Why Are Humans Religious? Desiring the Help of Superhuman Powers

Religion and global levels of belief present scholars with important questions, one of which is why human beings are religious in the first place (1). According to sociologist Christian Smith, a major reason human beings are religious is because of their desire for the assistance of superhuman powers,

“Humans are religious because they hope for superhuman powers to help them realize human goods and avoid bads, especially to grant them blessings, prevent misfortunes, and aid them in crises; and because they wish to enjoy the various forms of identity, community, meaning, expression, aesthetics, ecstasy, control, and legitimacy that practicing religions offer” (2)

Evidence from Prayer

Helpful to pursuing an answer to why human beings are religious is to look at the phenomenon of prayer: what is it that people are praying for and about? How focused are prayers on matters of a this-worldly versus other-worldly nature? The following studies could provide clues.

China. According to the findings of the 2010 China General Social Survey, the Chinese people believe religion helps in the following (3):

[1] For finding inner peace and happiness: 83% of religious Chinese agree; 53% of non-religious agree
[2] For finding comfort in sad and difficult times: 80% of religious Chinese agree; 53% of non-religious agree
[3] For making friends: 58% of religious Chinese agree; 40% of non-religious agree
[4] For meeting the right people: 50% of religious Chinese agree; 20% of non-religious agree)

Importantly, one should consider that China was (and still is) a country dominated by an authoritarian, atheistic-communist government that actively represses religion. According to this survey, prayer is focused mostly on individual feeling and on social relations.

United States. According to a 2005 survey, 1721 adult Americans who claimed they pray were given a list of possible topics of prayer and were asked: “The last time you prayed, did you pray about the following?” (4). The results are as follows:

[1] 89.4% prayed for family
[2] 75.3% prayed for friends or acquaintances 
[3] 66.2% prayed for their relationship with God
[4] 53.2% prayed for worldly concerns
[5] 49.4% prayed praise/adoration for God
[6] 49% prayed for personal health
[7] 46.8% prayed for someone unknown
[8] 33% prayed for financial security

As is clear, Americans are most likely to pray for and about their family members and friends. They also pray a lot about world affairs, personal health, financial security, and people they do not know. The prayers focusing on more spiritual topics, such as one’s relationship with God, worship of God, and sin were located in the middle. The data suggests that American pray for both worldly and spiritual concerns, but the former seems dominant.

In a 2014 study of an online survey of 1137 adult Americans conducted in 2014, the overall pattern is similar to the above study. The results are as follows (5):

[1] 82% prayed for family and friends
[2] 74% prayed for personal problems or difficulties
[3] 54% prayed for good things that occurred recently
[4] 42% prayed for personal sin
[5] 38% prayed for victims of natural disaster
[6] 37% prayed for God’s greatness
[7] 36% prayed for future prosperity
[8] 20% prayed for people of other faiths or of no faith
[9] 12% prayed for government leaders
[10] 5% prayed for celebrities and other public figures

Here worldly concerns, relationships, and problems dominate. Again located in the middle range of topics of prayer are more spiritual issues.

A 1984 study of 2229 praying, non-Hispanic Catholic parishioners, found the following topics first came to mind when these believers were asked what they prayed for (6):

[1] 48.8% prayed for well-being: health, emotions, guidance, growth, success, safety, financial security, others’ welfare, stillness [this worldly]
[2] 23.4% prayed for thanksgiving [ambiguous] 
[3] 17.3% prayed for family: safety, health, emotions, guidance, thanks, parenting [this worldly]
[4] 10.1% prayed to be a good person [ambiguous] 
[5] 5.3% prayed for forgiveness [ambiguous] 
[6] 0.06% prayed for social concerns: ministry to poor and depressed, national crisis, peace, social justice, peacemaking [this worldly]
[7] 0.03% prayed for divinity: Godhead, Mary, Sacred Heart, Corpus Christi, Rosary [other worldly] 

According to these results, the most frequent topics of prayer first to come to mind were “this worldly.” They were, in particular, regards to personal well-being and family relationships, which together represent 66% of all answers. The more spiritual or “other worldly” subjects, with the exception of giving thanks to God, were far less reported to come to mind.

A qualitative study of prayer among American Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Buddhist, and Unitarian congregations in central New Jersey found that among the most frequently prayed for topics were the likes of global unrest, family illness, finding romance, fear, interpersonal conflicts, family troubles, success at work or school, loneliness, and protection from enemies (7). Some of the spiritual topics mentioned were thanksgiving and forgiveness, although these could have also been oriented toward worldly concerns.

A study of college students discovered the majority of prayers asked for things (“petition”) instead of offering thanksgiving, adoration, or reparation (8). The students petitioned God 10.8 times more frequently, for instance, than they offered adoration.

A content analysis of prayer books by patients, visitors, and staff of the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, found 28% of the prayers to contain petitions to God and another 27.5% to contain both petitions and thanks to God (9). Of these prayers of petition:

[1] 43.3% concerned family or other people
[2] 40.7% asked for an intervention from God in a specific situation
[3] 25.5% concerned the petitioner’s own life
[4] 25% concerned health issues
[5] 21.2% asked for general blessings or divine presence.

Here one can see that worldly concerns are predominant, particularly concerning family and other people, as well as for God to intervene in a specific situation.

Netherlands. In 2000, scholars from the Netherlands conducted a survey of 1008 adults on the topic of prayer, including personal prayer outside of church (10). The questions asked were: “When do you feel the need to pray?” “What do you hope to achieve with prayer?” and “How do you pray?” Accordingly:

[1] 39% reported feeling a “need” to pray (i.e. sickness, death, problems, etc.)
[2] 48% reported desiring an “effect” of their prayers (i.e. help, insight, power, support, etc.) 

According to Smith, “the reported felt needs revolve around the very practical matters of sickness, death, difficult times, and personal problems. The most commonly hoped-for results of prayer are inner peace, help, insight, power, and support” (11). In another study of Dutch youth, most of the expressed needs in prayer had to do with personal problems, sickness, and happiness; and most of the desired effects involved help, support, a favor, remission, and rest (12).

England. According to “Online” prayers offered on a Church of England website, requests for God’s help with illness, relationships, work, and personal growth were most common (13). Prayer cards written by believers in a rural English church found 71% of the prayers cited a specific need for which help was asked and, of those, 76% involved illness, conflict, a death, or a disaster (14).

Tanzania. A 2011 study of rural Christians in this country were asked concerning “the primary focus of [their] prayers” (15). Accordingly,

[1] 31.5% focused prayer on family and children well-being
[2] 27.5% focused prayer on good health and being free from diseases
[3] 25% focused prayer on a good life
[4] 6.4% focused prayer on food
[5] 3.8% focused prayer on money
[6] 5.5% focused prayer on no particular wish

Results here reveal that rural Tanzanians were most likely to refer to worldly subjects when they prayed. Most popular is the well-being of family and children, followed by good health and a good life.

What Do These Studies Suggest?

It is probably going too far to suggest that if religion was incapable of promising persons the assistance of superhuman powers it would not exist. However, this data does suggest that,

“… most people who pray do so to ask a superhuman power for help and that the majority of topics about which people pray are this-worldly, practical matters as opposed to more “spiritual” or other-worldly concerns. Prayer is only one religious practice among many. But, to the extent that it is a central practice for many religions, these findings imply that humans indeed seek to access superhuman powers especially to secure blessings, avoid misfortunes, and solve problems” (16).

If this data is a clue as to why human beings are religious, it is because they seek the assistance of superhuman powers in worldly matters.


  1. Smith, Christian. 2017. “Why Are Humans Religious?” In Religion: What It Is, How It Works, and Why It Matters, 190-233. Princeton University Press.
  2. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 191.
  3. Weidong, Wang., and Lina, Tang. 2016. “Social Survey in Religion in CGSS.” Beijing: National Survey Research Center of Renmin University of China; Tang, Lina. 2014. Social Change and Religious Belief—Based on the Positive Analysis of CGSS2010. PhD dissertation. Renmin University of China; Zhong, Zhifeng., and Lulu, Li. 2016. “Open but Not Tolerant: An Empirical Study of Chinese Social Attitudes toward Religions.” Logos and Pneuma 45: 34-56.
  4. Baker, Joseph. 2008. “An Investigation of the Sociological Patterns of Prayer Frequency and Content.” Sociology of Religion 69:169-185. p. 178.
  5. LifeWay Research. 2014. American Prayer Practices. Nashville: Lifeway Research. Available.
  6. Notre Dame Study of Catholic Parish Life: Parishioners Sample; Leege, David., and Welch, Michael. 1989. “Religious Roots of Political Orientations.” Journal of Politics 51:137-162.
  7. Ladd, Kevin., and Spilka, Bernard. 2002. “In-ward, Outward, and Upward: Cognitive Aspects of Prayer.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41:475-484; Cerulo, Karen., and Barra, Andrea. 2008. “In the Name of…: Legitimate Interactions in the Dialogue of Prayer.” Poetics 36:374-388
  8. McKinney, John., and McKinney, Kathleen. 1999. “Prayer in the Lives of Late Adolescents.” Journal of Adolescence 22:279-290.
  9. Cadge, Wendy., and Daglian, M. 2008. “Blessings, Strength, and Guidance.” Poetics 36:358-373.
  10. Bänzinger, Sarah., Janssen, Jacques., and Scheepers, Peer. 2008. “Praying in a Secularized Society.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 18:256-265. p. 260.
  11. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 194-195.
  12. Janssen, Jacques., DeHart, Joep., and DenDraak, Christine. 1990. “A Content Analysis of the Praying Practices of Dutch Youth.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 29:99-107.
  13. ap Siôn, Tania., and Edwards, Owen. 2012. “Praying ‘Online’: The Ordinary Theology of Prayer Intentions Posted on the Internet.” Journal of Beliefs and Values 33:95-109.
  14. ap Siôn, Tania. 2007. “Listening to Prayers: An Analysis of Prayers Left in a Country Church in Rural England.” Archive for the Psychology of Religion 29:199-226.
  15. Primary Focus of Prayers of Christians in Rural Tanzania, Africa, 2011; Manongi, Freddy., and Balint, Peter. 2014. “Prayer Behavior in Rural Kiliminjaro, Tanzania.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 53:760-774.
  16. Smith, Christian. 2017. Ibid. p. 197.


  1. […] I came to see the value of Feuerbach’s hypothesis of religion as a projection in this woman’s desires. It further seemed to support some of my other views of religion, which is that religion is, in part, the manifestation of humanity’s inability to live peaceably with the discomfort brought on by mundane, Earthly existence and for the help of superhuman powers. We tend to overwhelmingly approach religion as a means to overcome Earthly trials; our religion is geared more towards practical than spiritual concerns if we go on what empirical data suggests. […]

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