Monday, November 12, 2007

A nation at prayer?

According to TEAR Fund, who seem to be doing some interesting bits of research of late, 1 in 4 of UK residents pray at least once a week, and the majority identify some benefit that comes from praying. According to the research (and note, these are projections from a sample of 2,000), 9 million of us pray every day, and London is the 'prayer capital' with nearly 3/4 of its residents praying regularly. Twice as many people pray regularly as come to church, though I guess some of these are people of other faiths. Even 12% of atheists pray, which must be an interesting experience for them.

A few others details: women are more likely to pray than men, only 1 in 4 of people in their 20's pray, compared to 61% of over-75s. Around half of Anglicans pray daily, among people in new churches or Pentecosal churches, it's over 80%. The most common benefit ascribed to prayer was a sense of peace, which the research contrasts with the busyness of modern living and suggests that the quest for peace is part of what nudges people to pray.

The full research is worth reading - it's clearly and simply presented, and gives lots of food for thought. The TEAR Fund angle is to encourage people to pray for the developing world, which comes 5th on the list of top prayer topics behind family and friends (clear winner), thanking God, healing and guidance.

The report confirms the work of the 'Church in a Spiritual Age' project, which found plenty of evidnece of spiritual seekers and practices outside the church, and challenges Christians to find a language and a practice of discipleship which makes sense to modern day seekers. It raises for me some big questions:

- How can we as Christians rediscover the work of spiritual direction - helping people to pray - and liberate it from the need to be part of the church structures. If 2 in 5 people are praying, there is massive potential for encouraging and equipping these people to pray more, with more confidence, and a better idea of the God they are praying to.

- Are we seeing straws in the wind? at baptism preparation I give people a leaflet of Graces - mealtime prayers - suitable for all the family. It's something we developed at my old church in Darlington, and it seems to be well recieved, and it gets used. The other is our new 'Start the Week' prayer time at the local primary school - several families and members of the school community have been along, some who aren't regular churchgoers, to this 10 minute, all-age, interactive prayer time. Does being bite-sized make it easier to digest?

- How do we as a church resource ordinary Christians in prayer. I'm always on the lookout for Advent and Lent resources that people can use in their own prayer times, or as a family, during the special seasons of the church. We don't want to be spoon-feeding people, but at the same time the seasons of 4 weeks/40 days are great times to introduce people to new spiritual disciplines or new ways of praying.

Finally, the story is reported here by the BBC, with the obligatory comback from the joyless National Secular Society, who must be quite worried that 1 in 8 of their people are praying on the quiet. Given that they have only 7,000 members, (though the NSS are notoriously reluctant to publish membership figures) I'd be worried too.


  1. Did you read the full Tearfund report? Although seeing the raw data would be interesting, the media misreported what was said in the report. The report itself is also misleading for several reasons, so I wouldn't place very much emphasis on the reported findings!

    However, looking at the figures a different way:

    Two in three people do not believe that God is watching over them and will answer their prayers.

    For those who pray - 62% do not think it makes them more peaceful and content, 70% do not find it makes them feel stronger, 79% do not feel reassured and 81% do not feel happier.

  2. zeno - yes I did read the report, I'd be interested to know why you think it's misleading and for what reasons.

    I think you actually misrepresent the report: what it says is "After praying, people most often feel:
    - Peaceful and content (38%)
    - Strengthened (30%)
    - Close to God (22%)
    - Reassured/safe (21%)
    - Happy/joyful (19%)
    i.e. it's about their common experiences of prayer, and if someone feels strengthened more often than they feel joyful (which I can imagine a grieving person does), then they'll reply 'strengthened'.

    And if people are praying for their family and friends, or for the developing world, because they care, I'm not sure they'd be that bothered whether they felt peaceful afterwards or not, because that kind of praying is not about 'me', it's about others.

  3. David

    Thanks for responding. My initial reply was quickly written during my lunch break, but I’ll try to answer more fully.

    The media reports were misleading for several reasons and part of this is due to the usual media sloppiness – most journalists don’t seem to have much grasp of arithmetic, never mind statistics – and partly due to the lack of clarity and detail in the Tearfund report.

    For example, the media generally reported that the survey was conducted on a representative poll of 2,000 adults across the UK. What Tearfund say is that it was 1,000 adults and a further 1,000 churchgoers. What they are very unclear about (deliberately?) is exactly what data derive from only the 1,000 representative adults and what data derive with the 1,000 churchgoers included – who, the report admits, are extremely likely to pray regularly. If these are taken as one cohort with the 1,000 representative adults, the sample will not be representative of the adult population and therefore conclusions drawn from this very unreliable indeed.

    I am also concerned about their definition of ‘prayer’: they don’t give one! However, they say that they have included those who pray ‘at least monthly’, ‘occasionally’, ‘hardly ever’ and ‘in times of crisis’. To me, that smacks of clutching at straws to include anyone who has ever prayed in their life or in times of extreme stress. Of course some will pray when they encounter a crisis in their lives (and this may be entirely understandable, given the stress of the situation), but that doesn’t mean that they are religious or even that they have any belief in a god of any kind. Without knowing more, I think the data (and hence the findings) have to be treated cautiously. However, the implicit message of the report is that a large number of people pray and that can only be good for religions and society as a whole.

    They are also not clear on what they have considered to be prayer. I assume they have included the usual prayer that may start with ‘Dear god’ and end with ‘Amen’ (or whatever), but it is entirely possible that they have also included things like ‘I hope little Johnny passes his driving test today’. (I won’t say that they may have also included someone saying ‘Dear god!’ as an exclamation, but who knows?) They simply do not say and that’s why I said it would be interesting to see the raw data (including the actual questions, of course). I would hazard a guess that they may have posed the question such that it included ‘wishing’ as well as more conventional praying to a god or gods. One thing that is of the utmost importance with such polls is that it is conducted by an independent organisation: that does not appear to be the case here, adding to the unreliability of the data and findings.

    Something that also worries me and makes me doubt the data is the finding that ‘Even 12% of those who profess to have no religion say they pray sometimes’. Who are these 12% who profess to have no religion? Assuming they are atheist (as you assumed), who on earth [sic] were they praying to? (The figure from the 2001 census is that 17.5% of the adult population in England and Wales have no religion and 27.5% in Scotland. This means that Tearfund’s 12% is a bit on the low side.) This, I think, adds to the doubt about the actual questions asked and makes any conclusions about the data suspect.

    I am also concerned about the statements you made about the membership of the National Secular Society. Surely it is a logical fallacy to attribute the veracity of any argument to the number of people making it? An argument stands or falls by the force of that argument, whether it is made by one or many.

    I standby the figures I quoted. The report says that 77% of the 43% who pray (ie 33% of all adults) believe that ‘there is a god who watches over me and answers my prayer’. I do make the assumption the remaining do not believe this, giving the 66% I quoted. The other figures are also a direct result of the report’s figures.

    As I said, from the information given, the Tearfund report appears to be seriously flawed (perhaps because the methodology is flawed, but this can only be ascertained if the raw data are obtained) and therefore we have to be cautious about drawing such bold conclusions from it.

    Bets regards

  4. Zeno

    Thanks for your comments, I agree that the TEAR Fund report wasn't as clear as it could have been - it's basically 2 distinct surveys, presented in 1 report. The basic idea seems to be to encourage church members to pray for the developing world, but the stats on prayer in the general population are what's getting the publicity for the report - maybe that was the plan!!

    Looking at the report: ( the 40% figure must be from the general population, as they state on page 7 that 90% of regular church goers (monthly or more) pray by themselves, and 61% pray daily.

    WIthout the actual research data we don't know what the questions were, so like you I'd be interested to see a bit more of the methodology.

    On praying atheists, there are plenty of postmoderns who are quite capable of believing in 2 contradictory things at once. Alternatively, it could be people brought up in Christian faith, who have then rejected belief in God, but find themselves reverting to prayer as an instinctive reaction to circumstances.

    The 12% I take to mean 12% of atheists, not that 12% of the population are atheists.

    On the NSS: the whole tone of their comments on the figures is to interpret them in such a way as to show how few people pray, and how few of them feel positive about it. Given that they want to debate on these terms, it's perfectly legitimate to point out how few subscribers they have. I agree that popularity is no indicator of truth - at one stage even Jesus' followers were in single figures - but I'm also amazed that, out of the thousands of religious groups with a membership of 7000 or more, it is the NSS that seems to be most regularly sought out for comment by the media.

    You say "For those who pray - 62% do not think it makes them more peaceful and content, 70% do not find it makes them feel stronger, 79% do not feel reassured and 81% do not feel happier" Page 8 of the report states that people 'most often' felt peaceful, strengthened, happy etc., and that 80% of people who prayed felt better as a result. What this is reporting is the most frequent felt effects of prayer. It's not 'peaceful' as against 'not peaceful', but 'peacful' as against 'guided', 'strenghthened' or the other alternatives. So to conclude that a person who said they most often felt 'peaceful' never felt any of the other things isn't an accurate interpretation. Again, the full research data would clear this up.

    Finally, the research is in line with other findings - the BBC's 'Soul of Britain' survey in 2000 found 38% of adults were aware of the presence of God, and 37% had an awareness of prayer being answered. All together, 3/4 of people were aware of some kind of spiritual dimension to life.

  5. David

    I think I might contact Tearfund to see if they are willing to give out more information on their survey!

    You said:
    “On praying atheists, there are plenty of postmoderns who are quite capable of believing in 2 contradictory things at once. Alternatively, it could be people brought up in Christian faith, who have then rejected belief in God, but find themselves reverting to prayer as an instinctive reaction to circumstances.”

    I assume you aren’t being ironic about atheists believing two contradictory things at once! I find god on its own contradictory. Seriously, I suspect your second reason is closer to the truth. As I said, they gave no indication of what they considered prayer, so we can only speculate.

    You’re right about the 12% of atheists of course – I obviously wasn’t thinking straight when I wrote it.

    The NSS can certainly be relied upon to give a controversial quote. I was talking to a BBC journalist a few years ago and he said that that’s really what most journos wanted – controversy. They think their audience wouldn’t be interested in an interviewee saying something like ‘Well, you have a good point and I agree with much of what you say, but I need to go away and think about what you’ve said and get back to you later…’ or some such thing! Unfortunately, he may have been right, but I certainly would like to see more reasoned debate in the media rather than confrontation. (Just think what Parliament would be like if this change happened there too!)

    However, the NSS have to work in the current climate and they have a duty to their members to make their views heard. Whilst some see them as confrontational, in many cases they are just giving as good as is meted out to them. Of course, the reason many religions can count their (falling) membership in the thousands is to do with entrenched traditions and privileges more than necessarily having the (only?) valid point of view.

    I haven’t seen the BBC's 'Soul of Britain' survey you mention, but it may be interesting. Do you have a link to it? Again here, it all does depend on exactly what questions they asked!

    One final thought: The head of BBC Scotland’s Religious department (a Church of Scotland minister) once told me that he and many others today believed in a non-interventionist god. How does this square with god answering prayers and how would anyone recognise that this has happened?

  6. There's a summary of the Soul of Britain research at - it's not the official BBC site, but summarises the main findings.

    I vividly remember sitting down for a pint with one of the godparents following a baptism I'd done. The man opposite, having quite happily joined in with the service, told me he didn't believe in God and was an atheist. I had some trouble pointing out to him that he'd just said the exact opposite in church 30 minutes earlier.

    To my mind a non-interventionist God isn't the God of Christian faith. A God who's not involved in the creation of the cosmos, or in interacting with people, can't be a God of love. A God who does nothing of his/her own volition, but is entirely passive, is closer to the Force of Star Wars, and actually makes much less rational sense than a personal, interventionist God. But that's another debate!

  7. David

    I'll have a look through the Soul of Britain website, but from what I've already seen, it looks like I'll be asking the same kind of questions, ie what exactly was asked! This does seem fundamental: what answer you get depends on what question you asked!

    I assume what the CofS minister meant was that his god created the universe, but then left us to get on with things (ie he is now non-interventionist). I think this helps reconcile (although not completely) some contradictory aspects of the christian religion: the problem of evil. Posit god to be one that has done his work and has now left the universe to work itself out and you can dismiss the problem of evil in the world: evil is just the way the universe is and has nothing to do with god, so he shouldn't be blamed.

    Of course, one problem of discussing god is that you have to spend quite a bit of time finding out what notion of god a person has in the first place! This is sometimes far more difficult that might first appear.