Prayers are, of course, sometimes petitions. They may be calls to a supernatural being for healing, guidance, or even a bit of rain to drench a drought-ridden field. Some prayers of petition are meant to kill. In the Shellac song above, the singer Steve Albini calls on God to kill two people, a woman and a man. As listeners, we suspect that it may have something to do with infidelity, or perhaps a selfish emotional desire for revenge over a relationship that went sour. This sentiment isn’t relegated to the fictions within post-punk songs. An acquaintance who suffered abuse from an alcoholic father once told me that, as a child, he prayed for God to kill his dad. And in some religious narratives about prayer—specifically those found among certain kinds of evangelicals who practice spiritual warfare—God may respond by choosing to kill someone, regardless of whether the human who made the prayer wished such an outcome.
We examine the development of prayer concepts, specifically concepts of petitionary prayer that makes requests of divine beings. Petitionary prayer is practiced by children and adults worldwide (BBC News, 2007; Pew Research Center, 2008; Pew Research Center, 2010). It is particularly interesting conceptually because it entails that we suspend many of our intuitions about the natural world. In our daily social interactions we lack telepathic skills and communicate by speaking aloud; further, we appreciate that people and objects are subject to inviolable laws of physics and biology. Yet, to fully grasp the significance of petitionary prayer requires that we conceptualize and believe: (1) in a being (God) who is not physically present yet can still perceive our words and, even more extraordinary, is aware of our unspoken thoughts; (2) that our prayers can yield physical outcomes without our physical intervention; and (3) that otherwise improbable or impossible phenomena (e.g., parting a sea, recovering from a terminal illness) are indeed possible with divine intervention.
Intellectual merit: Our research will examine how people come to represent these counterintuitive prayer concepts, a topic that can also shed light more generally on how counterintuitive spiritual ideas are cognitively represented and culturally transmitted. Limited prior research suggests that an understanding of prayer emerges and develops substantially during early and middle childhood (e.g., Bamford & Lagattuta, 2010; Woolley & Phelps, 2001), highlighting a particularly important period for research. But young children evidence cognitive limitations that may hinder their appreciating the three components of prayer described above, these include a difficulty conceptualizing extraordinary minds (Giménez-Dasí et al., 2005; Lane et al., 2010; Makris & Pnevmatikos, 2007); a disbelief that the improbable is possible (Shtulman & Carey, 2007); and disbelief in mental telepathy and psychokinesis (Bering & Parker, 2006; Woolley et al., 1999). Given such cognitive constraints, when and how do children fully grasp and believe in the goals and significance of prayer?
Research: To answer this question, Study 1 will examine when and how children and adults appreciate that an extraordinary being (the Judeo-Christian God) can perceive prayers, whereas ordinary humans cannot. Study 2 will examine reasoning about the efficacy of prayer relative to other psychological activities, like thinking and wishing. Critically, conceptual development is partly a function of culturally-provided information (Shweder et al., 2006). So, we will conduct studies with participants from different religious contexts. Moreover, we will collect data on participants’ religious background, including their exposure to and engagement in prayer. We will also assess other cognitive capacities that may support a developing understanding of prayer, including children’s ability to reason about improbable phenomena (Shtulman & Carey, 2007).
Broader impacts: Results from these studies will shed light on the cognitive and cultural foundations of prayer concepts that are held by millions of individuals worldwide, and in doing so will contribute to the cognitive science of religion. In particular, our studies will (a) contribute to understanding the cognitive and psychological dimensions of prayer, and will (b) serve as a cross-cultural comparative analysis of prayer. Moreover, our findings will inform parents and others about when children are most receptive to learning about different components of prayer.