Praying for Control

Praying for Control March 12, 2010

by VorJack

During my “dues paying” years, I worked a job as a security guard stuck in a little guard shack. In order to avoid the feeling like I was in a sensory deprivation tank, I always kept the radio on to whatever station wasn’t playing country music. That meant that I occasionally listened to the local Christian station.

Praying to Change the World

Pullquote: Does an omniscient God need to be told that there’s a problem?

One thing I noticed was the constant call to prayer: pray for God to support the President, pray for God to oppose Congress, pray to protect the kids in public school who can’t pray for themselves, pray for the continued prosperity of Wal-Mart (seriously). Growing up Episcopalian, prayer was either a group ritual or a private meditation. This was something different: prayer as spellcasting.

I can’t think of another way to describe it. It doesn’t seem to make sense, even from within the conservative Evangelical theology. Does an omniscient God need to be told that there’s a problem? If God has a will of His own, do you really think you can brow-beat Him into action? If God has a plan for us all, do you really think you can get Him to change his mind?

Didn’t Matthew have Jesus say: “… in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matt. 6:7-8)

Random Reality

Pullquote: Bad things happen to good people, and also to careful people.

Last week, Daniel posted an example of victim blaming. It’s the classic “she’s asking for it” response to someone who dresses differently than you. I think victim blaming is a pretty good example of a certain kind of psychological trick that’s oddly related to this type of prayer.

As a number of people have pointed out over the years, “she was asking for it” is often an unconscious way of saying, “that can’t happen to me.” I wouldn’t go walking in that neighborhood, I wouldn’t wear that outfit, I’d never go out at night alone. Blaming the victim is a way of placing the cause of the harm on the victim shoulders, which implies that the victim could have avoided their fate. By extension, the speaker can avoid suffering that same fate with just a little common sense.

So the victim blaming is actually a psychological trick unconsciously used be the speaker to avoid facing one of the central facts of human existence: shit happens. Yes, you can take certain precautions that lower the probability that you might suffer calamity. But sometimes those precautions are not possible, and sometimes the dice are against you no matter how much you’ve done to improve your odds. Bad things happen to good people, and also to careful people.

Taking Control

Pullquote: Medieval Catholics prayed in order to feel that they had some control over death. Modern Christians pray in order to feel that they have some control over life.

I think its the randomness that really bothers us. The thought that all that separates us from a long stay in the hospital are the random firings of neurons in a drunk driver’s brain can be horrifying. Accompanying that is the horror of powerlessness: if that drunk swerves into us, there’s nothing we can do. Psychologists have shown that we always feel better we believe we have some control.

The above sort of prayer is another way to deal with that feeling of horror. It’s a trick that helps us feel like we’re doing something and that somehow we’re in control. Whenever we’re in a situation where we are powerless – when a friend is in the hospital, when bad things are happenings in far-off Washington, when the huge national economy is out of control, or just when we’re facing all the randomness that’s part of human life – at least we can pray and feel like we’re taking some control over the situation.

This kind of prayer still seems silly to me. Since I grew up in a liturgical church, it probably always will. But at least I think I can understand it now. Prayer of this type lets you do something, when there’s nothing really that you can do.

One thing puzzles me though. This isn’t a million miles away from the medieval Christian habit of praying for the dead to reduce the time spent in purgatory. Medieval Catholics prayed in order to feel that they had some control over death. Modern Christians pray in order to feel that they have some control over life. Do we now find life more horrifying than death?

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