Confessions of an Anonymous Coward

Monday, June 19, 2006

The Power Of Prayer

Been a while since I updated, hasn't it? Well, I'd said I might not update often. Anyway, there is something I've been wanting to make an entry about, but the last week I've been out of town and very busy.

So. I'd mentioned a few entries back that I still found myself frequently praying, even though I've accepted that I don't believe in God. It's not a complicated prayer; it's not that I'm asking God to help me with daily tasks, or thanking him for anything specific. It's kind of a rote prayer that I'd sort of come up with and would often think to myself back when I did consider myself a believer: "Dear Heavenly Father, I love thee; I thank thee for everything; I say this in the name of Jesus Christ. Amen." It's just a silent prayer I'd offer up from time to time.

And, looking at the times when I'd do it, I can see now why I keep doing it. I'd never offer up the prayer when I was in the middle of something that had my attention, or when things were going well. It's always when I was just walking from place to place and had nothing in particular to do, or when I was stuck in some tedious or vexing situation I was going to be in for a while.

In short, the prayer wasn't really much more than a way to keep my mind occupied.

And it had become a habit. Whenever I was in such a situation, I'd offer up the prayer. And it's a habit that stayed with me even after I'd stopped pretending to myself that I believed in the God I was praying to, and after the prayer had therefore ceased to retain what little meaning it had once had.

Well, there are better things I can occupy my mind with. I have enough else going on that there are plenty of other things I can be thinking about in situations like those. And I'm trying to make a point of thinking of those other things instead. Offering up that little prayer was just, well, a cop-out, a way to feel like I was doing something when I really wasn't.

You know, though, in another way, I guess that's all any prayer is. It can feel satisfying, in a way, to pray for God to help us with things out of our control--assuming we believe in God, that is--because it makes us feel like we're doing something about it, even if that something is just asking some other (imaginary) entity for help. That still seems to give us some illusion of power, the feeling that we're not completely helpless; even if there's nothing directly we can do, we can still do something by indirectly by calling on Someone who can.

Is there any harm in that? It doesn't do any good, certainly, to call on some nonexistent Being for aid that won't come, but does it hurt anything? Well, there's the fact that belief in said Being itself involves a suppression of critical faculties, and an acceptance of doctrines that may have negative repercussions--but beyond that, taking that as a given, does praying to God for help do any additional harm? I suppose there's the danger that one might tend to rely on God too much, and to expect Him to do all the work and help even when there is something one can do oneself, but that's a danger that religious people do seem to be conscious of. A joke I've heard over the pulpit a couple of times gets at this point; it goes something like this:

There's a man who's caught in a flood. He's stuck on the roof of his house, and prays to God to let him escape before the waters rise too high.

Another man floats by, holding onto a log. He sees the man on the roof. "Jump over here and grab the log! I think it'll float us to shore eventually."

"No," says the man on the roof. "I have faith that God will save me."

The log floats away. The waters rise higher. Only the very tip of the roof is still dry.

Later, a woman comes by in a rowboat. She sees the man on the roof. "Hop in! I'll row you to safety."

"No," says the man on the roof. "I have faith that God will save me."

She tries to reason with him, but he remains adamant, and she eventually rows away. The waters rise higher, and cover the roof completely; he's still standing there on the roof, but the water's up to his waist.

A helicopter flies by. The occupants see the man on the roof, and drop down a ladder. "Quick! Climb aboard!"

"No," says the man on the roof. "I have faith that God will save me."

The people in the helicopter try to convince the man to accept their help, but he refuses to get on, and eventually the helicopter flies away. The waters rise higher...and the man drowns.

When he gets to Heaven, he comes face to face with God. "I prayed to you for help, and I had faith that you'd save me," he says. "Why did you forsake me?"

"I sent a log, a boat, and a helicopter," God replies. "What more could you want?"

As I said, this story is told by believers, so clearly they're cognizant of the danger of relying only on God and not working for themselves. Still, I suppose people do fall into that trap sometimes. But all in all, I guess, given that one believes in God, praying to God doesn't do any additional harm, as long as one does whatever one can on one's own as well. Of course, though, belief in God carries its own problematic consequences anyway, as I finally came to terms with much later than I should have.

Most of the discussion above deals with prayer asking God for things, but some prayers, including the prayer I'd been mentally reciting myself, are only prayers of thanks, for which the explanation that one offers them to give oneself a feeling that one is accomplishing something doesn't seem as obviously to hold. Why do people offer up those prayers, then? Part of the reason, I suspect, is just because they feel they're supposed to; they're taught in church that they should thank God for things. But I think there's more to it than that. Thanking God for something is acknowledging that you believe He was responsible for it, that He is actively interfering in your life--and, presumably, that you can persuade Him to interfere in the way you want. So, really, it's more indirectly still a way to reinforce the idea that you can do something about things that otherwise seem beyond your control. If you live righteously and find favor with God, He'll help you out in all sorts of ways! Hallelujah!

So...I guess really that's what prayer mostly comes down to. Giving oneself the illusion of power over things beyond one's control. Then again, that's a big part of religion in general, really, isn't it? Christianity, at least--convincing oneself that with God's help one could do things one would otherwise be incapable of?

The problem is, of course, that God isn't really oht there helping, and there are some things we simply don't have control over. That may not be an easy fact for a lot of people to face, but that's the way it is. And for my own part, from now on I'm going to try to spend my down time in more productive ways than reciting rote gratitude to an imaginary being.


At 6/25/2006 7:04 AM, Blogger The Ridger, FCD said...

Rote, habitual prayer is common and yet I've never understood its purpose. I suppose it's to keep one from thinking secular thoughts, but it seems to me that it devalues the religious ones ...

This isn't a slap at liturgical services, by the way, where the memorized words free you to think about what you're saying instead of scrambling for the right page in the prayer book. I mean just sort of mindlessly repeating parts of a chant or prayer the way I find myself with words of a song running through my mind

Not to mention my intrinsic doubt about the efficacy of prayer in the first place. Thanksgiving is one thing, petition quite another: God, violate the laws of the universe for me, admittedly unworthy though I am. (I forget who formulated that like that... not me, though.)

No big conclusions here. Just musing on why some people want these rote prayers. A good piece of music is preferable, imo.

At 6/30/2006 7:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've recently gone through a similar experience to yours - admitting to myself that I didn't believe in Christianity, anymore. And I also catch myself saying prayers quite often. Yes, some of them are requests - old habits are hard to break, but a lot of them are thanksgiving. I still haven't figured out how to address this emotionally - I have a lot of good things going for me, and I'm grateful for all this because I know that a lot of it just comes down to the luck of the draw, and not anything in particular that I did. When I was religious, I'd thank God for these things. Now, I still have that feeling of gratefulness, but nobody to thank.

At 7/05/2006 3:42 PM, Blogger Qalmlea said...

Thank the universe, or the laws of chance. :^) It's always worked for me. (I know this is late, but I was on vacation last week)


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