew Forum: religion and science.
  2. Relationship between science and religion.
  3. Prayer and health.
  4. Religion and psychological well-being.
  5. Prayer as coping.
  6. Religion and coping.
  7. Sociology of religion.
  8. How Does Prayer Help Manage Emotions? Shane Sharp, Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 73, No. 4, 417-437, 2010.