Prayer in a Spin

The Church of England seems to have raised a few statistical eyebrows with its confident declaration, contained in a press release on 26 March 2013, that ‘four out of five believe in the power of prayer’. The Church was seeking to mark the start of Holy Week and to refresh its Pray One for Me website, which it had launched last year. The press release is available at:

The Church based its claim on a misreading of the fact that 81% of the 2,015 adult Britons interviewed online by ICM Research on 13-14 March 2013, in a poll commissioned by the Church, had replied ‘something’ in answer to the question ‘irrespective of whether you currently pray or not, if you were to pray for something at the moment, what would it be for?’ This was slightly below the figure (85%) in the equivalent poll this time last year, covered by BRIN at:

The number saying they would never pray for anything was 14%, peaking at 19% among men and those aged 35-44, and falling to 9% for the over-65s and the youngest (18-24 years) cohort. The score for this latter age group (85% stated they would pray for something) was boosted by the 15% of them who said they would pray for their studies, which was five times as many as in the nation as a whole. The score was equalled by women but exceeded by the over-65s (89%).

Overall, the most popular subjects of prospective prayer were: peace in the world (31%), an end to poverty in the world (27%), a family member (26%), and healing for another (22%). Multiple responses were permitted. Overtly religious topics were not especially popular; only 8% wanted to pray for their spiritual life and 4% for their church, both figures being highest for the over-65s. The full data table, including breaks by demographics, can be viewed at:

In his coverage of the ICM poll on page 10 of the print edition of the Daily Telegraph for 26 March, John Bingham rather added to the Anglican spin on the results. Not only was ‘four in five’ somewhat inflated to ‘the power of prayer endures for six people out of seven’, by omitting the don’t knows, but the article (expressing similar sentiments to the Church’s own press release) commenced with the unwarranted interpretation of the findings that ‘a large majority of people still believe that prayers can be answered …’ (which they were never asked about). The version of Bingham’s piece now available online has evidently been ‘toned down’ from the print copy so is perhaps of diminished interest; it can be read at:

Two prominent bloggers have already hit back at the apparent spin. Writing on the New Statesman website, Alex Hern declared that ‘for a bunch of people who want to save our souls, the Church of England is remarkably happy to commit sins against statistics’. See:

Similarly, Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report argued that ‘the Church of England have gone rather rogue in interpreting the results’, and that ‘the Telegraph has gone on a similar flight of fancy’. See his blog for 26 March 2013 at:

Whatever the spin, it is also the case that the incidence of regular prayer is much lower than some might infer from the ICM question, which was deliberately phrased to be aspirational. In the most recent survey to cover the matter (undertaken by YouGov on 25-30 January 2013 for this year’s Westminster Faith Debates), 21% of the 4,437 respondents claimed to have engaged in private prayer during the last month. In terms of secular demographics, the proportion was highest among the over-60s (25%), Londoners (25%), degree-holders (25%), and women (26%).

In this poll, YouGov found above-average claims of monthly prayer among all those professing a faith, but particularly by Baptists (68%) and Muslims (72%). Some of the highest figures were for those deriving authority in their life from religious leaders (81%), religion (75%), and God (71%). Reported monthly prayer was five times as great for those practising their faith in public (67%) as for those who did not (13%). Thanks are due to Linda Woodhead for granting permission to quote these unpublished data.   

A previous YouGov survey, this time conducted for The Sun on 3-4 April 2012 with a sample of 1,742, discovered rather more Britons (28%) who claimed to pray monthly or more often, 23% less frequently, with 45% never praying (ranging from 55% of 18-24s to 33% of over-60s). However, fewer (31%, and no more than 40% even among the over-60s) believed that prayer actually works (in that it is heard by God or physically answered in some other way), with 45% disbelieving, and 25% unsure. The tables are still available at:


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