Prayer Habits in the U.S.A.

Everyday billions of people pray to a higher power. It is amazing that it is common practice across the world to contact and interact with a supernatural realm. Social scientists can calculate the total amount of daily prayers in the world. Anthropologists have long investigated the specific prayer rituals of believers throughout many religious traditions. However, we have very little data on why and what people pray for. We used the Baylor Religion Survey, collected between January and March of 2021, to ask several questions about Americans’ prayer habits. These questions included: 1) how they pray, 2) why they pray, 3) what they pray for, 4) to whom they pray, and 5) their emotional states during prayer. We also asked about basic demographics, such as race, education, and income.

We were careful to ask about practices and beliefs that are similar across many religious traditions. Our data is based on a random sample of a mostly-Christian American public. Therefore, our results mainly capture the prayer habits of American Christians. 

Twenty two percent of Americans say they “never pray”, but the majority of Americans do. Americans who pray more often and for longer periods of time tend to say that they are more “religious” or more “spiritual”. They also attend church more often, and belong to more theologically conservative churches. How often and how much a person prays tells you a lot about how religious they are. We also asked a series of questions about the act of praying.

How do Americans pray?

Most Americans usually fold their hands and close their eyes during prayer. Americans tend to be pretty spontaneous and unstructured in their prayer habits. A vast majority of Americans invent prayers on the spot (77%), recite memorized prayers (22%), or use a prepared list of prayer topics (5%). For Americans, praying is personal and creative rather than traditional.

Why do Americans pray?

Americans overwhelmingly indicate that they pray because they believe it makes a difference. They believe that prayer makes them a better person (71%), brings them closer to God (80%), and fixes both personal and world problems (66%). They especially believe that praying “helps others” (88%). Americans say they pray mainly because they believe that prayer helps their family, community, and country. 

Socioeconomic status, or a person’s level of education and wealth, is also related to why people say they pray. Americans with more education and wealth are less likely to believe that their prayers help others or that prayer is the best way to address problems. However, they still believe that praying can make you a better person. This suggests that wealthier and more educated Americans tend to pray for personal psychological reasons rather than as a means to change things around them. Similarly, political liberals are slightly less likely to believe that prayer helps fix problems. Perhaps they are more likely to focus on social change through action and policy, rather than prayer.

What do Americans pray for?

Mostly, Americans pray for the wellbeing of others. Praying for others increases with age and traditional beliefs but decreases with socioeconomic status and political liberalism. Different groups have different ideas of what they believe prayer can do. The least popular prayer topics overall are asking for financial aid, better health, and better relationships. Americans with more money are less likely to ask God for money. They are also less likely to pray for help with health or relationship problems. This may be because they can pay for professional help with these struggles. The things people in different groups pray for show how a person’s resources, like money, influence their beliefs about what prayer can do.

To whom do Americans pray?

Most Americans imagine a caring God who loves them and responds to their prayers. Very few Americans imagine a God who severely punishes human sinners. This is more common among African Americans, especially members of a Black Protestant church. It may suggest a unique aspect of African-American religious culture. It may contain the idea that racial oppressors, who have evaded legal justice, will one day be punished by divine justice. Younger Americans, more liberal Americans, and non-Evangelical Christians are more likely to believe in a distant or impersonal God, rather than a caring God.

How do Americans feel when they pray?

  Prayer makes Americans feel pretty good. Most Americans report feeling close to God (69%), happy (61%), cared for (54%), and relaxed (57%) during prayer.   More religious people tend to have more positive emotions while they pray. More wealthy or more liberal Americans have slightly less positive emotions. In contrast, few Americans report negative emotions during prayer, such as feeling worried (6%), tense (6%), and alone (6%). Interestingly, “spiritual” Americans are less likely to feel negative emotions than “religious” Americans. Also, women, African Americans, and political liberals are slightly more likely to feel negative prayer emotions. We don’t know yet why different groups experience negative emotions while praying. For instance, are certain groups more driven to pray because they experience more negative emotions like stress in their daily lives? Do they continue to feel these emotions while they pray?

While fewer Americans attend church or are part of a traditional religious group in recent decades, Americans still pray. Around 80% of Americans pray regularly. They tend to feel close to God and experience very positive emotions while praying. But why they pray and what they pray for are different between groups of different racial and socioeconomic status. This suggests that a person’s religious experience is related to their own life experiences.

Written By: Dr. Paul Froese

Academic Editor: Neuroscientist

Non-Academic Editor: Stay-at-Home Mom

Original Paper

• Title: Prayer in America: A Detailed Analysis of the Various Dimensions of Prayer

• Journal: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion

• Date Published: 07 November 2022

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