What good is prayer?

Friday, November 14. 2008

Subjects: God, Prayer, religious belief, Christianity, atheism, World Trade Center, terrorism.

The fundamental value of prayer goes directly back to your own individual image or vision of the nature of God—we can assume an atheist has no interest in prayer, except perhaps as an item of distant curiosity. If you believe there is no God, there is no point in praying to one.
The mental image you may have of God, it seems to me, can be classified as falling somewhere along a continuum from a specific, very “human-like” image—the “great bearded man” of much of early religious art, to a very generalized, non-specific “consciousness” where you have no idea as to what a physical appearance might be like, but you think there must be something out there, but you’re willing to admit that you don’t, maybe can’t, know what it is like, on to a conception that God is some kind of amorphous “force” of existence, which you may see as including your own body and being, or as external to yourself. Parenthetically, I’ll add that concepts of Jesus, Mohammed, other prophets, saints, icons, etc. are all trappings of specific religions added to the basic concepts of God, and I cannot see how one could call them fundamental and basic, though I certainly respect their importance as teachers and role models for specific values.
If you conceive of God as a very human-like consciousness, the response to your prayers has to seem to be very whimsical. You may have been in a particular situation where you prayed for help, and you received it or you did not. Perhaps the situation of the World Trade Center attack can provide food for thought on the subject of prayer.
When the planes crashed into the towers, there were undoubtedly people who were killed instantly and outright. They had no opportunity for prayer. Most probably, there were other people, husbands, wives, relatives, friends, who prayed for their safety as the public became aware of the attacks. For those who were killed instantly, any prayers by people removed from the situation has to be seen as irrelevant to the safety of those killed. Psychologically, prayer may have helped these other people in thinking through the possibilities and preparing for their own future actions, so I’m certainly not saying that prayer was bad for these people—but those killed certainly reaped no visible benefits.
We know there were people trapped above where the planes hit; these people would soon have come to the realization that death was, with very high probability, imminent. One can envision a variety of prayers, from an anger at God (I would think most probable from people who think of God as being like themselves), to a “Lord help me get out of this situation” (which would mean the person probably thinks of God as a listening consciousness), to a prayer of “Thy will be done” which would imply that you have no basis for believing God would provide one outcome over another. Within a very short period of time, all of these people were dead, no matter what they prayed.
There were people in the towers below where the planes struck. One can envision, most probably, the very same sorts of prayers. Some of these people escaped, some didn’t. Was prayer likely to have been a factor in determining who did and who didn’t escape? I do not see any means of rationally saying that prayer resulted in God taking a hand in determining who escaped and who didn’t. I can see an influence of prayer for those who prayed, “Lord help me get out of this situation”, as they would have been putting their brains to work in a problem-solving mode, to see how they could most efficiently get away from the buildings. But we can understand this as a matter of a particular form of mental discipline, and we don’t really need to resort to Great Bearded God to understand the usefulness of this form of prayer.
We live in an incredibly complex world, and many situations are more complicated and much less stark than the conditions for people in the World Trade Center. But the rationality of prayer, it seems to me, falls only into the realm of trying to view a situation from outside ourselves. “Lord help me get out of this situation” is putting our brains to work, examining alternatives, projecting consequences from known causes, and planning courses of action. A prayer of “Thy will be done” may have the psychological effect of calming a person, but does nothing to prepare him or her for the actions that may be necessary in the future (of course, being calm may have its own beneficial effects on future actions).
When one sees (or hears) other people praying for him or her, that too can have its own beneficial effect. If you are the one being prayed for, you understand that other people are concerned for your well-being and happiness, and perhaps that forestalls depression and physical weakness. I believe we have to understand that randomness is a factor in our world, and that sometimes, in our view, bad things happen. A hurricane hits the coast; from our viewpoint, that’s a bad thing. But from the viewpoint of an impersonal nature, it’s just one of the phenomena that just happens. Perhaps if we had the capability to measure and correlate every atmospheric perturbation, we would know when and where to expect them, and there might come a time when intervention by scientists is possible, but prayer, it seems to me, is unlikely to influence the path of a hurricane—it will go where it’s gonna go.
My feelings, in sum: pray if you want; it’ll only hurt if you obsess at it and close your mind to the realities of the situation in which you find yourself. It may help you frame your thoughts about the situation. Understand that prayer can affect your emotions, and use it for a positive affect. If you think there is a God sitting on a great white throne in the clouds listening to your specific prayer, you are free to believe that, but I don’t think I’d bet on any specific action from such a God, especially an action contrary to known and established scientific principles. Many magazines and books relate anecdotes of such occasions, and indeed the events related quite probably did occur as related. One can never determine if the phenomenon was the result of random events, the basic effects of natural laws, or the result of a familiar intelligence. The final conclusion has to be, that normal and usual rules for presuming the “winner” for any particular point of view about prayer, is that it is not subject to normal debate; believe what you wish, pray as you wish, it is only harmful if you believe prayer will overcome well-known laws of the physical universe.

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