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The Way We Live Now

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Read the article posted below. Parts of the article are difficult. Try your best at understanding what you can. We will be discussing this article in class together.


You should be able to answer all of the questions on a separate sheet of paper with an appropriate heading


1. What are the three major reasons that people pray, according to the research quoted in this article?

2. Define the term "petitionary prayer."

3. In your own words, summarize the point of the first two sentences of the last paragraph.


The Way We Live Now: The Other National Conversation

By Jim Holt

Published: November 7, 2004


The United States is a prayerful nation. Eight out of 10 Americans say they pray daily, or at least weekly. Only 9 percent say they never pray. The most commonly mentioned reasons for prayer, according to a 2002 Christian Science Monitor survey, are to seek guidance (cited by 62 percent of the prayerful), to give thanks or praise (54 percent) and to beg for forgiveness (47 percent). Some Americans admit to asking specific favors from the deity they address, whether healing (45 percent) or something else (43 percent). According to a study by the National Institutes of Health, the use of prayer for healing easily outstrips other alternative medical therapies like acupuncture, yoga and massage.


Prayers asking God for something -- good health, better weather, victory in war or in football -- are called petitionary prayers. Do they do any good? This is a question that scientific researchers have been exploring with the help of $2.3 million in controversial financing from the federal government. In one study published a few years ago (and being scrutinized for possible irregularities), women in a South Korean fertility clinic who were prayed for by Christian groups in the United States and elsewhere became pregnant at nearly twice the rate as an unprayed-for control group after in vitro fertilization. In another study, still under way, doctors at a San Francisco hospital inflict a tiny stab wound in the abdomens of women who are having breast-reconstruction surgery to see if prayer speeds the healing.


Few would doubt that prayer may have some healing power that is perfectly consistent with science. Perhaps it induces a state of calm that strengthens the immune system. (In one study, people being treated for psoriasis healed four times as fast if they meditated.) This natural healing effect may even migrate from one person to another. If I believe in the power of prayer, and I know that someone is praying for me to recover from an illness, that reassuring knowledge could well have a psychosomatic curative effect. But prayer researchers are interested in supernatural effects -- effects brought about by the intervention of a deity -- and they design their experiments accordingly. In the South Korean fertility-clinic study, for example, the patients supposedly had no idea they were being prayed for, and the Christian groups doing the praying were given no identifying information about the intended beneficiaries beyond their photos.


Some scientists are outraged that government money is being spent on such research. On the other side, some religious figures worry that putting God to the test in this way ''cheapens religion.'' More philosophically-minded thinkers, however, have been mystified that anyone would be presumptuous enough to entreat God for favors. After all, if what you ask God for is just, he has already resolved to do it, and your prayer betrays a lack of trust. If what you ask him to do is unjust, your prayer is an insult. The British philosopher D.Z. Phillips has insisted that all ''real'' petitionary prayer reduces to the core of the prayer Jesus taught to his disciples: ''Thy will be done.''


A world in which a deity routinely granted the petitions of his worshipers could be downright dangerous -- which is, perhaps, the point that Ralph Waldo Emerson was trying to get across in this 19th-century anecdote: ''The minister at Sudbury, being at the Thursday lecture in Boston, heard the officiating clergyman praying for rain. As soon as the service was over, he went to the petitioner and said, 'You Boston ministers, as soon as a tulip wilts under your windows, go to church and pray for rain, until all Concord and Sudbury are under water.'''


But Americans today do not spend most of their devotional time trying to induce God to intervene in the world, if we can take them at their word. They lean more toward the ''higher'' forms of prayer, those expressing adoration, thanksgiving and repentance. Their inward thoughts, they believe, are conveyed directly to the deity. (One contemporary philosopher has observed, only half-facetiously, that God gave us consciousness so he could know what we were thinking.) And there are more mystical prayer states -- prayers of ''silence,'' of ''union'' -- that do not presuppose a communicative channel to God, but simply enjoyment of a divine presence.


One of the more surprising findings about the prayer habits of Americans is that even some unbelievers seem to pray. A 1993 survey by the National Opinion Research Center in Chicago, for instance, revealed that 14 percent of those without religion pray every day. ''They may be hedging their bets,'' commented the Rev. Andrew Greeley, who oversaw the study. To whom do they address themselves? The classic prayer for the agnostic is, ''O God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul.'' The atheist's prayer, however, is more problematic. Miguel de Unamuno, a Spanish philosopher-poet who oscillated between faith and doubt, suggested: ''Hear my prayer, O God who does not exist! Thou art so great that Thou art mere idea.'' Some atheists may be tempted to beseech God to preserve them from the follies of those who believe in him.


It is hard to imagine a prayer that could unite all Americans. The very phrase ''under God'' in the Pledge of Allegiance is an affront not only to atheists but also to American adherents of the great nontheistic religions of the East, like Hinduism and Buddhism. Alexander Pope's ''Universal Prayer'' -- which begins, ''Father of all! in every age,/In every clime adored,/By saint, by savage, and by sage,/Jehovah, Jove, or Lord!'' -- is an inspired try, but it leaves out Allah. In the end, the least imperfect prayer, in respect of both universality and succinctness, may well be the one devised by Monty Python: ''O Lord, we beseech thee, amen.''

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