Shuck and Jive

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Problem with Prayer

Those who have objected to my theological questioning regarding "God" often bring up prayer.   The question I am asked is along these lines:
"If you don't believe in God, then what is the point of prayer?"
While it is true that I do not think the universe has an "outside" and therefore, I cannot conceive of any being outside the universe, nevertheless old practices die hard.  Prayer is one of those practices.   I don't have a personal practice of prayer.  I do walk my dogs.

As a minister I am called upon to pray and I do it.   But I do have more questions than answers regarding prayer.

What is prayer?
Does prayer need a god?
What good is prayer?

We should be asking questions about prayer.   Coming up on Religion For Life is my conversation with Two Friars and a Fool about their new book, Never Pray Again.   This advice is from ministers who recognize the problem with prayer.    Better to do than to pray, they suggest.

I was intrigued by this series in the New York Times, "Should Atheists Pray?"  I think the word "should" is odd.  Who is making rules for atheists?  But I get the point.   Does prayer have any meaning and is it worthwhile without a god or without a belief in the supernatural?   There were some good essays on this topic.  I particularly enjoyed reading Hemant Mehta:
There’s a very real downside to praying. It lulls believers into a false sense of accomplishment. We cannot solve our problems – much less the world’s – through prayer. We often see people with good intentions praying for victims in the wake of a tragedy, but prayer is useless without action, and those actions make the prayers irrelevant.
and Hal Taussig:
The urge to pray comes not so much from some divine policing of our behavior as from needs to cry out in pain, roar with joy upon landing a job, or stand still to remember a friend. It doesn’t always come naturally, and sometimes needs mentoring of sorts – but prayer often flows generously and unprompted from human growth and longing.
Two different views.  I see the wisdom of both.

We have inherited a practice that was created in a time when people believed that things happened because of agents and that these agents could be influenced by animal sacrifices, prayers, incantations, and so forth.   Prayer is a carryover of that worldview.  Yet, it is an ancient practice.  Dancing for the gods and for the spirits is in our bodies.   We carry prayer in our muscles and bones even if we don't believe in agents.

I want to be clear.  I do not believe there is a supernatural being called God that answers prayers.   I do not think that any prayer changes anything except perhaps the person praying or the person who may feel better (or worse) for hearing a prayer.   Changing oneself and connecting with another is no small thing.

Obviously, there are people who believe differently than I.  They believe in the power of prayer.  So it is tricky when called on to pray with folks who believe differently than I do.  Part of the supposed success of prayer is that the pray-er believes as well.   I think this is a real challenge for ministers who are leaving a theistic world-view when the role of minister has been defined by that world-view.    This is a huge challenge for those of us who find value in religion.  This is a challenge for the church.  What do we do about prayer?

Should we purge prayer and attempt to become purely rational beings?   To be sure, I am in favor of a bit more rationality.  And yet the emotion of it can be cathartic.   I think it is a way of connecting people and of expressing compassion.

I feel a need to give prayer an upgrade.  This goes for corporate worship, too.   I want the practice of prayer without the belief in the supernatural.   I want Hal Taussig's emotional release with Hemant Mehta's reality check.  I want to pray individually with someone or in a corporate setting without the expectation that we think we are influencing a divine being to do things for us.  Even as a prayer may be addressed to "God" that doesn't mean I am speaking to any being except those in the room.   Prayer is a way of putting on the big screen what is really going on inside us and between us.

I do not take it literally.  But I do take it seriously.

I am hopeful that we will have more conversation about prayer.  What do you think?


  1. For me, prayer can be powerful, inasmuch as it can be the setting of intention, or an expression of compassion.

  2. I really appreciate this conversation. I don't understand prayer--the asking, whether for a personal favor or on behalf of someone in need. And I really don't understand the facebook posts asking all one's fb friends to pray for a particular thing and to forward that request so there are even more prayers. Do we really think that God favors those with the most hits? Do we believe it's a popularity contest? The poor person who doesn't even have a computer, let alone a facebook account, is just out of luck.

    Then there is the "God is great!" sentiment when someone just missed being in that traffic accident or when one gets a good diagnosis. I always wonder about the mental gymnastics a person has to do when things don't turn out so well.

    What I really want to be able to do is to feel respectful of others' beliefs while feeling that I'm being honest with myself. I'd like to be able to easily utter in public a "prayer" that doesn't offend but that doesn't pretend to be something it isn't. But I'm not there, so I hope to learn more here.

  3. I like Anne Lamott's words on prayer. She says there are but three.
    "Help me, help me, help me."
    "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
    At times, any one seems necessary and appropriate.

  4. On most occasions at congregate meals, which occur frequently in communities of older retirees, I find that "Grace" evolves into a voiced prayer. It makes me uncomfortable. I prefer that which I discovered in the movie "Seven Days in Utopia":
    "For food in a world where many walk in hunger,
    For faith in a world where many walk in fear,
    For friends where many walk alone,
    We give thee thanks."

  5. At this point in my life, I see prayer as spiritually connecting to the positive energy of the universe, which is God.

  6. Thank you all for these great comments. I can see the need for non-theistic prayers. I think Mary Oliver voiced something like I feel in one of her poems. She has a desire to say thank you but who to thank?

    On the other side, I still find some value in personifying the universe (or whatever) as God or as a Jesus admirer "the historical Jesus as an ishta deva" in order to voice my thanks, pleading, awe.

    I also desire to connect compassionately with others, and I do, and the language of prayer to God is the tool of the trade. The real value for me is not the actual prayer but communicating at a level of trust and vulnerability. I think Mountain Home put it well. [I want to]...

    feel respectful of others' beliefs while feeling that I'm being honest with myself

  7. I recently asked another progressive Christian about prayer (i.e. who are we praying to). He turned it around and emphasized the function of prayer: to put our needs and gratitudes out loud in front of ourselves and each other. So I lean toward Taussig's view. But verbally stating a prayer can give us impetus to go out and accomplish something. I suspect there is a lot concerning vocalization, breath control, mind/body, etc that we could learn from other traditions, and apply it to the Christian practice of prayer.

    Michael in SoCal

  8. Many years ago I had a friend whose father, a Lutheran pastor, held that the only prayer that was sure of an answer was "Give me the strength to put up with these fools and the wisdom to seek balance and serenity."