The Humanist Dilemma: : Can Prayer Create Energy to Change the World?

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The Physics of Prayer: I have been pondering this question for many years and have only recently found that I can ask someone like you to help me understand or answer it. It has to do with so-called prayer and quantum mechanics.

I’m an atheist, so I don’t follow a religion or believe there is a higher power, such as a god, that governs humans, but where I get stuck is on prayer. To me, I see individual prayer as eliciting energy, and on a grander scale where you add more individual prayer, you illicit more energy.

So, in following quantum mechanics where energy is directed, could a lot of people praying for the same outcome be like quantum mechanics where energy is directed?

I don’t know if I’m phrasing this question right so that it makes sense for you to perhaps see a correlation with the purpose of directing energy, although I would prefer a different terminology than the word “prayer” as that word has a religious connotation, but I would love to hear your thoughts to get a clearer understanding of my own perplexed mind.

—Powerful Vibes?


Dear Vibes,

I’m pretty sure I understand your question, but also pretty sure I don’t understand physics well enough to answer it from that perspective.

I can venture, however, that there have been rigorous scientific studies to measure whether prayers have any effect, and the answer has been a resounding no (and less rigorous studies that show the opposite). If prayers were replaced by non-religious wishes, the result would probably be the same. People in war-torn nations and places devastated by natural disasters are likely to pray quite a bit, religiously or secularly, and millions of well-meaning people around the world send their thoughts and prayers, with no discernible results—unless they are accompanied by funds, goods, or labor.

On the other hand, prayers or secular positive thoughts often make people feel good, and that may, to some degree, affect actual outcomes, or more importantly, perceived outcomes. It’s widely recognized that positive thinking can help performance, as seen in athletes who envision themselves hitting a home run, delivering a killer serve, or sticking their landing. Pep rallies, cheerleaders, and stands full of enthusiastic fans can boost a team’s performance (while booing or heckling can rattle players). This is because confidence, expectations, and support—or lack thereof—can have very powerful psychological influences, which in turn affects performance. In an election, the more people who express their enthusiasm for one candidate, whether it’s through vocal public prayer or non-religious praise or bumper stickers and lawn signs, the more likely that candidate will win—enthusiasm can be contagious, and humans tend to be herd animals who go along with (and vote with) their group.

We also know that placebos—medications with no active ingredients whatsoever—can be highly effective, not only when people believe they are getting actual medicine, but even when they are aware that they are taking sugar pills. (Although I can understand how the former works, the latter baffles me.)

As a person who doesn’t really get how things like electricity or the Internet work, I accept that they exist, and I allow that—to paraphrase Shakespeare—more things are possible than are dreamt of in my philosophy. Maybe some kind of quantum mechanics, as you say, generated by masses of people rooting for the same outcome can have some sort of real-world effect, even if it’s not as direct and simple as immediately achieving the desired outcome. Perhaps the effect is more like priming people to embrace attitudes and perspectives that lead to action favoring the desired results. For example, consider how long it’s taking to achieve civil rights and equality for women and minorities, yet LGBTQ rights have been quickly gaining ground. Perhaps the prayers and wishes for one paved the way for progress on another.

When you come right down to it, one of the most powerful forces in life is hope—an intangible feeling that makes all the difference not only in what we can achieve but also in what we can aspire to. If we have no hope, we don’t even try. But when enough people hope for the same thing, they are likely to find a way to make it happen—especially if they aren’t just asking some supernatural construct to step in and do it for them.

Do we have any physicists out there who can provide a more scientific answer to this question?


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