Sunday, October 08, 2017

What Is Praying?

I have been too angry to write about the mass murder in Las Vegas, and too angry to write about the empty and reflexive offerings of "thoughts and prayers" that now follow every murder like it. But let me take this opportunity to talk about the question of what prayers are, and how they might be different from thoughts. America's general enthusiasm for religion masks deep, sometimes nearly bottomless religious differences, and so many, many people talk about praying, but use that word to mean very different things: sometimes contradictory things. What is praying, anyway?

Praying is different from simply thinking because it is directed outside yourself, to some larger spiritual power. (This also makes prayer different from meditation. I have prayed, and I have meditated, and they are not the same thing at all.) Prayers have an address outside yourself; they are addressed to a god or to some other spiritual being. Some people pray to departed ancestors, to deceased saints, or to angels. But it's always to a spiritual being of some kind, rather than to someone who is walking around with a cell phone right now. The big differences in the way people pray are their reasons for praying and what they think prayer can accomplish.

On one end of the spectrum, there are people who pray in an attempt to influence or control events in the real world. They pray to get a promotion at work, to avert a hurricane, to cure a loved one's apparently incurable cancer. If you're Huck Finn, you pray for God to give you some fish hooks. There is a lot of this, all over our culture, and it doesn't break along clear denominational lines.

I tend to be skeptical of this practice myself. It is, on a fundamental level, a straight-up magical practice, no different from the prayers dedicated to idols during a ritual sacrifice. ("O mighty Jupiter, are you hungry? We have a delicious spring heifer for you. And, by the way, is there any chance you could make it rain?") In some cases, it is a very obvious magical practice, as with santeria rituals or the self-described "prayer warriors" who imagine they are fighting various demonic influences over our world. I am not interested in sorcery as a religious practice, and moreover I find it disrespectful. This is the omnipotent Creator of the Universe we're talking about. It isn't Let's Make a Deal.

But at the same time, many people I love and respect do pray this way, some of the time, and I would not try to talk them out of it. When my mother's cancer came back, I wasn't telling anyone not to pray for remission. I never would. Someone close to me once prayed for a desperately-needed career break, got it, and followed through on a promise to return regularly and light more prayer candles at the place where he'd made the original prayer. I don't have a real problem with that.

But I think almost everyone recognizes that this kind of prayer is only appropriate for situations when you have already done everything else that's your power, or when the situation is completely outside your power to begin with. You pray for the hurricane to pass your town by because, really, what else are you going to do? You pray for God to cure a loved one's cancer because there is nothing else you can do about your loved one's cancer. Almost everyone gets that. Even if you consider such prayer to be a form of self-deception, human beings sometimes need a little self-deception to keep going.

Things become very different if you expect such prayer to substitute for action. Lighting a candle in a church after you've already done everything you can to prepare for a key job interview is one thing; lighting a candle instead of preparing for your job interview is another, much stupider, thing. Praying that the chemotherapy cures your family member is more than understandable. Telling your family member to pray instead of trying chemotherapy would be grotesque.

So if someone's offering "thoughts and prayers" in addition to concrete action, that's terrific. But if
the "thoughts and prayers" formulation means, as it too often does, "I intend to pray that no more mass murders like this happen again, and that is all I intend to do about the problem," then as far as I'm concerned you can stuff those thoughts and prayers. Your magic does not work. It is a pathetic self-deception, and nothing can be more arrogant that offering someone who is suffering your grandiose delusions in place of actual help.

And for what it's worth, I never prayed for God to cure my mother's cancer. God already knew what I wanted and how desperately I wanted it. Mom's cancer had not come back because God figured that I wouldn't mind. So I did not pray for God to do my bidding or work me a wonder, like some petty conjuror. I prayed for God to make me a better son while my mother was still alive.

Once you move past the vast number of prayers that aim to effect the visible world, you get to a gray area of what I will call funerary prayers: prayers dedicated to the spiritual welfare of the dead. From the skeptical atheist's point of view, these prayers are at least as pointless as prayers that attempt to control business, medical health, or the weather. In fact, they may be even more pointless, since they are aimed at an afterlife whose existence atheists do not concede. The only advantage of such prayers is that they are immune from immediate falsification. When you pray for a tornado to miss your house and the tornado destroys your house, everyone can see your prayer didn't work. When you pray for the welfare of your dead grandmother's soul, who knows? There's no way to tell if it's working or not.

This kind of prayer was once a flashpoint in the violent Catholic-Protestant disputes that roiled the West from the early 16th to the early 18th century. But the practice of this kind of prayer has now become popular even in denominations that technically forbid it. (Lots of people do it, but you might also meet fierce objections to the practice; it's slightly unpredictable.) I was raised in a tradition that focuses strongly on these prayers for the dead, and even if I doubted their effectiveness I would still participate in them for reasons of culture and tradition, for much the same reason I would still always make sure my loved ones got proper funeral rites. At this point, I can no longer specifically remember praying for my mother's soul during her funeral, but I almost certainly did.

On the other hand, I have seldom prayed for the welfare of Mom's soul since her funeral, largely because I don't believe she is in need of such prayers. I have some deceased relatives for whom I never pray, because I'm very confident of their spiritual state, and other relatives whom, for various reasons, I give a more strenuous effort. (I will confess that I once began a silent prayer for a departed family member with the phrase, "Okay, Lord. Let's not make this about me.")

If someone says that they plan to pray for the souls of the Las Vegas victims, I am okay with that. Flights of angels sing them to their rest, and so on. But I wouldn't accept that as the sole appropriate action.

The last major form of prayer, and the form most of my own prayer life centers on, is prayer asking for spiritual strength and guidance. I pray to ask for more patience, more generosity, better understanding. I don't pray for God to change the world around me for my convenience. I pray for God to change me, and make me better.

If you're a skeptical rationalist type, this might seem like simply a particular form of focused meditation, a way to focus my own mind on what, to an atheist, can only be an imaginary addressee. And if it were only that, I would still defend its value. But I will add, again, that the practice is very different from meditation. When I meditate I am trying to clear my mind, to leave it blank. Prayer very much engages the parts of the mind that meditation is trying to still. Prayer has a direct, positive focus.

When I pray for wisdom and guidance, I am asking for help deciding what to do. In effect, I am praying for instructions. Such prayer is never a substitute for action. It is a prelude to it.

If people say they will pray about what to do to stop another mass murder like the one in Las Vegas, I hear that and feel like it's the right thing to do. But appropriate prayer has to lead to proper action. "I've prayed on the Las Vegas murders, and I've decided we need to change some things," is what I'd prefer to hear.  But somehow that's never the party line.

cross-posted from Dagblog, where all comments are welcome (comments here are closed)

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