Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Problem with Prayer

I do not feel comfortable when people ask me to pray for them, or for a situation in the world, or when they offer to pray for me. There are many things about prayer that disturb me. Actually, they more than disturb me: they offend me. To understand why, let me present a hypothetical, but entirely plausible, situation.

Imagine that I were involved in a multi-car collision on a highway, in which several people were killed, but from which I and my family walked away unscathed. It is natural, under those circumstances, to offer some kind of spontaneous prayer of thanksgiving. Many of us, even those of us who do not believe in God, may do this, given the circumstances. I understand this impulse, and I, too, would feel, if not gratitude, at least relief that I had not been injured. However, once the initial moment has passed, and I have had time to reflect on this from a safe perspective, I ask: what, if taken literally, does such a prayer imply? Do I think that God has intervened on my behalf to spare me? If so, why did he not also spare the others? Was there some special reason why I was spared? Am I better than the others in some way, or more important? Has God made some kind of decision, along the lines that we are sometimes forced to make in a hypothetical lifeboat situation? We have one lifeboat with room for only ten people, but there are fifteen of us: who do we leave behind? Does God have particular criteria that make some people more important and valuable than others? Or does he simply draw straws, in which case there are no grounds for considering myself more highly valued, and no grounds for gratitude. Looked at in the cold light of day, a prayer of thanks to God hardly seems appropriate. Are the families of those who were killed also thanking God, for “taking them” into his care, for preventing their ongoing suffering? Are those who face long months and years of painful suffering also thanking him, for “the opportunity to grow”? It seems to me that the concept of gratitude becomes completely meaningless under the weight of these qualifications.

Now let’s consider intercessory prayer, a situation in which we ask God to intervene on our own or some else’s behalf to bring about a particular situation which would not, presumably, come about without such an intervention. Suppose I pray, following the above accident, that the insurance company will agree to repair my car, rather than write it off, which would result in a considerable financial loss for me. What precisely, if we pray to God for this, are we expecting God to do? Are we expecting him to interfere with the assessor’s neural pathways, in order to change his thought processes? Do we expect God to do this indirectly, via some other event in the world, which will influence this person’s thought processes? I will not go into the implications of this for causality, except to point out that if God “causes” the assessor to experience something similar in his own life that influences his decision, the problem is simply pushed back one step in the chain of cause and effect. Clearly, to my mind anyway, any direct intervention by God in the thought processes of the assessor would be a serious violation of that person. And then there is the outcome. If the outcome is not what I expected, I then proceed to thank God for bringing about an outcome that was clearly better for me than the one I envisaged. Again, we are back to a gratitude that is meaningless under the weight of qualifications.

If prayer has any effect in the world at all – and billions of people would doubtless argue that it does – it is in this: it is in the change that it brings about in the thought processes, perceptions and behavior of the pray-er. If I pray, it changes me, not God, nor the world around me, nor anyone else in it. Of course, taking time to quietly reflect on a situation, entering a meditative state to allow our minds to clear and our unconscious processes to work, requires no supernatural intervention, nor any belief in the supernatural. If this were all that people meant by prayer, I would have no problem with it. Unfortunately, it is not.


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