Secularizing Prayer: What Psychology and One Psychiatrist Have Appropriated From Religions

prayerhands.jpgMany of us get squeamish around the word ‘prayer’. Visions of some grumpy Santa on a cloud, waiting to smite us for chewing gum, slammed the door on any consideration of the concept decades ago.

But Toronto psychiatrist and physician, Dr John Thornton would have you rethink that. Understanding our skepticism, he defines prayer as “an ancient method of intention-setting,” likening it to the establishment of, and work towards, personal goals.

Goals? Intentions? Suddenly, you feel less uncomfortable. This is closer to your bookstore’s business section than religion – more lululemon than fatted calf slaughtering.

Years ago in his practice, Thornton recognized the power of prayer to heal lives. The trouble was “most religions do not teach how to pray. They teach prayers.” So he created The Prayer Wheel, a non-denominational step-by-step guide to what he calls “the ancient technology of intention-setting.”

This guide contains the basic exercises practiced in prayer, as handed down (and usually buggered up) by the big religions. But it allows people to insert their own beliefs – be they gods, a god, God, or higher self – without being dependent on them.

So it’s like you’re getting the healing milk without buying the spiritual cow.

Given the author’s vocation, you shouldn’t be surprised how many of these ancient exercises adapted to his prayer guide are found in modern psychology.

Practicing gratitude

In his books on cognitive therapy, Dr David Burns , the celebrated American Psychiatrist, advocates listing the positives as one of your chief cognitive weapons against anxious and depressive thoughts. Your wrinkled Sunday school teacher called this counting your blessings. Thornton’s Prayer Wheel begins with you listing all the goods things in your life.


Whether it’s about something you did or was done to you, holding onto old wrongs is self-defeating. Remembering but letting go is a lesson we’re taught in prayer and on the therapist’s couch.

Invoking intentions
All the major religions insist that you ask for what you want in prayer. And we all know the psychology joke about the lightbulb having to want to be changed. Both ancient and modern goal setting methods demand that you set your goals and ask for help.

Quiet reflection

It’s no coincidence that your therapist’s office has a reclining couch. She prompts you to relax and communicate with your inner/higher self. Likewise, at the end of your church service, you’re encouraged to use the silent minutes to quietly listen. This is marvelous for your blood pressure – and finding answers to intentions invoked.

There are four other exercises in Thornton’s guide, nurturing love, protection, inspiration and humility, but he’s most ardent regarding intentions. The Wheel exists to “help you bring about what you want in your life, clearly and with focus.”

Predating The Secret , that self-help lover’s Da Vinci Code, by several years, Thornton’s Prayer Wheel has a similar message – but with less emphasis on materialism and more on personal wellbeing. Intention setting, he says, invokes theLaw of Attraction. Here’s where we get squeamish again.

Science, done by scientists not flakes, suggests that intention setting works. Weird.

Thornton quotes the studies of William Tiller, Ph.D., a Stanford University professor emeritus of Materials Science and Engineering. If anyone should be skeptical about the effects of prayer, you’d expect it of a scientist like Tiller. So, like a true skeptical scientist, Tiller experimented.

In his most famous, four ‘highly inner-self-managed people‘ meditated with intention upon an electronic device, which was then shipped 2,000 miles and turned on beside a jar of water. Simply being beside the device changed the pH level in the water significantly. Bizarre.

Tiller concludes: “the unstated assumption … that ‘no human quality of consciousness, intention, emotion, mind or spirit can significantly influence … physical reality’ … is very, very wrong.

“You don’t even have to believe in prayer to benefit from it.” – Dr John Thornton

With its focus on gratitude, forgiveness, inspiration and love, I understand Thornton’s Prayer Wheel as a tool for healing. But with its ultimate focus on ‘asking’ or intention setting, Thornton believes it’s a tool for transforming your life now, with or without religion.

“If you exercise you will get fit. You don’t have to believe in fitness,” he quips. In the same way if you pray with focused intention – regardless of whether you believe in any religion, or even prayer – he says you will get results.

This is all heady stuff – especially for those of us whose heads are still in the clouds with the grumpy Santa. I guess there’s only one way to find out if it works.

– Steven Bochenek