I get asked sometimes what the final straw was for me.
You know, that point where I finally said about my religion, in a properly buzzed and over-enunciated Southern drawl, Eee-yeah, Ah do believe Ah have had just about enough of this shit.
For me, the final straw was prayer.
Prayer is such a deeply-rooted form of Christian devotion that it might well be one of the religion’s very few universal doctrines. To recap for those folks lucky enough to have never tangled with religion, the idea is that there is a god who can not only hear prayer but who ardently desires that people pray to him. And most Christians think that he talks back during prayer, like a real two-way conversation like you’d have with your bestie on the phone, and that he even uses these prayers to shape reality around the person uttering them.
There are prayers of worship, like cheerleading for Jesus: “Yay! You’re wonderful and wow I just love being your gal!”
And there are prayers of supplication, which are asking this god to do something supernatural: “Please let me get this job,” or “Oh god please don’t let that tornado hit my aunt’s house.” Generally when we talk about whether or not prayer works, this is the kind we’re talking about, but just bear in mind the distinction as we go along here. It’ll be important in a few minutes here.
Despite the emphasis most Christian leaders assign it, I don’t think most Christians actually pray much. Christians have been self-reporting that some 85% of them pray at least once a week. That figure’s stayed steady over many years–which arouses my suspicion considerably. In an age when we can finally tell that Christians who self-report constantly attending church really aren’t attending much at all and when so many people are leaving church or disengaging (pulling away) from other overt–and way more reliably measurable–practices, it’s weird that the one form of devotion that almost completely relies on self-reporting has stayed so steady.
Christians know they’re supposed to pray. But when I had Christian roommates, or spent extended periods of time with other Christians, I never saw them pray beyond obligatory meal benedictions or church-sponsored occasions where others were watching. I don’t think that Biff, my then-husband, ever prayed on his own at home–until I deconverted and he decided to Grandstand For Jesus at me–and he was a lay preacher and youth pastor, always presenting himself as a “prayer warrior”. I prayed on my own, sure, but not as much as I knew I should have considering I was convinced that I had the Red Bat-Phone to God in the palms of my two hands.
And that’s the problem, isn’t it?
If anybody had asked me while I was Christian, I’d have sincerely said that prayers reached right to “God” and that a real live deity was standing by to take my call. I’d have said that this deity was aching to hear from me just like a real parent would. Moreover, I’d have meant every word.
So why did I not pray more?
There’s an old episode of the Penn & Teller show Bullshit! wherein a young woman is convinced that an alien abduction has left her with super-powers. Specifically, she claims she has the gift of telekinesis now–the ability to move objects by the sheer force of her will. After an uncomfortable pause in which she is probably quite aware that her claim is less than credible, she concedes with visible embarrassment that she should probably practice it a bit more than she does.
Gee. Ya think?
If I suddenly realized I had real, live, honest-to-goodness telekinesis, I’d be like a thirteen-year-old boy discovering masturbation. You’d never get me out of my room, I’d be messing with it so much. I’d quit my job and join a convent or something in the Andes Mountains so all I would ever have to do is stare fixedly at ballpoint pens on my desk or whatever it is one does to strengthen one’s skill at telekinesis. I’d go on the road and show it off and collect whatever money James Randi is offering nowadays.
But this young woman doesn’t live like she has this remarkable talent. Though she looks uncomfortable admitting she isn’t good at using her “gift,” she likely figured out early on that she must say something like that immediately to avoid inevitable–and humiliating–requests she can’t possibly fulfill.
And in the same way, over time I began to notice–dimly at first to be sure but with increasing awareness–that I wasn’t living like someone who had at her disposal a Red Bat-Phone to God. It took a very long time, though. After a couple thousand years of prayers being nothing but wasted breath and misinterpreted coincidences, Christians have come up with a truly astonishing number of asterisked conditions to the Bible’s repeated promises about prayer. Immediately after the Gospels and Acts, I discovered the excuses and weasel-words that got rolling at the very start of the religion:
* The person asking was sinful somehow.
Whenever a prayer didn’t seem like it produced the desired, asked-for results, the first thing I was taught to do was “examine my heart” for any trace of noncompliance. Since no Christian is perfect, this excuse works most of the time.
* The person asking was out of “God’s” will or didn’t really need whatever it was.
It’s hard to imagine how a baby dying of illness fits into the plan, but it wasn’t up to us to question our dread master’s whims. Alas, this excuse supposes that people can actually know what this deity’s will is in the first place. I guess one finds out when the prayer isn’t answered–sort of. Maybe not though. Just as someone had no idea if a prayer would be fulfilled or not in the first place, that person had no idea why, either.
* The request was otherwise selfish.
This was an easy accusation to make, since most Christians pray for their friends and family or for some benefit to themselves. We’ll ignore that in the Bible, people asked for selfish things all the time.
* The person asking, or someone around that person, secretly doubted even the tiniest bit.
Got a baby dying of illness? Well, hopefully not a single person in the vicinity will doubt that the baby will be healed, because the Christian god’s a sniping, petty, narcissistic bastard that way. It’s like they’re saying He was gonna, you see, but then Sister Susan gave him side-eye and he stomped off because well to hell with this whole thing! Either that or he’s got serious performance anxiety. (“It’s okay, Jesus, we’re sorry, nobody’s gonna judge; come back out here and try again and I promise nobody will giggle this time.”)
* The request was made out of a desire to “test” this god.
I never understood this one myself–I knew too many Bible stories about people testing “God” and nobody minding at all–but I heard it frequently; it’s also used even today by Christians to distance themselves from inevitable questions about their own version of alien-abduction telekinesis and to anticipate–and hopefully prevent–any uncomfortable debunking of their claims.
* “God” isn’t an ATM giving out prezzies.
For what it’s worth, I agree. I don’t think it’s terribly respectful to treat anyone like a magic sugar daddy. But Christians are told to pray for everything–absolutely everything–which sets up a rather confusing catch-22: You’re not supposed to treat this god like an ATM, but you’re also supposed to ask for stuff.
* He answered–he just said “no.” Or “not yet.”
This is, of course, total and utter ad hoc bullshit made up on the fly as well as an equivocation, messing with the different shades of meaning of the word “reply” in a way that is repulsively and self-servingly dishonest. One might as well say flying weasels stole “God’s” reply.
What are we left with, after all of these excuses filter through the failed prayer?
One must pray in exactly the right way, for exactly the right things, at exactly the right time. One must not be selfish even a little, or ask out of pride. One must not doubt even the smallest bit that it will work–in fact, nobody around at all can have even a smidgen of doubt. And one must be ready to somehow count dead silence as an answered prayer.
Even knowing these rationalizations for why prayer absolutely did not do what every Christian I knew (including myself) insisted it did, I still prayed for stuff.That’s why, when a pastor at our church fell ill with brain cancer in the early 1990s, I was one of the first folks to hit my knees in prayer for his healing.
Pastor Daniel was in his 40s. He’d married the main pastor’s daughter (the main pastor himself was one of the biggest names in the entire denomination, so this was on par with someone marrying into the Bush family). He was a friendly, sensible fellow with a loving family, but he began getting weird, awful headaches shortly after his appointment to the pastor position. When he finally went to the doctor about it, the diagnosis came quickly–and the prognosis was very poor. Not only was this going to be one of those super-fast, super-painful brain cancers, there really wasn’t any treatment for it at that point.
Well, we Christians had the ultimate healer, now, didn’t we?
Many tens if not hundreds of thousands of people were praying around the world for Daniel’s healing. We “claimed it in Jesus’ name,” as the frequent saying goes. We were all totally convinced that because so many of us were asking for this thing, and it was totally not selfish, and surely it was in our god’s plan (which we knew because we’d had “Words of the Spirit” many times in church that we took to be divine proclamations of the same), and our whole religion was simply awash in miracle claims of healing, that this was nooooo biggie. We laid hands on him often, anointed him with oil till he probably felt like he was about to go into a roasting-pan, and raised our voices without ceasing.
You know what happened, right?
magic spells prayers, Daniel died in agony.
He didn’t even live out the length of time the doctors guessed he had left.
We were all just reeling afterward. Like most fundamentalist churches, we were all really close to our ministry team. But we’d all been so sure. Even the night before his death, we’d been claiming his healing and getting words of prophecy that he would soon be up and about.
And Daniel died anyway.
Within minutes of hearing the news, the Evangelical PR Machine swung into high gear: the rationalizations flew like flights of arrows. But rather than comforting me like they seemed to be comforting everybody else, these excuses just sickened me. Days earlier I’d have nodded earnestly and agreed. But right then, they sounded completely hollow.
My then-husband, Biff, moved us to a smaller “planted” church right afterward. He didn’t ask first, but rather just told me we were going to start going there instead. I didn’t mind. I liked the couple who’d started this newer church, and Biff had been offered a volunteer position as leader of the entire youth ministry (don’t get excited; there were like three youths). I saw the move as a much-needed fresh start.
Some months later we returned to our first church for a big revival service. This sort of event was a common occurrence in my denomination, with smaller daughter churches coming together at their parent church for seasonal gatherings featuring rowdy preaching, singing, and probably a bunch of folks speaking in tongues, dancing “in the Spirit,” giving prophecies, and a variety of other effusive displays. It was a nice way to catch up and see old friends and keep up with the news.
During the altar call, at a point when I was sitting by myself, an older lady came up to me after the service while Biff was swanning around up front doing his “full-body prayer” routine and shrieking in tongues. She had been a member here for years, though I hadn’t talked to her often at all when I’d attended this church. She began talking to me in an overly-chummy way as if we were old friends, purring that she wasn’t very surprised that we’d moved to Brother Gene’s church, what with the disaster that’d happened the night before Daniel had died, when Biff had invaded the hospital room during the family’s deathbed vigil.
This was total news to me.
Biff had told me he was going to church that night, but I sure hadn’t known he’d be going to the hospital. When the church lady saw my surprise, she knew she had scored and began telling me all about how Biff had basically tried to strong-arm his way into Daniel’s room at the hospital with a bottle of Pompeiian olive oil in hand, stomping in all dramatically like he was in a movie or something, shouting in his vaguely-Arabic-sounding glossolalia, demanding to be allowed to anoint the dying man because apparently “God” had personally told Biff that this was it, and if he did this in obedience then Daniel would be healed completely that very night.
To be fair, what Biff did was completely in keeping with what our entire religion advised.
But Daniel’s family had, quite rightly, thrown Biff out on his ass and asked him to please leave them alone to say goodbye to Daniel in peace, according to this lady who was all but gloating by now.
Biff hadn’t moved us to Brother Gene’s church out of a desire to help a new planted church, but rather because he’d been completely, utterly, catastrophically humiliated by the rejection.
Daniel’s whole family had been at that vigil, along with the senior pastor’s entire family. Every one of those people believed in and preached constantly the power of prayer. And there was no way they would have mistaken Biff’s behavior for anything but absolute, total certainty that it’d work. As the saying goes, my then-husband believed in Christianity’s claims one-hundred-and-crazy-percent.
But they’d known that Biff’s actions weren’t going to result in a healing that night. They’d been downright angry and offended that he’d done something so over-dramatic, insensitive, and intrusive (again, with reason! I was never mad at them at all). It wasn’t till I saw such a bare-knuckles collision of his delusion with their reality that I could recognize what was happening on a smaller scale in my own life.
I saw in a flash that they–and I–knew perfectly well that prayers don’t really work.
When push had come to shove, they’d dropped the pretendy fun time games so they could get down to the serious business of saying farewell to a beloved family member. Shit had gotten real, and I recognized at once that they’d needed to get real themselves while they still had time left to do it. They were not in the mood to humor Biff’s childish pretendy fun time game even though it was a game they themselves had taught him to play. In the same way, I lived my life like I already knew prayer didn’t work.
A lot of other stuff fell into place, too, incidentally. Now I understood why the ministry team seemed so distant from Biff in the days after Daniel’s passing–and why he’d been so reluctant to hang out with any of them after services, even why he’d withdrawn from his volunteer work right before we moved to the new church. I gingerly, carefully confirmed the lady’s story later with some other folks, who were all genuinely astonished that I hadn’t heard about it before then or that Biff hadn’t mentioned it, which added to my deep humiliation (though I understood, as well, why Biff might have skipped discussing the incident).
When I later raced back to my Bible, trying to recover my certainty about prayer, all that happened was that I saw more and more clearly that reality did not line up with what the Bible said.
But the worst (best? Best.) was yet to come: I began to think about my own prayers.
I finally noticed that I’d really only been praying for simple stuff–hedging my bets, so to speak–stuff that’d happen anyway most likely, if I asked for anything at all. I’d been playing it safe. I’d been doing mostly worship-style prayer for years. But I remembered a time when, like Biff, I really believed I could pray for absolutely anything and get it. I’d prayed for an end to cancer–for world peace–for healing for blind people and amputees–for mountains to move, just like the Bible had said I could and should.
When had that changed?
Oh, it must have been long, long ago. I hadn’t even noticed the shift.
Over time, like most Christians inevitably do, I had figured out that those dramatic requests never get fulfilled. So I had begun praying in the way that my friend The Apostate writes about—
First, Christians typically pray for things they know can actually happen in a universe where their god might not exist. For example, when someone is sick, many will pray for healing, but this is almost always done though secondary means. E.g. “Father, just please give the doctors wisdom, Father, as they perform this operation, Father. Just grant your peace and just bring healing to Brother Phil.” I know people will still pray for miracles, but it’s often couched in this type of hedging language and almost always applies to physical processes that are hidden from view. Those even more in touch with reality will often simply pray that their god will give the person peace or help them through the experience in some way. Nobody prays for God to regrow the limbs of amputees. It’s just accepted that he won’t…because he can’t in a world in which he probably does not exist.
That was me, in a nutshell.
And when I recognized that I’d fallen into that type of prayer, I understood that I must have realized that prayer didn’t really do anything supernatural at all some time ago.
I just hadn’t wanted to admit the truth to myself.
Once I began questioning this most basic of Christian beliefs–the idea that there’s a supernatural agent listening to and answering prayers–not much stopped me from glancing at the other beliefs and questioning those as well. I found no reason to believe in any of them, either. We’ll talk about them all in time. I’m talking about prayer now because it was the big one for me. Other ex-Christians might have had different experiences, but this one was mine.
I’m not peeved (though I know Christians will likely misunderstand and say I am) that I didn’t get a pony and a plastic rocket from what I thought was a supernatural being–but folks, the whole religion is based around the idea that there’s a god involved with it who answers prayers and does stuff for his believers, so there should be ample evidence that he’s doing exactly that. There just isn’t. At all. I’m hurt that I was taught something untrue and believed it for so long. I’m angry that I was put on an inevitable collision course between reality and indoctrination. I grieve and commiserate with all the others of us who had to figure out the hard way that we’d been raised to believe lies.
As for Biff, I never once threw it in his face, no matter how upset I was with him later–not even after the breakup, not even while he was stalking me–that he’d been humiliated at Daniel’s deathbed vigil.
Some things are just too hurtful to ever say.