This comes to us from Dr. Stephen Uhl:
In September 2005 a huge category five hurricane Rita was bearing down on the gulf shores of Texas. The desperately frightened Governor of Texas had over a million people make their exodus inland. And after the historically dire warnings to these anxious citizens, the good governor told them to “say a prayer for Texas.”
One of our oldest defense mechanisms, in common use yet today, is wishful thinking. This is the belief that wishing can somehow change reality or make things happen. A simple dictionary definition of wishful thinking is “the attribution of reality to what one wishes to be true and the tenuous justification of what one wants to believe.” Of course, wishes do sometimes become reality for two reasons: first, when we are directly or personally responsible for the wished-for result, we likely take at least some steps to achieve it; likewise, even when we are not directly responsible for the wished-for results, good things can and do happen. For example, if we are wounded or sick, Mother Nature is so bountiful that we often heal or get well as we wished, though consciously we did nothing but wish for that good result.
Both situations reinforce our belief in our wishing; our wishes are intermittently fulfilled as they do sometimes come true. Such intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind of psychological reinforcement. This helps explain why wishful thinking is so common. The associative thinker very easily concludes: “I wished for it, therefore it happened.” “Post hoc, ergo propter hoc” (after the act, therefore because of the act) is only sometimes true. There is no reliable connection between the wishful thinking and the outcome even though a strong connection is frequently perceived by the wisher. The same holds for prayer.
WISHFUL THINKING, PRAYER AND HYPNOSIS
Prayer is commonly an act of wishful thinking. And since prayer is frequently more hypnogenic than simple wishful thinking, prayer can take on an added level of effectiveness. When I say that prayer works sometimes, I really mean it. Prayer often works for the wishing believer who is doing the praying. Reliable objective research has shown clearly that prayers offered by others for someone’s improvement without that person’s knowledge have no effect on that person at all. However, when the believer prays for his own wishes to come true, they are more likely to come true than if he had not prayed. This is because of the hypnotic character of prayer.
In my psychological practice, I often used hypnosis, which is similar to modern meditation, in order to help my patients achieve their goals. I frequently dubbed hypnosis “meditation in high gear.” It is a most powerful and effective tool; it helps a person relax deeply, concentrate, and access his own personal powers. In fact, hundreds of my clients amazed themselves when they quit smoking, generally without withdrawal effects, after only one session of individual hypnosis.
The hypnotized or meditating person is often surprised at his newly discovered strength and capabilities. Before being hypnotized he thought himself incapable of doing what he wanted or achieving what he needed for happiness; after hypnosis he sees more clearly his own potential, his own ability to achieve his goals. Once the hypnotized patient realized the magnitude of his own internal power, he rapidly progressed toward mental health and independence. For example, he now moves from the attitude of ‘I cannot quit smoking’ to the conviction that ‘I can quit smoking.’
Now prayer that is effective can be appropriately called self hypnosis. It helps the praying person relax and focus his attention and wishes. In so doing, the concentrating, praying person hypnotizes himself and convinces himself that his goal is attainable. Then, with the resulting increase in confidence, the hopeful praying subject sometimes goes on to achieve his desired goal. Thus the praying subject is successful precisely as the hypnotized subject is successful: both realize and use power beyond what they had previously thought possible.
Even though prayer does not work because of a Higher Power’s power, it is easy to see how it strengthens the faith of the wishful thinking believer. Jesus Christ may have realized this informally when he commanded his followers not to pray publicly like the hypocrites but secretly or privately (Matthew 6:5-6). Private prayer is much more effective (for non-political purposes) than public prayer, because personal concentration and meditative insights are much more likely in private than in public.
Understand how the self-hypnosis of prayer is sometimes so effective for the praying believer. His achievement beyond what he had thought himself capable of positively reinforces his act of self-hypnotic praying. This greater-than-expected personal achievement is intermittent, so it strongly reinforces the faith of the praying person. Therefore, he becomes more convinced of the power of prayer while thinking that prayer gets its power from God rather than from within himself. He prayed to his God; he got greater-than-expected results. Therefore, he attributes the results to God’s help; post hoc, ergo propter hoc.
Further, the more convinced the praying person becomes of the power of prayer, the better he becomes at hypnotizing himself, so the more effective his self-hypnotic prayer becomes. Now you can understand how it is feasible for a person who does not understand hypnosis to attribute a supernatural power to prayer. Such reinforcement is a strong argument for millions to believe in a Higher Power. For the person who understands hypnosis, however, prayer works, not because some God changed his eternally changeless divine mind, but because the self-hypnotizing subject changed his own mind and increased his own personal effectiveness.
Even public prayer does actually have some desired effect at times. Most individuals are somewhat swayed by what the crowd seems to believe. The listening crowd is helped toward hypnosis by the repetitions or the soothing or authoritative voice of the preacher or politician. This believing crowd, led in prayer by an articulate leader, grows in unity until all or most in the crowd say “Amen” to the same thing. As the preacher or group leader uses his hypnotic power, even unwittingly, he can readily strengthen the crowd’s self-reinforcing belief and help it reach some degree of mass hypnosis or even mass hysteria. (Churchill, Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and many popular evangelical preachers have been masterful crafters of the convictions of crowds.)
The power (for good or ill) that becomes obvious here is not a power above nature; it is the self-hypnotically induced power of increased conviction in individuals who earlier had been unconvinced of their power. This power is so great that it may be directed to repair a community, start a violent revolution or increase contributions to or votes for all kinds of causes.
(Excerpted from Out of God’s Closet by Stephen F. Uhl, Ph.D.)