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Non-believers turn to prayer in a crisis, poll finds

Just under half of those who pray said they believed God hears their prayers, which suggests a slim majority feel their supplications are not answered.
Just under half of those who pray said they believed God hears their prayers, which suggests a slim majority feel their supplications are not answered. Photograph: Alamy

For many non-believers, it is an instinctive response to a crisis: “Please, God.” So perhaps it should not be surprising that a new survey has found that one in five adults pray despite saying they are not religious.

Just over half of all adults in the UK pray, and they are increasingly likely to call on God while engaged in activities such as cooking or exercising, according to the poll. Although one in three people pray in a place of worship, and a third pray before going to sleep or on waking, others combine prayer with daily activities. One in five pray while doing household chores or cooking, 15% pray while travelling, and 12% pray during exercise or other leisure pursuits.

Just under half of those who pray said they believed God hears their prayers, which suggests a slim majority feel their supplications are not answered. Four in ten go further, saying prayer changes the world; a similar number say it makes them feel better.

Family tops the list of subjects of prayers at 71%, followed by thanking God (42%), praying for healing (40%) and for friends (40%). Way down on the list comes global issues such as poverty or disasters, at 24%, according to the poll carried out by ComRes on behalf of the Christian aid agency, Tearfund.

Among the non-religious, personal crisis or tragedy is the most common reason for praying, with one in four saying they pray to gain comfort or feel less lonely.

Henry, 64, said he prays every night, kneeling by his bed, despite not being religious. “I worry about it quite a lot – is it some kind of an insurance policy, is it superstition or is it something more real?”

Asked if he believed in God, he said: “I don’t know but I would describe myself at the sceptical end of agnosticism. I certainly wouldn’t classify myself as religious.”

Henry, who requested anonymity, starts by silently reciting the Lord’s Prayer and then asks for his loved ones to be kept safe and well. “Sometimes I include other specific people or suffering groups. Then I have a fuzzy moment about me – not concrete thoughts, and I don’t ask for specific things.”

He said he had no idea if God heard his prayers, and said the act of praying did not make him feel better. “I wonder why I don’t stop doing it. Sometimes I feel it’s a kind of hypocrisy.”

Rachel Treweek, bishop of Gloucester, said: “We should not be surprised by these recent findings, which reflect human longing for the mystery and love of God amid experiences of daily life.”

According to Isabelle Hamley, chaplain to the archbishop of Canterbury, prayer is “primarily a line of communication with God – thinking, reflecting, bringing one’s concerns and worries into a bigger picture. Prayer can involve requests, but it’s unhelpful to see God as a heavenly Santa.

“Many people are driven to pray at some point in their lives, even if they are not religious. Praying spontaneously is about reaching out.” God hears everyone’s prayers, she added.

The survey showed that prayer was an important part of the lives of many people in the UK, said Ruth Valerio of Tearfund. “While it is often easier to pray for issues closer to home, we want to encourage people to continue to engage with global issues and pray for an end to extreme poverty.”

This article titled "Non-believers turn to prayer in a crisis, poll finds" was written by Harriet Sherwood Religion correspondent, for The Observer on Sunday 14 January 2018 12.04am

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