Other Thoughts on Prayer

Other Thoughts on Prayer January 15, 2011


The pitch that prayer can change anyone’s life, if you give it a try, is hard to rebut.  The obvious objection, as is often the case with religious experiments, is that the definition of success and the length of time required for a valid trial are never time.  But even ignoring that problem, the odds are already stacked in favor of religion.  There’s plenty of reason to think that prayer could be beneficial even if God did not exist.

If prayer is a way of setting apart a part of the day to reflect on your behavior and the needs of other people in your life, it’s hard to imagine how it wouldn’t be of use.  If the goal is achieving miracles, curing the sick, or communing with God, then the claims get harder to support.  A simple period of reflection, which is all prayer is likely to be when attempted by an atheist like me, is probably going to have some salutary effects.  It did for me the last time I tried.

During Lent last year, when I agreed to try praying, I ended up in a fight with an acquaintance that I found quite upsetting, particularly because I couldn’t understand why the other person was so furiously angry and deliberately cruel.  My boyfriend suggested I should pray for the person who was upsetting me, and I balked. That sounded like tattling on the other person to God.  If I was in the right, and the other person was behaving unreasonably, presumably God already knew that, and it was hardly noble to complain about it.

After all, it was unlikely, even if I were right, that I was acting in the precise way that would minimize the conflict.  As long as some fault belonged to me, the other person was irrelevant.  The only thing that mattered was that I behave correctly — it made no difference whether my stumbling block was another person or inclement weather.

If you’ve noticed that the logic above bears a more than passing resemblance to my mindset in my Kantian days, you’re faster on the uptake than I was.  My focus on my own fault and responsibility was solipsistic to the point of ignoring the fact that the person upsetting me was a person.  Once I noticed the way I was thinking, I was able to honestly wish that the other person was calmer and that our fight and her anger wasn’t such a burden on her.  I was able to release the feeling that wishing for her to be happier and healthier was really just an indulgent wish that my life be easier.  I thought about her, not just her effect on me.

Since then, I’ve had an easier time dealing with feelings of frustration with others and trying to wish well and be a help to them, rather than seeing them as obstacles to be overcome.

Browse Our Archives

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • You continually, and most people also, make statements such as "if god is omniscient what does it matter…" – In this I think you are over looking a MAJOR point, at least from a Catholic perspective. The act DOES matter. Baptism requires water, even though the supposed effect has nothing to do with the actual ritual. God is god, so why did he have to ACTUALLY get tortured and executed? If you already are truly sorry and repentant why do you have actually speak your sins with the sacrament of reconciliation. The Catholic world view is of a 'sacramental' universe. A sacrament is a physical manifestation, and the physical component is very important to that view. The Catholic reading of bible stories will note the physical component to almost anything – Jesus doesn't just say "poof you are healed" he tells people to go do some mundane task and they are healed. I am at a loss for specifics at this moment and am about to go to sleep so I am not about to go down that Internet-search rathole.This viewpoint means that in addition to all the benefits you cite for 'prayer' you have a real tangible need to ACTUALLY express your thoughts to God. Think about the Catholic view of the Eucharist, why would God need to become bread to feed you? – Because this is a physical universe and physical things matter. Ultimately it is one of the many reasons why it is the height of ridiculousness when Kirk asks "What does God need with a starship?" — All the usual warnings apply about this post coming from another mass attending non-theist who can't really claim to know any better.

  • A common example is when Jesus would tell the lepers to go show themselves to the priests, and on the way, they are healed. Or when Jesus asks who touched him, and Peter says, Lord, we are in a crowd, tons of people are touching you; and Jesus says, No, someone deliberately touched me. And a woman came forward, trembling, and in her faith in Jesus as the Christ and the act of touching him, she was healed. The act makes the spiritual tangible, and the spiritual manifests itself through a person's actions.

  • You give two examples of prayer: meditating or reflecting on life, and asking for miracles.I would suggest a third: engaging in conversation.From a Catholic perspective, religion is all about relationship with God. And, as in any relationship, the process of connecting with one another, the conversation itself, is as important as the content of the conversation.For an atheist, this might just be taking a moment to say, "Hey, anybody out there? Well, here I am, if you want to talk."Just don't expect a direct, verbal reply. Here's the reason: God is an infinite, transcendent creator; we are finite, concrete creatures. So when he speaks to us, he speaks in ways that both convey the fullness of his meaning and yet do not overwhelm our ability to receive him. If I ask, "Are you there?" he might reply with a visit from a friend, or a moment of natural beauty, or an insight into philosophy, or all of the above.As a Catholic, I find the answer to prayer is more often a person than a sentence. Jesus himself is the response of God to the prayer of his people. The Sacraments allow me to meet Jesus directly in a way suitable to my humanity.