With the exception of Catholic mass on holidays and an Evangelical summer camp I attended with my Jesus-loving cousins because it had a waterslide, I didn’t grow up particularly religious. The closest I came to having a relationship with God was when, at age seven, I wrote him a letter — along with Santa and my dead grandpa — because I really wanted Hanson tickets for Christmas. In other words, like a majority of millennials, I’ve enjoyed the freedoms of a Godless existence, while dabbling in spirituality like it’s a party drug.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and New York City turned into a morgue-truck parking lot overnight. Within a few months, I lost a friend to suicide, my mom was diagnosed with leukemia and I quickly moved back to the Midwest to be her stem-cell donor. I coped with yoga, meditation and cognitive behavioral therapy, but my growing collection of crystals suggested a willingness to try anything. Which raised the last question I ever thought I’d ask myself: Should I just fucking pray?
Experts say many, many others are asking themselves the same thing. “It’s because there’s a certain threat, and we have no control,” explains Jagdish Khubchandani, a professor of public health at New Mexico State University. “People have lost control of their lives and futures, and they have to rely on some mechanism of assurance. Religion is the biggest one right now.”
A Pew survey recently found that 30 percent of agnostic, atheist or religiously-unaffiliated respondents have prayed for the end of the coronavirus, and more than half of millennials reported attending one or more online religious services a month since the start of the pandemic. Obviously, quarantine has made in-person gatherings impossible, forcing churches to adapt to digital services. But as much as the transition has been hard for some regulars who depend on a face-to-face sense of community, it’s made things easier for those who simply want to dip their toes into baptismal waters.
This is a pretty stunning about-face. Although church, synagogue and mosque attendance have declined since the 1970s across all generations, millennials have always been the least religious by a landslide. According to 2019 data from Pew, the number of adults between the ages of 23 and 38 who identify as non-religious is about the same as those who identify as Christians, compared to three-quarters of Baby Boomers. Most of this has been attributed to the decline in marriage and parenthood — rites of passage tied to religion — along with the rise of the internet and social media. (Crystals and astrology have shouldered some of the blame as well.)
You don’t have to look any further than Twitter to find plenty of young people roasting “thoughts and prayers.” The generational disdain for the phrase was a reaction to the shallow displays of performative grief that followed 9/11 and every mass shooting, hurricane or other national tragedy since. Thoughts and prayers have become synonymous with “slacktivism,” or the performative wokeness of posting on social media without taking any real action. Hatred for the phrase peaked around 2015, when it was the sardonic title of comedian Anthony Jeselnik’s Netflix special, but it seems to be making a comeback as President Trump offers empty thoughts and prayers in lieu of sufficient coronavirus testing or any leadership whatsoever.
Of course, politics have played a significant role in alienating young people from organized religion, too — namely, the issue of abortion. It’s been inextricably tied to Christianity and the conservative agenda ever since Richard Nixon used being against it as a campaign strategy in the 1972 presidential election. It worked so well in mobilizing Catholic and Christian voters that Republicans started employing the tactic across the board, and pro-choice liberals pivoted to spirituality instead. As a 2016 College Humor sketch put it best: “We reject the bullshit from one book, so we can cherry-pick and choose the bullshit we like better from a whole bunch of different books.”
Jokes aside, prayer can be utilized without the pressure of joining an organized religion. In fact, research shows that prayer has a long history of being used as supplemental health care, with medical professionals going as far as to categorize prayer as a CAM, or a “complementary and alternative medicine” comparable to green tea, tai chi or acupuncture. That’s because much like meditation, prayer helps people activate their parasympathetic nervous system, which is essentially the opposite of fight-or-flight mode, where blood pressure lowers, stress hormones decrease and our breath and heart rate slow down so we can reach a state of relaxation.
“The mind influences the body, and when you ruminate on negative thoughts, your neurotransmitters change,” Khubchandani explains. Neurotransmitters associated with stress like adrenaline can cause anxiety, insomnia, weight gain and increase the risk of having a heart attack or stroke. Conversely, neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin make people feel happy and can be generated through exercise, meditation, and yes, prayer, Khubchandani says.
More specifically, the human brain is made up of billions of neurons making trillions of connections (these are those neural pathways you’re always hearing so much about); genetics, lifestyle and trauma, however, can cause some of these wires to cross, sending people into fight-or-flight mode unnecessarily. For instance, if someone believes that they don’t deserve good things because of something bad that happened to them in childhood, they tend to be predisposed to interpret information in a way that supports that view, which, in turn, sets off an internal chain reaction of harmful neurotransmitters and hormones like adrenaline that exaggerate their feelings of stress and anxiety.
Regular meditation and prayer dismantle this reactivity by building new neural pathways, paved with more positive beliefs about oneself — similar to cognitive behavioral therapy. “When we send people for cognitive behavioral therapy, we try to modulate their thoughts so they avoid negative thinking cycles,” Khubchandani explains. “Religion is a lot like that self-talk, but with a higher self.”
Prayer is also mentally beneficial because it helps people find balance between feeling in control and giving up control. Part of the reason why resilience is frequently tied to childhood is because psychologists suspect that’s when we form what’s known as a “locus of control,” which determines the degree to which a person believes their problems are in their power. Someone with an “internal locus” has a high likelihood of taking responsibility for their own problems, while someone with an “external locus” may be more prone to blaming others and playing victim. People who demonstrate an internal locus from a young age are less likely to struggle with their weight and physical and mental health, and more likely to have higher levels of self-esteem.
Still, during times of crisis (e.g., a global pandemic), even a person with the most developed internal locus is going to experience adversity, and prayer and meditation can help. Take, for instance, the “serenity prayer,” which is used in 12-step programs to help addicts “accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” Khubchandani says that when a person who struggles with addiction first gets sober, they suffer high levels of distress, as the substances they used to numb themselves are no longer available. Prayer and meditation can alleviate some of this while they divorce themselves from the idea that drugs are a quick fix. In doing so, again, they actively form a new neural pathway.
For John, a 34-year-old self-described lapsed Catholic and TV producer in New York, religion didn’t even cross his mind the first two months of quarantine. “Instead of working 70 hours a week, I got to be home with my daughter, who was only a few months old,” he tells me. “It was like a second paternity leave.” Then, at the end of May, his sister, dad and mom all tested positive for COVID. Though his sister and dad remained asymptomatic, within a few weeks, his mom was critically ill and in the ICU, where she was put on a ventilator for five days. Once she was finally conscious and could FaceTime from the hospital, John feared that every time he said goodbye, it would be the last. He started going to therapy, but he felt like he needed something extra. “I absolutely started praying,” he tells me.
At first, these prayers were obviously about his mom making it out of the hospital alive, which she did three weeks later (though the virus gave her a lasting heart condition). And while he’s not sure if his prayers “worked,” he’s kept them up just in case. Praying also helped him realize that he was finally ready to let go of city living and move to New Jersey to be closer to his parents. “I mostly pray for the pandemic to be over so I can stop being afraid, and that’s helped with my anxiety,” John says.
The challenge both John and I faced was figuring out how to pray when we don’t want to be recruited into an organized religion. For me, the struggle was understanding how prayer differs from meditation, or why I would need both. “In prayer, there are more cognitive processes and thought activation involved. On the contrary, in meditation, the idea is to focus on one thought, idea or concept,” says Khubchandani.
Along those lines, prayer tends to deal with trying to influence external circumstances, while meditation deals more with internal processes like quieting the mind through focusing on breathing, an object, a chant or a mantra. For people who have a hard time with meditation because their minds are too active — or if you’re going through something that’s too stressful to be zen about — prayer can offer a lot of the same mental benefits.
New York Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Bregman further describes prayer as “heartfelt communication, expressed in words, to the Creator of the Universe, who loves us and is intimately involved in our lives.” “Some prayers,” he continues, “can be conversational, like a child speaking to a parent; some can be expressions of thanks and gratitude; and yet some others can be supplications — you’re asking God for something specific, like to heal someone.”
Personally, I now pray when I wake up, before I go to bed, whenever I’m worried about anything bad happening and sometimes after yoga, when I take a hot bath or smoke weed. Like exercise, meditation and therapy, I’m not always sure I’m doing it right or if it’s working, but I don’t plan on giving it up anytime soon. After all, the question isn’t if I should do something so simple and beneficial during a time of stress, but why wouldn’t I?