A remarkable thing happened in the UK this week, among all the extraordinary events we are rapidly getting used to. People all over the country united to pray for the prime minister, who was in an ICU with COVID-19. The Sun’s front page urged us to pray for Boris, and even The Economist, bastion of rationalism, said the nation was praying for his survival.
I’m sure people will have many different views of this phenomenon, not all favourable, but simply as a phenomenon, it’s fascinating, revealing an ancient sense of connection between the body-politic and the nation’s leader.
It reminded me of an episode back in 1871, when the Prince of Wales contracted typhoid — the same illness which it’s thought killed his father, Prince Albert.
The nation united in mass prayers for his recovery, indeed, Prime Minister Gladstone and the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered special prayers to be read for him in every parish. The prayers were sent by telegram to parishes across the world — the first instance of a prayer sent by telegraph, according to Reverend Klivert.
The following week, the prince started to recover. The nation gave thanks. Church bells rang out up and down the land. There was a thanksgiving service in St Paul’s Cathedral (pictured below). Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert & Sullivan fame) wrote a commemorative hymn. And the recovery was seized on by the Church as proof of God’s special love for the British Empire and its Royal Family. One bishop declared: ‘The wonderful change in the condition of the Prince of Wales will surely impress many hitherto doubtful minds as to the efficacy of prayer’.
The Church cannot be blamed for relishing its PR triumph. It had just endured perhaps the most difficult decade in its history, as it was buffeted by the rise of materialist science and the debate over Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Its influence over education, health, politics and public opinion was in decline. Scientists were the new authorities, in medical and, increasingly, in moral matters.
Some scientists could not resist taking up the challenge from the Church. John Tyndall, a leading physicist, pioneer of climate science, and redoubtable defender of scientific naturalism, suggested there should be a randomized controlled trial of prayer. Why not take two wards in a hospital, pray for the patients in one ward, and see if they recover better than the other ward?
His colleague Francis Galton, Darwin’s cousin, who would help to found modern statistics and (less laudably) the dodgy science of eugenics, joined the fray. He poured over the statistics and found that monarchs — despite being prayed for more than any other humans — typically lived less long than others in the aristocracy. The evidence also suggested that infant mortality was as high among ‘praying and non-praying groups’, that ships that were prayed for were not less prone to accidents than non-blessed ships, and so on.
This idea of empirically testing divine power revolted some Christians. But hadn’t Christianity always been an empirical religion? Hadn’t its champions always been eager to show material proofs of its veracity — the blind healed, the dead risen, the empty tomb, the finger of Thomas in the wound of the risen Christ?
Today, if you go to a charismatic or Pentecostal church, you will hear empirical evidence given all the time for the power of prayer. But it is always anecdotal. It seizes on one particular story of a prayer being answered, and ignores all the thousands of cases when prayer is not answered. Popular religion, you could say, is based on non-probabilistic reasoning. It refuses to look at evidence in a systematic way, and instead relies on the anecdotal, the personal.
A few years after the ‘prayer-test’ controversy, in 1882, a distinguished group of scholars at Cambridge University decided to follow Tyndall’s suggestion and put religious and magical beliefs to proper empirical tests. They founded the Society for Psychical Research, which used the methods of science to investigate Spiritualist and paranormal phenomena like ghost-sightings, seances and telepathy.
The SPR was founded by Cambridge philosopher Henry Sidgwick and his friend, the classicist Frederic Myers, and the group’s many distinguished members came to include the American psychologist William James.
All three had lost their Christian faith, and hoped to find some hard scientific evidence for the immortality of the soul and the ‘friendliness’ of the universe. They found a lot of evidence for people seeing apparitions of loved ones at the moment they died, or shortly afterwards (over 700 instances of this were collected into the book Phantasms of the Living). They found some evidence of mediums apparently able to channel the dead or read minds. Most mediums turned out to be frauds (the SPR famously exposed the founder of Theosophy, Madame Blavatsky, as a cheat) but one medium, Leonora Piper, impressed all the SPR with her telepathic or mediumistic abilities, and the results of the many investigations into her abilities were written up in a book by Eleanor Sidgwick, principal of Newnham College.
But what about prayer?
William James and Frederic Myers developed a theory to explain how and why prayer might work. They suggested that our ordinary conscious ego has evolved to get us through everyday life, but it’s by no means the whole story — there is a much greater mind beneath or around it, which is largely subliminal. This ‘subliminal self’ is a ‘rubbish dump and a treasure house’, in Myers’ words. It contains a lot of primitive nonsense and magical thinking, but it may also contain latent ‘human potentialities’ — subliminal powers of creativity, for example, or memory, or healing, or ‘telepathy’ (a word coined by Myers).
It is possible, suggested Myers and James, that in moments of altered consciousness — dreams, hypnotic trance, ecstasy, trips deep meditation, or in spiritual or physical crises — normal ego-functioning breaks down and these normally off-line capacities may come on-line. The ‘threshold of consciousness’ is lowered, to use Jung’s phrase, and some of the power and wisdom of the Atlantis beneath the ego is revealed. But so, unfortunately, is a lot of junk. It’s not easy to tell the treasure from the junk, as anyone who’s ever taken psychedelics will affirm.
James and Myers suggested this theory of the subliminal self could account for the power of prayer and religious conversion to suddenly liberate people from mental, emotional and moral bondage. In contemporary terms, our everyday ego is just a habit, and the subliminal self is much more fluid than that, containing many potential selves. In moments of trance or ecstasy, we descend into that fluid, suggestible state, and can emerge in a new self-formation — freed from the habits of depression, say, or addiction. We can feel ‘born again’.
But is this process purely secular and natural, or does it involve a non-human Power, ie God? James and Myers both thought it did involve God, and that God works in us through the subconscious. But if there isn’t a God, the theory still works.
Indeed, their theory — or something very close to it — has been proven to work in recent years with psychedelic therapy. People with depression take some magic mushrooms, and they descend from their habitual ego structure into a more subliminal and fluid state, from which they can emerge with greater psychological flexibility and health. Some will attribute their healing to a Higher Power, some will not. It doesn’t matter much, as long as it works (there is some evidence, however, that psychedelic healing works better when you do attribute your healing to a Higher Power).
A similar therapeutic process seems to be at play in Alcoholics Anonymous, which was partly inspired by James’ theory. AA’s founder, Bill Wilson, was healed from chronic alcoholism when he got on his knees and prayed to God. He then developed his famous 12 Steps programme to help other addicts, and an important part of the process is ‘surrendering to a higher power’ — however, one makes sense of that power.
There is now a good body of evidence on the positive impact of prayer and meditation for those into that sort of thing. It improves people’s subjective well-being (see this and this paper), probably by helping them feel less alone, cultivating gratitude, and feeling more supported by a Higher Power. It calms the mind, settles the Autonomic Nervous System, and increases optimism and hope, all of which positively impacts the psycho-immune system. All the evidence from placebo trials (which I write about in this article) show that hope really can help us to recover from many ailments — the mind and the body are closely interlinked, and things like prayer and ritual may speak to the subliminal mind and unlock its healing potential. If you don’t believe prayer can work, ask Derren Brown, who was struck by the efficacy of the fake faith-healing he did during a stage show a few years back (you can read my interview with him here).
However, that doesn’t mean prayer will heal you from everything. It can improve your mood and strengthen your immune system, but if you’re hit by a really serious illness, it may not be enough to save you. We’re all still going to die, eventually.
Does prayer work for someone else, even if they don’t know about it? Here the evidence is much weaker. There was an experiment where 4000 people practicing Transcendental Meditation tried to lower the crime rate for Washington DC over a period of weeks. TM practitioners claimed they create a force-field which chilled everyone in the vicinity out — like a cloud of Valium. The evidence, they said, proved the experiment a success. However, the murder rate actually went up 18% during the experiment.
Champions of TM say that if just 1% of the world practiced their mantra method (which costs around £400 per person to learn), the psychic field this would generate would be sufficient to cause world peace. However, if one looks at Fairfield, the global headquarters of TM, where thousands of people are meditating and emanating their cosmic vibes daily…it has a crime rate higher than the Californian average.
This sort of magical thinking is extremely embedded, however. If a prayer is answered, it’s proof of either your power or God’s power. If a prayer isn’t answered, it could easily be taken as proof you’re being opposed by demonic forces.
These days, I feel more and more agnostic. I have had all kinds of far-out personal experiences, including a near-death experience which healed me from PTSD and which still makes me believe in the existence of some benevolent power superior to us. However, I don’t have much faith in humans’ ability to understand this power or to organize our relationship to it in a non-toxic way.
I get increasingly frustrated with the credulity of religious and spiritual beliefs. Researching the history of spirituality, it can seem just a long succession of frauds, quacks and psychopaths. It was ever thus.
This week, a YouTube channel which has shown interviews with popular ‘intelligent spirituality’ teachers like Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake featured an interview with conspiracy theorist David Icke, who naturally said COVID-19 was a conspiracy caused by a secretive global elite using 5G to weaken our immune systems. It had millions of views on YouTube and Russian-owned TV channel London Live, before it was taken down.
Rather than seeing this as an extremely dangerous and irresponsible thing to disseminate during a pandemic, various spiritual teachers supported Icke. Charles Eisenstein, an eco-spiritual teacher, declared: ‘I want Icke’s voice to be heard at the council table’. Icke thinks an alien race of reptiles is controlling the world through think-tanks.
I begin to feel sick of contemporary spirituality, its bullshit, its conceit, its intellectual vapidness. But I do still meditate every morning. I use it to focus and settle my mind, and let it stop racing around for a while. As it calms down, my body calms as well. It feels good to rest in the moment, breathing in and out, hearing a bird sing outside of my window.
At the end of the meditation, I wish all beings well. Does it actually help them? Who knows. If nothing else, it’s just stretching my heart muscles, practicing the habit of compassion. That’s not a bad thing. Galton could have done with some compassion-practice, then he might have been less inclined to preach the brutal ideology of eugenics.
I find myself trying to open my heart-mind, beyond my weariness and cynicism, to feel love and send it out to those in crisis. I think something like this:
To all those who are afraid
To all those who are lonely and isolated
To all those who are in despair
To all those who are frightened for their safety
To those who are trapped with abusers
To those who are struggling for food
To those whose businesses are failing
To those who have lost their jobs
To those whose dreams have fallen apart
To those who feel abandoned
To those at the end of their tether
To those having to make life or death decisions
To those risking their lives to serve us
To those who have lost loved ones
To those who are dying
To those who have died
May all love and wisdom come to you
And kindness, hope, fortitude and perseverance
May our hearts open to each other, in this time of separation.
May the power that has guided humanity to the good, be with us now.