Many Americans seem eager this week to see the phrase “thoughts and prayers” die a good platitude’s death. After the worst mass shooting in U.S. history took the lives of 59 Las Vegas concertgoers Sunday night, a sentiment meant to express solidarity sounded to some like cold comfort. When tweeted by elected officials who could feasibly pass tighter gun-control laws, the phrase struck people as not only irritating, but also potentially dangerous: What if uttering this hollow but nice-sounding sentiment allows legislators to bypass the “real” work of passing better laws? What if it allows all of us to avoid the concrete political work of pressuring them to do so? When the public stakes are so high, the argument goes, a nation cannot afford to retreat to private spirituality: Instead, we must act.
But prayer is not inaction. I would argue that it is perhaps the most powerful form of action you can engage in during a crisis—and that’s true whether you believe in God or not. There are good reasons why prayer remains a daily activity for more than half of all Americans (55 percent), including about one in five religiously unaffiliated people or “nones.” Even for those of us who aren’t sure that God exists and that our prayer can change God, prayer can certainly change us.
Neuroscientific research conducted over the past few decades has found that prayer can radically reshape the human brain, leading to increased focus and peace. In the 1990s, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg famously studied the brain scans of 150 people from different religions, from Franciscan nuns to Buddhist monks. He found that those who engaged deeply in prayer for 12 minutes a day over a couple of months had activated frontal lobes and quiet parietal lobes. The result? Those who prayed regularly were more focused, less anxious, and felt more connected to other people.
Sara Lazar expanded on Newberg’s findings in 2014. A Harvard neuroscientist, Lazar had been surprised to find how much her life improved as a result of meditating for a few minutes during yoga classes, which she initially attended purely as a form of physical therapy. So she conducted several studies and found that a half-hour of meditation each day yielded differences in brain volume after just eight weeks. Brain scans showed thickening in four areas: the posterior cingulate (involved in mind wandering), the left hippocampus (involved in learning, cognition, memory, and emotional regulation), the temporoparietal junction (involved in empathy and compassion), and the pons (involved in the production of regulatory neurotransmitters). The scans also showed that the amygdala (involved in anxiety, fear, and stress) got smaller.
The meditators in Lazar’s study showed better emotional regulation, more empathy, less fear, and an increased ability to stay focused in difficult situations. These findings suggest that intentionally observing a few quiet moments each day can improve one’s wellbeing, whether those few moments are spent focusing on God or simply observing one’s own body and environment in a state of mindfulness—which can be an utterly secular endeavor.
But are we really to think that prayer and meditation will help stop gun violence in the United States, even if many Americans aren’t sure there is a God who answers prayer?
Actually, yes—especially in the initial throes of a tragedy. Since prayer aids in clear, calm, and empathetic thinking, if we are going to respond well to complicated issues such as gun control, prayer may be more helpful in leading us toward better policy solutions than would an urgent, fretful, ill-considered response.
The same applies to our elected officials: If we want them to use their power to change gun laws (or tackle any other incredibly complex issue of the day), then we should want them to be engaging with “thoughts and prayers”—although in order to have a positive effect, this does need to be a sincere and regular activity, not just an ad-hoc performance on Twitter. Again, the positive effect on mental and emotional health is there even if they don’t believe that human prayer can change God.
For those who do believe, it’s even easier to make the case for prayer.
Most Americans—nearly three in four—believe that prayer is a direct line to a God who cares about the world and is intimately involved in the lives of all people. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this God is not the removed watchmaker, who set the natural laws in place and let things run their course, passively looking on as innocents are killed in mass shootings. This God “bends down to listen” and “inclines His ears to hear” the utterances of every person who prays, to quote the psalmist of the Bible. This God is radically interventionist, and can move nations’ leaders to pursue righteousness and justice on behalf of said innocents.
Great social change, including the abolitionist and civil rights movements of the past two centuries, found a lifeline in a God who could break the slaves’ chains, bring slaveholders to account, change the hearts and minds of Southern business-owners and politicians, and daily sustain those leaders who put their lives on the line for freedom for the oppressed. Of course, those leaders did not only pray: They also marched in the streets, staged sit-ins, and met with legislators to bring about freedom, many of them sacrificing their lives in the process. But prayer for them wasn’t a means to an end, a ritualistic comfort in the midst of more important work. It was an end in itself, an active wrestling and pleading with the God of the universe to bring justice and peace to the nation and its inhabitants. In other words, prayer was action.
This is no less true in the wake of a tragedy like that in Las Vegas. If you really believe that there is a God who responds to prayer, is intimately involved in human affairs, and could heal this nation’s deep pathologies of violence and revenge, then prayer should be the first thing you do after a mass shooting. Not the only thing, but the first thing.
Whatever your beliefs about God, a sincere appeal to “thoughts and prayers” in moments of crisis is not an indulgent retreat from reality, but a responsible reaction to it. To insist that we humans can heal the world’s pathologies on our own, without any appeal to God or spirituality, is just hubris. And it hasn’t worked for us yet.