The function of early evolutionary religion is to conserve and augment the essential social, moral, and spiritual values which are slowly taking form. This mission of religion is not consciously observed by mankind, but it is chiefly effected by the function of prayer. The practice of prayer represents the unintended, but nonetheless personal and collective, effort of any group to secure (to actualize) this conservation of higher values. But for the safeguarding of prayer, all holy days would speedily revert to the status of mere holidays.
Religion and its agencies, the chief of which is prayer, are allied only with those values which have general social recognition, group approval. Therefore, when primitive man attempted to gratify his baser emotions or to achieve unmitigated selfish ambitions, he was deprived of the consolation of religion and the assistance of prayer. If the individual sought to accomplish anything antisocial, he was obliged to seek the aid of nonreligious magic, resort to sorcerers, and thus be deprived of the assistance of prayer. Prayer, therefore, very early became a mighty promoter of social evolution, moral progress, and spiritual attainment.
But the primitive mind was neither logical nor consistent. Early men did not perceive that material things were not the province of prayer. These simple-minded souls reasoned that food, shelter, rain, game, and other material goods enhanced the social welfare, and therefore they began to pray for these physical blessings. While this constituted a perversion of prayer, it encouraged the effort to realize these material objectives by social and ethical actions. Such a prostitution of prayer, while debasing the spiritual values of a people, nevertheless directly elevated their economic, social, and ethical mores.
Prayer is only monologuous in the most primitive type of mind. It early becomes a dialogue and rapidly expands to the level of group worship. Prayer signifies that the premagical incantations of primitive religion have evolved to that level where the human mind recognizes the reality of beneficent powers or beings who are able to enhance social values and to augment moral ideals, and further, that these influences are superhuman and distinct from the ego of the self-conscious human and his fellow mortals. True prayer does not, therefore, appear until the agency of religious ministry is visualized as personal.
Prayer is little associated with animism, but such beliefs may exist alongside emerging religious sentiments. Many times, religion and animism have had entirely separate origins.
With those mortals who have not been delivered from the primitive bondage of fear, there is a real danger that all prayer may lead to a morbid sense of sin, unjustified convictions of guilt, real or fancied. But in modern times it is not likely that many will spend sufficient time at prayer to lead to this harmful brooding over their unworthiness or sinfulness. The dangers attendant upon the distortion and perversion of prayer consist in ignorance, superstition, crystallization, devitalization, materialism, and fanaticism.