Bargaining with the Cosmos: Confronting a Secular Variant on Prayer

Bargaining with the Cosmos: Confronting a Secular Variant on Prayer March 22, 2019

Ben White,, CC0

Let’s begin with a story. This is the story I’m telling myself right now, about how my work situation will affect my writing. I was informed last Friday that I’d need to accept a great deal more teaching time-slots in order to keep my position, which is necessary for the visa critical to my longterm life in Colombia. The new schedule involves morning-through-evening availability six days a week, with at least five hours of transit daily between work sites, and it immediately reminded me of my seven-day schedule between multiple jobs for months on end in Canada. Back then, I was a deeply irritable person, and I especially came to resent any loss of writing time. It especially frustrated me that even as some of my stories were starting to be recognized and reprinted, I had no time to produce new work. And the novel? There was no way it was getting finished.

But my problem, really, was my ambition. I wanted to do too much, more than my circumstances allowed for, and that was what left me miserable. So now I have a choice to make, and I’m choosing not to let the thin tendrils of possible writing time in my new schedule become excuse for hostility. I’m choosing instead to put most of my writing goals to one side (and they’re substantial! I have a five-year plan!) to focus on maintaining the visa. This means accepting the possibility that for up to the next four years (if the work situation doesn’t change), I might not be able to produce much more than my Patheos essays. Why? Because my legal standing is more important. Reaching residency here is more important. And reaching residency while healthy, using my rare windows of free time for physical activity and community building, is essential.

But of course, I’m still hoping that it won’t actually be four years of waiting for my circumstances to change.

And what am I doing in the meantime?

I’m plotting. I’m calculating. And I’m bargaining.

But with whom? Or what?

A Religious Stereotype (for a Reason)

In my first year at university, I was placed in a United Church residency, where I encountered more religious people than I had ever known in my Toronto life. In high school I had had a Pentecostal friend, a Korean-Presbyterian friend, a Catholic friend, and a great many culturally Jewish friends of varying levels of actual god-belief. (In my class there was also a Buddhist and a Muslim, but the young Muslim lady had an especially difficult time making friends because her parents were extremely strict about her associations, and none of us did enough, I think, to try to include her.) But at St. Paul’s I met my first Biblical literalists. I talked with Christian youth who had never considered the implication of their evangelical mandate (that their god would condemn to hell someone who had not been informed of the existence of Christ). I attended a Mormon wedding dinner for the youngest daughter in a family of nine children.

And I went to a prayer group on a lark–not participating, just observing–and listened to a group of eighteen to mid-twenty-year-old Christians share all that they’d prayed for, and what the results had been, and what they were going to pray for in the coming week.

I heard, at this group, about the miracle of the car that didn’t start in Canadian winter, and then did.

I heard about the student who needed a B to maintain their average and got a B+.

I heard about the family dog that was going to be put down but held out long enough (i.e., the parents delayed it long enough) for the student to visit one last time.

And absolutely, it baffled me–thinking, as I was at the time, more as a basic atheist and less as a humanist. These were university students. Surely they had the cognitive ability to recognize that these weren’t divine interventions. Surely they had the common sense to realize how absolutely morally bankrupt a god would be, who started someone’s car in a campus parking lot but left children dying of dysentery and hunger on refugee walks from genocide? (The Sudanese genocide was a big part of our global news at the time.)

So what in blazes were these otherwise nice, friendly, and loving human beings doing?

Prayer for Those of Faith

Again, most of these students were Biblical literalists, the children of evangelical homes. John 14:13-14 is pretty clear on this accord–enough that it repeats itself:

13 And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.

14 If ye shall ask any thing in my name, I will do it.

Unsurprisingly, then, a significant part of the Christian book industry is dedicated to negotiating caveats and loopholes to phrasing like this, and also to celebrating the power of prayer in relation to all sorts of other potential benefits, like the ability to give thanks to one’s god, the ability to make oneself open to one’s god, and the ability to refine one’s humility/grace/readiness-to-be-an-instrument-of-one’s-god.

Actual studies about the impact of prayer, of course, are underwhelming. Granted, there are positive associations with meditation in general, but prayer in particular has extremely mixed results, including times when it is worse than a placebo. One of the most unfortunate is a 2006 study of cardiac bypass patients. The group uncertain if it was being prayed for and the group that knew it was not being prayed for had 52% and 51% complication rates, respectively… while the group that did know it was being prayed for had a 59% complication rate. And oh, there was a good chuckle in atheist circles when this study came out–because we realized that the people who knew they were being prayed for probably suffered psychomatically, making themselves sicker than they actually were because they knew people were praying over them, with all the cultural associations that exist between the act of prayer and being in dire straits.

But in reality, how dreadful: all those people further distressed in their time of illness!

And what I didn’t fully appreciate, as a seventeen- to nineteen-year-old atheist in a religious residence, was that the prayer itself was less important to these believing students than the sharing of prayer. For community-building, sure, but also for the ability to hear others affirm their inner convictions of outsize ability to shape and change the universe. For the chance to have others celebrate private examples of pattern-creation–something so critical to our species’ development and success!–as correct, and constructive, and powerful.

We atheists know the research. When spiritual people undergo neural testing, they use the same parts of the brain for processing personal beliefs that they do for processing the presumed beliefs of their god. A different section of the brain is used to process other people’s presumed beliefs. Thus, when you change a believer’s personal views–about homosexuality, or abortion, or any number of other issues supposedly framed by divine decree–you change their god’s beliefs, too, but not their perception of other people’s beliefs. That set of studies is a pretty darned rock solid demonstration, in other words, that there is divinity: as many gods, that is, as there are people who believe in them.

But then, that makes prayer something interesting, doesn’t it?

That makes prayer an opportunity for an individual to clarify their personal will and its relationship with the universe at large.

And even without naming, anthropomorphizing, or mythologizing the behaviour… that’s something we secular folk do as well.

Bargaining with the Universe

I don’t believe in a mystical cosmos. I don’t believe there is anything spiritual or unifying about the cold dead expanse of space in which amino acids formed by chemical reactions in the primordial Earth refined reproductive impulses over millions of years, through countless evolutionary dead-ends replete with suffering, to arrive at a point where 7.5 billion human beings could perpetuate stories about themselves, including thousands asserting our supposed centrality in the cosmic narrative, while on the cusp of total self-annihilation due to collective stupidity, selfishness, and greed.

(I’m a joy at parties, as you can well imagine.)

But I am human, too, which means that even if I don’t name a part of my inner consciousness “God”, I do feel an affectation of personal will, a curiously larger-than-life inner drive that comes out in my thought processes as urgent striving. But for what?

I have no desire to procreate–never have, much as I adore children. (In part because they had zero choice to be born into the world, and I feel they deserve all support until they can decide what to do with their one and precious life; in part, too, because they’re just about the most upfront human beings you’ll ever know!)

I do, however, have a desperate drive to connect, to be part of something greater than myself, to feel useful and valued, and to feel safe.

And most of the time, there are constructive, active ways to address this drive.

I can invite people over for a home-cooked meal. I can donate time and resources to the needy in my community. I can try to be present for my loved ones, and likewise try to moderate my expectations for receiving love in kind.

But when something like my current job situation emerges… a situation in which I have to wait–either for possible news about another job lurking in the background; or for the ideal window in which to take an unpaid vacation to go job hunting–what do I do?

What does that great I AM in me do?

It bargains. It twitches with nervous energy. It tries to establish by will and narrative alone a better relationship with the universe and its possibilities at large.

(And in the digital era? Oh my, yes, it also posts all my grand plans on social media, as if planning alone will compel the cosmos to let me achieve all my desired ends!)

The Secular Dilemma

Now, I still think it’s morally reprehensible to extol a started car in Canadian winter as a divine “miracle” in our suffering world.

But I do like that nifty Biblical refrain about sawdust and planks and 1st-century-eyes-without-safety-goggles.

And so what I worry about more–far more, now that I’m no longer an adolescent atheist, but a humanist trying to improve their practice therein–is whether I’m paying enough attention to the times when I mistakenly align my inner drive, that urgent striving and private pleading for something ideal, with actual outcomes in the real world.

Because down that road lies a sense of entitlement.

Down that road lies the belief that if you want something badly enough, you deserve it, and it will arise.

And so down that road–not to get too Jedi about it–lies anger, at everything and everyone that seems to be in the way of your sincerely and wholeheartedly articulated desires.

Last year I got my first tattoo, to mark the transition to my new home of Colombia. A part of it reads “nadie me debe nada”–loosely, “nobody owes me anything”. This mantra extends to the universe, too (as silly as that might sound, since I know the universe doesn’t feel), and in theory it’s liberating, but in practice, it’s tough to remember–even if it’s written now on my skin. I am not owed anything by anyone or anything.

I imagine it must be a lot tougher, though, for folks in communities where there is an expectation–through prayer–that clarifying your will and its relationship to something larger will give you good results in time. That if you haven’t received what you were after, you just weren’t praying hard enough, or with a pure or penitent enough heart.

(Or, conversely, that you’ve done enough if you’ve simply prayed about it, which can and does do tremendous self- and communal harm, too.)

But that’s their issue in need of a reckoning, my dear fellow secular types.

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