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Why pray?

September 5, 2010 4 comments

What’s the point of praying to a God who allows evil in the world?  Why are innocents made to suffer?  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why doesn’t praying make people more moral?  Why does God seem to answer some prayers and not others?  If we were made by God, shouldn’t prayer reconnect us to God, and make it easier to believe?

Folks who believe in God have found ways to quiet the cognitive dissonance that comes with the whole invisible man in the sky silliness.  But coming to a deist model that feels right doesn’t answer why we should pray.  I’m not talking about the giving thanks kind of prayer.  If you believe in God, then giving thanks for what God has given you and the world is obvious.  I’m talking about intercession prayer.  I think this kind of “Why pray?” is actually two questions.  Why does evil exist?  What does prayer do?

Different faith traditions have different answers to these questions, according to their histories and dogmas.  Whenever I am faced with dogmatic answers to reasonable questions, I find looking across different religious traditions for commonalities can often get to the answer in spite of the trappings.

Different words, same answer

Islam says we live in God’s world, and to live in harmony with His world, we have to follow His rules.  Some rules are given, but not a lot.  God gave mankind free will to experiment and discover God’s laws.  So the boss will fire you if you mess up, but then doesn’t tell you the rules.  This creates an environment for seeking best practices.  Priests are allowed to interpret God’s word and fill in rules, which is where we get things like Sharia Law.  But regardless of what your Imam says, you try your hardest to live by God’s laws, in fear of the consequences of wandering outside the lines.  Muslims pray for forgiveness of any transgressions against God’s will.  Evil is seen as man’s doing.  If God kills an innocent, then it is taken on faith that God must have had a good reason, a reason beyond our understanding.  Muslims take solace in the assumption that God is fair and generous and loving.

Buddhists tell us that wandering off the virtuous path (Right Work, Right Language, etc.) burdens your soul with bad karma that must be worked off, either in this lifetime or subsequent ones.  So your sins stay with you until you make good.  Evil is therefore a very personal affair, between you and your future ability to live harmoniously in the world, even without getting God involved.  Bad things happening to good people are explained as old bad karma catching up.  Buddhists pray for strength and clearheaded “mindfulness” to be able to stay on the virtuous path and to do good that makes up for past sins.  Natural disasters that befall innocents are a reminder that nothing in life is permanent, and that our clinging to the illusion of permanence is a principal impediment to happiness.

Tucked into the same boat as the Buddhists are the Vedics who also believe in karma, but have deist explanations for luck, disasters and appeasement.  And then there are the Taoists who see us as corks on the sea of fate.  If you don’t try to find the flow of the universe and go with it, you will be swamped.

American Indian, Australian Aborigine, and African Animus faiths, for purposes of this discussion of prayer, are similar to the Indian Vedics.  Gods control the universe and we have to respect and live in harmony with those gods if we hope to prosper.  Again, bad things happening to good people are seen as evidence that the god’s plans are beyond our understanding.  And prayer is used to give praise and to seek guidance and forgiveness.

Christians start with the assumption that God will forgive them.  This is an evolution from the Old Testament Hebrew God who had lots of rules and very little forgiveness.  (Joseph Campbell once said his computer was an Old Testament god for this reason.)  So God is seen as capable of punishing bad behavior, but also likely to forgive in the end.  Jesus allowing himself to be sacrificed marks the turning point in God’s ability to forgive.  This provides Christians with great solace, that no matter how badly they screw up, even If they have to wait until they die, God still loves them and they will be forgiven.  In day to day life, this allows Christians to not obsess about little sins and get back to being productive members of society (i.e., the Protestant work ethic).  Again, as with the other religions we get from Abraham, Judea and Islam, Christians pray to God for the forgiveness of sins, and disasters that befall innocents and good people are explained as part of God’s mysterious plan.

What changes?

Common through all of these world views is the notion that one can pray to God (or the non-deist equivalent) and change the course of fate.  But how does that mechanism work?  Easterners feel that prayer changes the person praying, to make them better at seeing the righteous path, and to align themselves with the order of the universe.  Their view is the world is as it should be, and it is we that need to be aligned with it.  Westerners pray to God for forgiveness, strength and mercy.  Forgive me my sins, give me strength to persevere, and if you are going to smite me, please go easy.  But again, there is the notion of discernment, that God has put all the answers we need in the world, and what we are praying for is help in finding those answers.  The native religions take this one step further, and actually ask for guidance.

So if everyone agrees that prayer changes the person praying, can we please put to bed the notion that God listens to our prayers and changes the world according to our wishes?

If we stop thinking God changes the world at our request, then our place in the universe becomes much more humble and reasonable.  How egocentric are we to think God’s job is to fulfill our requests?  What if God’s job is not to look out for us, but that He shows His love for us by giving us strength and intelligence and wisdom to find our way?  If that’s true, then the existence of evil in the world stops looking like God is asleep at the wheel and letting all this bad stuff happen while he is supposed to be protecting us. 

Bad designer

Maybe God is just a bad designer, to have put us in a world with so much arbitrary unfairness and irony.  But here we are.  Shit happens.  And as the Designer of All, maybe it is God’s fault.  Maybe the evil in the world isn’t so much a part of God’s mysterious plan as it is the dirty little secret of God’s lousy design work.  Maybe that was the compromise to allow free will into the world.  Atheists agree on this point, saying the world is a work in progress and therefore full of imperfections.

But since we live in a world full of landmines, even if it is God’s fault those landmines exist, we pray to God for the strength and wisdom to navigate around those mines.  The smells, bells, chants, songs and mantras of religious ceremony appeal to our right brain and make us feel more in tune with the world.  Even if inspiration and clarity don’t come, we walk away from church, or temple, or drum circle feeling like we should at least try again.  Nietzsche said religion is the opiate of the masses.  I’m thinking it’s more like coffee for the soul.

So rather than asking why pray to a God who allows evil in the world, maybe a better question is, in a world full of complexity and randomness and pitfalls, does praying to God help?  We give thanks to God to reaffirm our humble place in the universe.  We ask Him for forgiveness so we can move past our mistakes and get on with our lives.  And we ask Him for guidance to navigate a dangerous world.  If we come out of church feeling more sure of how we fit in and how we are going to survive, then yes, prayer helps.

What about morality?

A corollary question is, if God is the source of all goodness, then why doesn’t praying make one more moral?  Studies have in fact found no correlation between religiousness and morality.  Since we have determined that God doesn’t usually come down and make changes in the world, there seem to be limits to what we can expect from His intervention.  It seems that, once you give a horse free will, then even God can only lead it to water and can’t make it drink.  If people read their culture’s myths about right and wrong, and adopt their religion’s fear/respect/admiration of their deity, and yet still go off and commit crimes against their fellow man, than should we blame God?  Shifting blame to God for people’s bad behavior seems a cop out.  God gave us free will.  If we make a hash of it, then it is up to mankind to enforce its own laws.

The God-human connection

Lastly, but possibly most importantly, why we should pray depends on the connection between God and humans.  If God created us, as most cultures’ creation myths would have it, then isn’t prayer a reconnection to our divine origins?  Shouldn’t prayer make it easier to believe in God?  Isn’t this connection alone enough to make us want to pray?

Various faith traditions have mechanisms that attempt to prove this connection.

Christians see the Holy Spirit as evidence of God’s presence among us.  When Jesus resurrected himself, he told his disciples that he had to go take his place back in heaven, but that he would leave the Holy Spirit behind to inspire mankind in his absence.  So when a religious experience leaves a person feeling “touched” or “moved by the Spirit,” it is taken as evidence of Jesus’ continuing connection to us.

The Catholics, specifically, measure whether a dead person has achieved an elevated position in Heaven by whether they can influence the physical world from beyond once they have been summoned through prayer.  If three prayer-requested miracles can be demonstrated, then the dead person is added to the ranks of Saints who can be called on to provide divine intervention.

The Jews and the Wiccans go prayer one further and have spells their priest(esses) cast to gain divine intervention.

On the other hand, scientists have tested whether prayer causes changes in the physical world and found no statistically significant effect.  People recovered from illness at the same rates they would have been expected to recover with or without people praying for them.

I am left to conclude that one’s belief in the human-deity connection is an intrinsic part of one’s belief in the deity at all.  If your upbringing and life experience have led you to believe in God(s), then how mankind is connected to that God(s) is part of the faith package.  Therefore the way you communicate with your deity and the effectiveness of that communication depends on how well you follow the methods laid out in you adopted faith tradition.

What to expect

However you pray, I still maintain that it is worth a little analysis to see what is reasonable to pray for.  As with anything in the real world, there are limited resources and there is limited time for change to take place.  We have, regardless of our faith tradition, inherited stories of the Age of Miracles where our God(s) demonstrated infinite power to affect change.  We are told that our God(s) can do anything.  I think the intent of those stories is to reset our opinions of ourselves down to more realistic and attainable goals.  But the dogma has left us with God(s) capable of anything, and access to God(s) through prayer.  So why can’t we pray for anything our hearts desire?  Go ahead and ask.  But don’t blame God(s) when the results come back downsized.

All the world’s faiths have in common that prayer affects the person praying more than changing the world around us.  It is we who create evil, and it we who see random arbitrariness as unfair.  So it is we should be praying for our own betterment.

Categories: Religion
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