The Bottomless Hole of Prayer Requests

Lately, I’ve been spending some time reading Unequally Yoked – a blog about a Catholic/atheist interfaith relationship from the atheist perspective, which is a great concept, and tends to attract interesting commenters from both sides of the theological aisle. There was one recent post, Reading and Praying… One of those I can do, which I left a comment on that I’d like to expand into a post.

The author, Leah, wrote a post about trying prayer at her boyfriend’s suggestion, which didn’t sway her. A multitude of religious readers suggested she try again in slightly different ways, like the following:

But all of this uneasiness is one great reason the Catholic and Orthodox Churches emphasize the saints and prayer to them as intercessors for us. It is naturally easier to identify their human experiences and individual stories, and perhaps easier to talk with them so that they can talk to God on your behalf.

I grew up strictly recitating prayers, which I find comforting in the sense that those prayers were given to us in the Bible. Then I found the Fr. Hardon prayer book in my house, which is this little red book packed full of more (written down!) prayers:

Twice a week, every week, for several months – it’s up to you to decide how long, but I would not give up before six months have passed – visit a local Adoration Chapel. Just bring yourself – no books, no Rosary, no cell phone, nothing – and pass the half hour in front of the Blessed Sacrament. You don’t have to pray – though you can, if you feel so moved. You don’t have to pay attention – though you can, if you feel so inclined. You don’t have to do anything except stay put for one half hour. If you spend the half hour there and find the whole arrangement laughably absurd, so be it. But please stay there for the half hour. Then come again next week.

There’s something I realized early on in my journey to atheism, and these comments show it: the biggest problem with requests to try prayer is that they’re a bottomless hole. No matter what you do – say the sinner’s prayer, pray the Rosary a hundred times, go to Mass every week for a year, pray to a particular saint, spend half an hour per day sitting silently in front of a box of wafers, or even perform an exorcism on yourself – if it doesn’t convert you, there will always be theists who’ll tell you, in the most polite way and with the best of intentions, that you’re doing it wrong, and that you should try something else if you really want to experience God.

When does this stop? When are you entitled to give up and conclude that the reason you didn’t get an answer is because there’s no god to give one? Obviously, if you listen to religious apologists, the answer is “never”. There’ll always be something else to try, some other ceremony to perform, some different wording to choose – and if you truly exhausted every possibility, there would still be the all-purpose excuses, like “hardness of the heart”.

To all the religious evangelists who urge atheists to pray, I ask in all sincerity – when will we have done enough? If we had limitless patience, free time, and energy to carry out your requests, would there ever come a time when you’d agree that we’d tried everything reasonable to communicate with God and counsel us that it was OK to stop? I very much doubt that any theist would say so, although anyone who disagrees is welcome to prove me wrong.

You could spend your whole life, and a thousand lifetimes more if you had them, trying every last ritual and every last prayer that every member of every religion claims will open a channel between you and God. You could spend six months in silent contemplation at a Zen monastery, take ritual baths at every sacred well in India, ingest peyote or ayahuasca with Native American shamans, handle poisonous snakes at an Appalachian backwoods church, make a pilgrimage to Mecca and bow before the Ka’aba… the list goes on and on and on, with new items being added all the time, as human beings in the realm of religion exercise their limitless creativity untrammeled by fact. It’s impossible for any one human being to try everything that every theist has ever conceived of.

With that in mind, I ask this question of every religious evangelist who wants me to try his ritual: Why should I believe that this will work? What evidence can you present to convince me that this particular exercise is more worthwhile than any of the other rituals invented by any of the other thousands of faiths on this planet? I’m willing to try anything reasonable suggested by anyone who has a good answer to this question – but so far, it’s a question that no one has been able to satisfactorily answer.

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