September 22, 2015

Spiritual Warfare and Aggressive Prayers

Elizabeth McAlister, Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University, has spent many years studying Afro-Caribbean religiosity, and has recently turned her interest to aggressive prayer and spiritual warfare in Haiti and the United States. In a recent conversation with Onnesha Roychoudhuri, McAlister discusses what these terms mean, how they have developed in recent years, and their influence in the American Evangelical community.


Onnesha Roychoudhuri: I don’t think many people have heard of “aggressive prayer.” Can you explain what it is?

Elizabeth McAlister: I coined the term “aggressive forms of prayer” so I get to define it, for our intellectual purposes. Aggressive forms of prayer include any prayer—to the monotheistic god of the orthodox monotheistic traditions or to any other deity or spirit—that seeks to harm, debilitate, move, remove, or change another party.

I thought this would be a fruitful category because, in the popular understanding of what prayer is, most people think of a submissive activity. It’s supposed to be loving, beneficial to all, and certainly benevolent. But in the groups that I was studying, that wasn’t necessarily the case. It was often the case that people were praying for someone else to go away, for someone else to be harmed, or for someone else to be caught in a kind of a situation of the prayer subject’s making. I thought that this might be a useful angle to accompany other studies, which tend to look at prayer as a pro-social behavior, or as positive for a community. It also allows for Christianity to be examined along with non-Christian forms on a comparatively level playing field.

OR: Do you feel like this is a category of prayer that is seeing a resurgence, or has it always been present and we’re now carving out space to discuss it?

EM: That’s a great question. I think it’s been a practice all throughout history in various traditions. What is perhaps new, and the reason it really caught my eye, is that since the Obama election, American Evangelicals have been publicly praying against Obama. Once I noticed that, I also noticed that some Evangelicals were also praying against, for example, abortion providers or other social enemies of their own making. So what I think is new is that American Protestants are publicly speaking these prayers. I also think it’s new that social scientists are studying the phenomenon in the contemporary world.

OR: Aside from the contemporary political sphere, where else do we see aggressive prayer today?

EM: This has been a thread all across the charismatic, and particularly, the Pentecostal world. So a couple of our other New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees, like Ebenezer Obadare and Ruth Marshall, are seeing it in African Pentecostalism. Negative prayer or imprecatory prayer is also famously associated with sorcery and particularly with the Afro-Haitian religion that I study. But when I investigated it further in Haiti, what I realized is that the people who would be accused of or thought of as doing imprecatory or aggressive prayer in that sphere always see themselves as part of a system of justice.

I ran into a lot of counterintuitive findings, where the people doing imprecatory prayer in Vodou actually have a very conscious way of thinking of themselves as spiritual lawyers. In Haiti, the poor have very little hope of gaining justice in the state justice system, and that’s precisely why they have to seek justice in their own forum.

OR: So it’s viewed as a kind of defense rather than offense.

EM: Exactly, it’s spiritual defense. There’s also a very elaborate principle whereby you can’t harm someone if they are not guilty. The prayer will ricochet back on the originator if it’s unjust. The ancestral spirits, who operate in what is thought of as a higher sphere of justice, will cause that to happen; they effect justice.

OR: Do you see similarities between this Haitian understanding of aggressive prayer and the more American Evangelical manifestation of it?

EM: Yes; among American Evangelicals, I discovered that spiritual warfare prayer, which is the most explicit kind of aggressive prayer in the Protestant world, is also bound up in a very complicated theory of justice. Only in their case, they see what they’re doing as carrying out God’s law. They see the world in terms of a legal system of God’s law that Satan penetrated and gained legal rights in. So this is where it gets really interesting: They see the world as having been laid down in a beautiful way, of course in the Garden of Eden. Then the devil comes in and causes the fall of humankind. But the idea is that the devil entered legally, since Eve eats the fruit willingly. They say that Satan, “gained a legal foothold in this world.” And he does that through sin, through Eve and Adam’s sin.

In John 12:31, spiritual warriors say that Satan is called the “prince of this world.” There’s this idea that Satan has legal rights to influence anyone who commits sin against God, and that accounts for one reason why, even though Jesus Christ came and redeemed the world, the world is still in a state of disgrace. Every time people sin, they give Satan a so-called “a welcome mat” to enter this world legally. They repeatedly use this word “legally,” as if to say that once they—the spiritual warriors—understand the legal logic of God’s kingdom and God’s court, then they can move to destroy Satan’s hold on people. They can bring down revival and transform the world into a Christian world.

OR: It’s so elaborate, and so rooted in what I’d think of as a more contemporary legal sensibility.

EM: I know. I love rich religious imaginaries, and the spiritual warfare folks have created a very rich one that includes these legal precepts. There’s even a strand of thought right now that argues that the United States, unbeknownst to itself, has fallen into some contracts with Satan.

They have, as part of what are known as “the gifts of the spirit,” the gift of spiritual discernment, and they claim to be able to discern Satanic activity with their spiritual senses. Right now, they’re claiming that the Statue of Liberty is an image of the Sun God (though it’s actually a depiction of Libertas, the Roman goddess of liberty). And because it’s a pagan statue erected as a national site, it let in pagan influences, which are—by definition—demonic. These Evangelicals have come to the conclusion that America has married itself to demons. They’ve actually created a divorce decree for Americans to divorce themselves from Baal, whom they view as an ancient evil spirit of corrupt governance.

I attended one of these church services where the congregation stood up and went through divorce proceedings. A lawyer who is a spiritual warrior has drawn up a divorce decree from the “Principality of Baal.” Right now, he’s going state by state conducting these ceremonies.

OR: How does this treatment of Baal as real relate to Evangelical beliefs?

EM: Mainstream or traditional Protestantism basically saw pagan religions and traditional religions as simply being ontologically false, so-called “primitive people’s” mistaken belief. The idea being that, once they accepted Christ and science, they’d be on the road to “proper” spirituality and “proper” reason. Many Evangelicals—and Pentecostals in particular—see the spiritual world of other religions as being absolutely real. It’s simply that they understand any spiritual force that isn’t Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit to be demonic by definition.

OR: When you’re talking about these Evangelicals undertaking spiritual warfare, what are we talking about in terms of numbers? Is this a powerful contingent?

EM: That is a really good question, and it’s one that stymies me. The spiritual warfare movement really is best understood as a network of people who invest in this thought and practice. I think it’s the case that a lot of churches in America tried spiritual warfare on for size, and many of them rejected it. At one point, onlookers were saying that spiritual warfare was on the decline ,if not defunct; but it’s not totally defunct, and it’s still a vocal minority among various networks who now have representatives and prayer groups, some cell groups, and prayer warriors in every single state and in many countries.

It’s quite an extreme wave of thought, but it’s also influenced a great number of less extreme spheres of thought. You find their rhetoric in things like the International House of Prayer, the Promise Keepers movement, the Vineyard churches, the Quiverfull movement, and in lots of independent Evangelical churches. It’s extremely difficult to quantify because nobody’s checking off boxes on any surveys, and it also tends to happen in independent churches, Pentecostal, or charismatic churches, networks, and prayer groups. Someone could be a member of a church that isn’t highly invested in spiritual warfare, but within their church there might be a couple of cell groups that are. I think of it as a wide, global network of a highly invested minority.

OR: In your writing, you talk about how the militarization of prayer has evolved over time.

EM: Christian prayer has been militarized explicitly in lots of periods. Certainly there are military references in the New Testament. The Crusades is a time when the Church became an army, literally on a crusade against Islam, “heathens,” and others. And then, in more contemporary times, the Salvation Army had a very militarized instantiation of Christian prayer. So the militarization of Christian prayer has waxed and waned throughout history.

What intrigues me is the use of contemporary military images and metaphors, but also technologies in Evangelical aggressive prayer. So for example, at the Lausanne conference in 1989, people start to use geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology, developed by the military, in order to map out the world to see which unreached places could be targeted by Christian missions. They started referring to territories in very technological ways, in terms of latitude and longitude. People now will talk about going on mission strikes, doing covert operations, and being on assignment. So I argue that with the relatively new spiritual warfare movement that takes shape from the 1980s on, it’s in a context of the increased militarization of America. They’ve taken on some of that language and imaginary.

OR: How does this kind of militarized missionary mentality play out on the ground?

EM: I wondered that exactly, so I traveled with white American missionaries in Haiti, who are trying to battle so-called demonic forces. The militarization of evangelical missions plays out in Haiti in various ways. For one thing, the mission is conceived of as just that, a military mission, only the enemy is Satan’s army and the goal is to “win souls for Christ.” They talk about “taking land” for Christ; winning territory for Jesus. Missionaries speak in a military-inflected language, saying that they feel they are “on assignment from the Lord.” Many go into training for missionary work; the intensive trainings are called “bootcamps.” Those on short-term missions go to Haiti on teams with matching T-shirts and backpacks that evoke a squad and its gear.

The Haiti case is really interesting and tragic because, in the spiritual mapping and spiritual warfare imagination, God has made certain nations and certain groups of people “chosen.” We are used to that formulation even in American civil religion. But logically, this means certain others are “un-chosen.” And American Evangelicals have claimed that the Founding Fathers were Christian and meant for America to be a Christian nation. They’ve invested a lot of intellectual work in making those claims. And they’ve made Haiti God’s least favorite nation, at least in this hemisphere.

OR: What’s their justification for that claim?

EM: They managed to completely re-narrate Haitian history. They used the fact that Afro-Haitian religion was instrumental in Haitian history—that’s a long story but basically, some of the early slave meetings that led to the slave rebellions were both religious and political. They would do rituals, “feed” the ancestral forces with animal sacrifices, and invoke the spirits for protection. So the evangelicals argue that those revolutionary rituals were actually idolatrous moments that go against the Commandment to not worship idols, and therefore have made Haiti, “the only nation dedicated to Satan.”

They got this thinking out in many Evangelical Protestant circles. I’m fascinated by what this thinking means both for Americans who think that they’re doing good work in Haiti, especially after the earthquake [in 2010], and also for Haitians—some of whom take up this story and accept it. For me, it’s a question of how aggressive prayer has worked to change the historical sense of a particular kind of nationalism. And because this spiritual warfare movement is a global one, with an aggressive, missionary drive, it feeds religious conflict, national identity, and even how families understand their own lineages.

January 28, 2015

Nigerian Muslims' and Christians' Prayer Practices Come Together

2014 Eid ul-Fitr Praying - Imam Ali Shrine - Najaf | Image via Flickr user Sonia SevillaThe news from Nigeria that makes world headlines is most often about violence being done in the name of Islam, but Ebenezer Obadare’s research brings to light a more positive development in the Muslim/Christian relationship. He calls it competitive amity.

“In Nigeria, the fight for converts is fierce and constant with each side promising earthly purpose and eternal salvation. The Muslims have, of course, noticed that the Pentecostals are having great success in winning souls. And so, they are taking lessons and adapting accordingly,” Ebenezer Obadare says.

See the full posting at Psychology Today.

May 5, 2014

When Prayers Become Things

In Orlando, Florida people pin prayers to a cross. The cross stands on the grounds of the Holy Land Experience (HLE), a fifteen-acre “living, biblical museum” that teaches Christian themes in a themed environment eleven miles northeast of the Walt Disney World Resort. HLE is a site on the American religious landscape where materiality flourishes: religious history and textual ideologies are re-presented in a way that fuses evangelical commitments with the logics of immersive entertainment.

HLE’s “Testimony Cross Garden” exemplifies this site’s ongoing effort to document the many diverse ways in which pray-ers pray and prayers are prayed. We can observe much in the way of constitutive material acts. We might begin with the writing itself. Like keeping a daily prayer journal or submitting a prayer card to Oral Roberts, a power is harnessed by putting pen to paper, externalizing human interiors. (This extends the associations between writing technologies and faith emphasized by other Christian performances, as when one sings the opening lines of the Gospel standard When God Dips His Love in My Heart: “When God dips His pen of love in my heart and writes my soul a message He wants me to know…”) Then there is the folding. Each prayer is bent; some loose and uneven, some tight and perfectly aligned. Folding eases a tension between the public quality of the cross and the secrecy of each paper’s contents (“this is just between me and God”). Once folded, there is the pinning, attaching, affixing; full of iconicity. The park map that each guest receives when entering prompts us to “nail your burdens (prayer requests) to the cross.” And, there are numerous bodily tactics at work: taking the paper, holding the pen, reaching up, kneeling down, stretching left or right, touching the cross.


January 23, 2014

Searching for Something in a Kansas Record Bin

[Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Vinyl Prayers,” John Modern’s portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

“To our knowledge this is the first time the ‘gift of tongues’ has been recorded.” Liner notes, The Gift of Tongues: Glossolalia LP, Scepter/Mace Records MCM-10040, circa 1960s

I often head back to my hometown of Olathe, Kansas, the “Cupcake Land” of Thomas Frank’s description. And when I’m back I usually try to make a couple of short day trips—one up I-35 north to Kansas City and another along K-10 to the west and Lawrence. The latter is a classic college town, bearing the stamp of its Beecher Bible carrying forbearers, who trekked across America in the 1850s to set up a little slice of educational and reformist utopia. So strong was the northeastern, Yankee imprint that the novelist Thomas McMahon dubbed Lawrence a whaling town on the prairie. These migrants from New England might not have been as zealous as the hirsute, broadsword-wielding John Brown, but they were dedicated nonetheless.


October 28, 2013

Odd to Each Other

Cross-posted at The Immanent Frame.—ed.

It is a distinct honor when someone as lettered as Leon Wieseltier takes one on in public, as he does in “Dumbing Religion Down in the New York Times,” published October 24 in The New Republic. He does seem to have written this essay in one of his grumpier moods. He accused me of proselytizing for religion (or, to capture the tenor of the critique, of turning The New York Times into a Pentecostal tent revival, as one of my own readers, Jon Bialecki, pointed out). That’s not my understanding of the intent of my columns or of my work. I see myself as pointing out that an activity which makes many readers of The New York Times spit nails—or at least shake their heads in bafflement—has something to recommend it. I mostly ignore the politics because, while there is much to say about the political swing of many evangelicals, sharp writers like those who appear in The New Republic and The New York Times already say it well. But there is nothing inherently right-wing about evangelical religion and there are a lot of left-wing evangelicals to prove it. My goal, instead, is to follow the lead of one of the great founders of anthropology, Emile Durkheim, who said that we could not understand religion if we began with the premise that religion was founded on a lie. He did not mean that God was real (he was a devout atheist). He meant that if we wanted to understand why religion is so palpably important to so many people, we need not to begin with the assumption that they are idiots.


June 6, 2013

Walking Prayer

[Editor’s Note: This essay resides within Anderson Blanton’s “The Materiality of Prayer,” a portal into Reverberations’ unfolding compendium of resources related to the study of prayer.]

Prayer Walk: Praying for the Heart of Hamilton

This Saturday from 12:00pm to 2:00pm, you’re invited to walk through the city to pray for renewal, reconciliation, and restoration to the glory of God. Folks will gather at Offerings Prayer Ministry on Main Street, go out in pairs or small groups to walk and pray, and then meet back up at Offerings to discuss the experience. For more details, check out the Facebook Event page.

 Prayer is one of the most powerful ways we can serve our city, and it’s one of our core values. We’ve taught on prayer, its power, and specifically how you can be praying for one another, The Village, and all the people of Hamilton. If you’re available for a couple of hours on Saturday afternoon, grab a friend or group of friends and head into the city to pray for God to move among his people.

I received this invitation in March 2011, the feature in an email newsletter. The invitation’s source was The Village, an evangelical church that began in October 2009 in the small post-industrial city of Hamilton, Ohio. The Village is a theologically conservative, non-denominational congregation affiliated with the church planting network, Acts 29. In step with the majority of the nearly 400 other Acts 29 churches, The Village seeks to be “city-focused.” Elsewhere, I have explored the emerging pattern of re-urbanizing evangelicals who are moving against the grain of 20th century evangelical suburbanization. One of The Village’s founding documents was their “Vision for the City of Hamilton” statement, which includes this imperative: “Love for the City. We want the residents of Hamilton to love this city, and we want the residents of other cities to know we love the city. This means that we’ll take on the burdens of the city and work for its good, because what’s good for Hamilton is good for us.”

As the newsletter invitation suggests, one strategy for loving Hamilton and taking on its burdens is to organize regular prayer walks throughout the city. In a secular liberal frame, this might not seem like any kind of actual strategy. As Kevin O’Neill observed of neo-Pentecostal citizenship in Guatemala, disappointment lurks when secularized expectations size up religious projects. Here, what can prayer do to combat the ravages of de-industrialization and urban disinvestment? Obviously, The Village operates in a different frame, one in which prayer is transformative. But, the power attributed to prayer is not the only thing to observe. We must also account for the kind of prayer we are dealing with. Namely, walking prayer is the kind of prayer that makes little sense outside of its materiality, and exemplifies the need to theorize prayer outside of “a history of abstraction.”


May 30, 2013

Post-Secularism and Prayer

This past April, Tanya Luhrmann—the Stanford anthropologist—was invited by the New York Times to contribute a series of Op-Ed guest columns based on the recent publication of her 2012 book, When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God. Luhrmann’s work has been lauded for its unusually judicious and refreshing approach to understanding the nature of American Evangelicalism; unusual because Luhrmann does not succumb to the typical secular biases and downward-looking smugness that all to often skews academic work on the subject, and refreshing because Luhrmann genuinely hopes to understand Evangelicals not simply by observing them, but also by inscribing herself within the spiritual practices of evangelical communities.                                                    

Yet Luhrmann’s Op-Ed pieces offer something more substantial than simply a prosaic description of her Evangelical encounters. They suggest rather the possibility of mutual understanding and respect between Evangelicals and secularists. In her first column, “How Skeptics and Believers Can Connect” (April 5th), Luhrmann argues that despite the common punditry of an ever-growing political divide between believers and unbelievers, these groups are tied together by similar doubts, anxieties, and yearnings. Both deal with life’s uncertainty through meditation, keeping journals, and going on retreats. The human condition, Luhrmann argues, provides a point of overlap where secularists and believers can carry on a conversation and learn from one another about their common spiritual yearnings.


April 29, 2013

Response to Jeffrey Guhin

[Editor’s Note: This post responds to Jeffrey Guhin’s engagement with the author’s Harper’s article, “Blinded by the Right? How hippie Christians begat evangelical conservatives.”]

I am always grateful for a serious debate on what’s going on with evangelical Christianity. Let me make clear what I am trying to argue in the Harper’s essay.

It is not controversial to point out that hippie Christianity had a big impact on the style of the evangelical Christianity which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s and helped to make that style of thinking mainstream. It is also not controversial to suggest that hippie Christians were left wing and that most modern evangelicals—including many who were once hippies—are now right wing. The question is whether those hippies who changed their political orientation were simply “blinded by the right” or whether there is what you might call an authentic or compelling reason based on their understanding of their relationship with God to be more politically conservative. I think there is. I think that understanding yourself to be “walking with Jesus” means that you think of yourself as growing with God—and that you are always intending to be better tomorrow than you are today. From that perspective, it is but a small step to think that government “handouts” will stunt someone’s growth and development.

I don’t think that Betsy’s been snookered. And I don’t think her views or her prayer practice or the way she thinks about God represent the whole of evangelical Christianity. But I do think that like many contemporary evangelicals she comes to her views from a genuine response to her theological orientation. That’s what I wanted to say.

April 23, 2013

Hippies Were Cool and All, but They Didn’t “Beget Evangelical Conservatism”

Editor’s Note: Tanya Luhrmann responds to this post, here.

In her recent Harper’s article, Tanya Luhrmann tells the story of hippie Christians becoming conservative Evangelicals, using one such transformation—that of Californian Betsy Jackson’s transformation from flower child to mama grizzly—to illustrate the tale. Along the way, Luhrmann tells an even bigger story, this one about these hippies’ influence on American Evangelical spirituality and politics. She writes:

Of course, American evangelicalism has deeper, older roots, but the hippies changed what it meant to be Christian in America. They made speaking in tongues common. They made reading the Bible literally a mainstream practice. They made the idea of Rapture—the process by which believers will be spirited up to heaven when Jesus returns for the Second Coming—a cultural touchstone.

But they also went through a dramatic political transformation. We know that most evangelicals are now vehemently right-wing, and that most hippies were decidedly not. They seem to have been largely apolitical or, like Betsy Jackson, on the left… So what transformed an Aquarian ethos woven around gentle Christian communalism into a fiery form of conservatism?

The argument Luhrmann lays out has three versions. The first is that hippies came to find conservative politics accidentally, either through preachers they met by happenstance, or—as some secular liberals might want to believe—by insidious design. Yet Luhrmann finds the two others stories more compelling. One is that Evangelical politics, and particularly the suspicion of big institutions, is not all that different from hippie politics; and the other, that Evangelicals think about politics in terms of who they want to become rather than what is best to do. Without using these terms, she describe a distinction between a kind of Kantian focus on the right versus an Aristotelian focus on the good. Until seculars understand this more Aristotelian focus, she argues, they will not understand Evangelicals.


March 14, 2013

How do You Know God's Talking to You?

Tanya Luhrmann continues to set the pace for understanding and respecting the many ways that people are religious, as Steven Barrie-Anthony’s Reverberations interview with Luhrmann makes clear. I was first amazed by her work years ago in her book, Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft. I was writing my own book, Not In Kansas Anymore, about the spread of magical ideas in America. I was interviewing people who call themselves Otherkin, and believe themselves to be elves and werewolves and fairies. I was struggling to understand young people who identify as vampires. Among these witches, pagans, and hoodoo docs were some of the smartest, most well-read people I’d ever met. They were dead serious about their religion, and a surprising number of their beliefs were being picked up by suburbanites all over the country, most of whom had no idea how far from their Christian roots they were venturing.

The stars of Not in Kansas Anymore were truly strange. Strange enough to delight a journalist’s heart. But I despaired of ever being able to do them full justice.  

For much of my career as a reporter, we journalists simply set our pencils aside whenever a source started talking about religion. Nobody ever said so, but we knew that this kind of talk didn’t belong in the mainstream media. We would cover religion, sure, but only as an event. If the Pope came to town, we’d make a big, reverential fuss. If a tent revival came to town, we’d treat it like a freak show. But if a mother whose child had died told us that Jesus came to comfort her, we did her the favor of not letting the rest of the world know that she was so unhinged as to be talking like that.


March 6, 2013

Prayer, Imagination, and the Voice of God—in Global Perspective

Tanya Marie Luhrmann is a psychological anthropologist and a Professor of Anthropology at Stanford University. Her work explores how people come to experience nonmaterial objects such as God as present and real, and how different understandings of the mind affect mental experience. She is the author, most recently, of When God Talks Back (Knopf, 2012), which The New York Times Book Review called “the most insightful study of evangelical religion in many years,” and of other books including Of Two Minds (Knopf, 2000), The Good Parsi (Harvard, 1996), and Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft (Harvard, 1989). Her latest project, supported by the SSRC’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative, builds on and extends her research for When God Talks Back, taking her to India and Africa. On a recent rainy afternoon in Palo Alto, I spoke with Luhrmann about her work and its new directions.

* * *

Steven Barrie-Anthony: In the final chapter of When God Talks Back, you argue that God for evangelicals is not a rejection of modernity but rather an expression of what it is to be modern. How is this the case?

Tanya Marie Luhrmann: I think that the two big characteristics of modernity are the availability of science, and pluralism. And these make the uncertainty of your own cognitive position much more available to you. So using the imagination to make God real helps to make God real. Doing this also has characteristics that we associate with postmodernity—the playfulness, the uncertainty, the sense that there is a there there but maybe we don’t really get to it directly. From what I know of early Christianity, the idea of seeing through a glass darkly was extremely salient in the first and second centuries, was less salient to a faith that was very confident, and is highly salient to modern people. It allows you to imagine God walking by your side. Are you just making that up or is it real in the world? C.S. Lewis is sure that God is real, but then, he’s also writing a novel about it. The availability of disbelief is a condition of modernity. You cannot but be aware that other people think differently—that they may disbelieve your belief. And the evangelical walking with God is a sort of suspension of disbelief, which is not really relevant unless disbelief is relevant.


March 2, 2013

Knowing What it's Like to Hear God Speak

New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantee Tanya Luhrmann, in a recent essay for The Daily Beast, writes: “I know what it is like to hear God speak.” Luhrmann gleans this knowledge from years of anthropological study of evangelical Christians, during which she has observed their learning to hear the voice of God, to “pay attention to their inner world in a different way.” But while Luhrmann is not herself a Christian, nor even does she know in certain terms what she herself means by the word “God,” there is nonetheless an experiential flavor to her knowledge of God’s voice: prayer and the other techniques of learning worked for her, too.

I worshiped with these charismatic evangelicals. I prayed with them. I read their books. I sought to pay attention to my inner world the way they did. As I did so, I began to have experiences like the ones they reported. I remember with clarity the first time it happened. I was trying to compose a note to someone—one of those complicated notes you need to send to someone you don’t know well, when you want to be personal but not forward. I fretted about the note off and on for a few days. Then suddenly the sentences just came to me. I didn’t feel that I had chosen them. They came to me, and I wrote them down, and they were perfect. To some extent, the practice works. My ethnographic and experimental work confirmed this again and again.

Read the full piece here. For more information about Luhrmann’s New Directions in the Study of Prayer research, read her project description. Also keep your eyes on Reverberations for our upcoming interview with Luhrmann.

February 26, 2013

Do Different Understandings of the Mind Affect the Experience of Prayer?

This proposal tests the hypothesis that different “theories” of mind will shape the way prayer practice is experienced and the kind of spiritual experience with which it is associated. The project director has done many years of ethnographic and experimental research on prayer and spiritual experience within a gently charismatic evangelical congregation in the United States and identified specific patterns of interpretation, proclivity, and practice consequence associated with kataphatic, or imagination-rich, prayer. In this prayer practice, people conduct unscripted conversations with God in their imaginations. The aim of this new project is to compare the experiences of congregants in similar churches in India and Africa to ask whether the patterns observed in the American context differ systematically in the non-American contexts. More specifically, the project asks:

1. How do congregants in three culturally disparate settings represent the aim and experience of these imaginal dialogues and other imagination-rich prayer practices?

2. What specific spiritual experiences (for example, the audible voice of God; tongues; out of body phenomena; etc) do congregants in these three culturally disparate settings recognize, elaborate and report?

3. Do congregants in India and Africa who report more prayer practice, more spiritual experience, or more vivid interactions with God also score more highly in ‘absorption,’ as American congregants do?

4. Do any differences reflect differences in local ‘theories’ of mind?

Objectives and methods:

Over the two year course of the project I intend to spend two months in each field setting. In each setting I plan to collect thirty interviews about prayer and spiritual experience from members of a denomination with which I have done extensive work in the United States and rich ethnographic material about the congregations. I expect that the pastors will be English speaking, that may congregants will speak English and that some services will be conducted in English, although not all. I also intend to conduct ethnographic interviews around the church and to hire a research assistant either from the church, or willing to spend time in the church, who will attend church services, keep me apprised of what is happening in the church and with people whom I interview. The field assistant may also conduct additional interviews in a language other than English. Finally, I intend to develop a model of the local theory of mind, drawing on published ethnography, conversations with colleagues, and specific probes among interview subjects and others. I anticipate doing twenty ‘theory of mind’ interviews among congregants and non-congregants to confirm the observations developed through reading the ethnography and discussing the material with colleagues.

Intellectual significance and broader impact:

Much psychological work on prayer tends to presume that the effects of prayer are independent of social context. This project starts with prior work that demonstrates psychological consequences to prayer practice, but provides a means to explore and to theoretically conceptualize the ways that the spiritual consequences of similar prayer practices may differ across cultural boundaries.

I have just published a book which demonstrates a capacity to speak to scholars and scientists, to Christians, and to the secular world. I am hopeful that I will be able to engage a similar range of audience with the material from this study, with publications both in scientific articles and in book form. Such a book will bring to public attention the importance of studying prayer as a complex phenomenon, one with cognitive consequences shaped both by the brain’s capacity and by culture’s invitation.

February 26, 2013

The Role of Prayer in the Development of Religious Cognitions

Co-Principal Investigator is Nicholas Shaman.

Children’s religious concepts undergo significant transitions during the preschool years. Their understanding of ritual actions, God, and supernatural causality undergo qualitative shifts. Despite the dynamic nature of development during these years, little research has examined the cultural factors that contribute to preschool-aged children’s understanding of religious activities, like prayer. The proposed research is significant for advancing knowledge of how children’s understanding of and experience with prayer can shape their religious experiences and understanding. The guiding hypothesis of the project is children’s learning about and conceptions of prayer influence and is influenced by children’s understanding of religious entities and supernatural causality. The specific aim is to examine if differences in exposure to, understanding of, and participation in prayer are related to individual differences in the development of religious concepts during the preschool years.

The proposed research method will be a cross-sectional study conducted with children in the preschool years, which mark a transition period in the development of children’s religious cognition. Parent-child dyads, representing Catholic, Evangelical Christian, and Reform Jewish religious traditions, will participate in a one-time visit to the Childhood Cognition Laboratory at UC Riverside. Children will be between the ages of 3.5 and 5. The visit will be divided into two segments: parent survey/child interview and parent-child interaction. Children’s and parents’ concepts of God, supernatural causality, and prayer will be assessed through separate interviews with trained researchers. The measures will assess how children and parents attribute anthropomorphic attributes to God, how children and parents judge the possible occurrence of impossible events, and how children and parents view the purpose of the actions of prayer. Analyses will involve correlating these measures with one another as well as with aspects of the parent-child interactions. A long-term goal of this program of research is to increase awareness of different prayer practices as well as further understanding about the influence of different prayer practices on development.