I used to hate the phrase “I’ll keep you in my prayers.” It’s a meaningless sentence muttered so that people can feel like they’re helping without actually doing a thing. As the saying goes, “Two hands working accomplishes more than a thousand clasped in prayer.” I’d much rather that someone offered to help in some way.
My thinking has started to change on this, however, due to the cynicism/realism of bloggers like Robin Hanson. As Robin would say – religion isn’t about God. I’ve started to simply disregard any explanation that a believer makes that involves God or the supernatural as a lie (even if they don’t realize that it is), and started to look for the real answer. When a believer says they’ll pray for you, they’ll tell you it’s because their recitations will invoke a magical entity to alter the laws of physics in your favor. But what’s really happening?
A lot of the time when someone is suffering (say, they’ve been in a car accident) and they are visited by a friend, there is nothing that the friend can do at that exact moment. The injured does not have a doctor’s bill in their lap. They don’t need anything fetched from the shelf they can’t reach, and they aren’t particularly hungry. Maybe they’re in a lot of pain, but there’s nothing the friend can do about that. The injured will need help later, when it’s less convenient and no one is around.
By “keeping someone in their prayers”, what the divine-petitioner is actually doing is reminding themselves every day that this friend of theirs is still in need of help. Not only does this keep the memory of the injured fresh in their mind, it also may convey a slight sense of obligation. By praying for the injured’s welfare, they are emotionally pre-committing to aid that has not yet even been asked for. In theory, this would make them more likely to check-up on the injured party, and quicker to respond to any requests for help, be it physical or financial.
Studies seem to be mixed. Sometimes there appear to be correlations between surgery recovery times and religiosity, and sometimes no such link is found. It used to be the case (in America) that mainly only the very independent would shirk religion – even nonbelievers would remain in a church community for the social aspects. As non-belief becomes more common and communities form around other things, I imagine that this correlation will continue to decrease. I’ve always been a bit of a loner, so regardless of how communities function in the future, I’ll be unlikely to ever fully participate in them and get these advantages. Which is ok with me.
But now – when people say “I’ll keep you in my prayers” – instead of tasting indignation, I remind myself that they are simply trying to say “I’ll try to remember to help you when you need it.” Which makes for much better social interaction. :)