Opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent the views of the congregation I joyfully serve. But my congregation loves me!

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?
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