October 20, 2015

Dear Christians: Revisiting the concept of prayer

One of the cool things about blogging over the past year has been watching my own views evolve. It's been really neat to push boundaries and read new things and to see how those activities influence my perspectives.

Last year, I looked at prayer in three different posts, but only two of them were my personal views of prayer.

In the first, Dear Christians: I Think Praying Is Selfish, And It Makes No Sense to Me, I talked about how I find praying futile and selfish. Not only does God already supposedly know the outcome of the request you are making, but you're also asking for resources to be diverted to your specific request, which implies that it is more valuable than other requests. That was my rationale. In the second, Dear Christians: Another Word on Prayer, I talked about how futile prayer is in my opinion.

Both of these posts were from July 2014. Since then, I've had a good bit of time to reflect on my views of religion. I like to think that I have outgrown my blanket "angry atheist" phase (although I do still feel angry sometimes, naturally). My views on faith have also evolved, in part because I've shifted my reading material from those actively arguing against faith to more resources focused on living my best secular life. The shift in perspective has been huge.

One of the topics I've grown on is--you may have guessed it--prayer.

No, I haven't magically decided that it works, but I have come to see why prayer is not necessarily a bad or pointless thing in and of itself.

I thought of this last night while I was reading Phil Zuckerman's Living the Secular Life. Zuckerman related this anecdote from his own life. His first serious girlfriend was the daughter of a pastor, and one day, Zuckerman attended church with her. During the course of the service, her father called a young couple and their baby up to the stage, and explained that the couple's child had a heart defect and wasn't expected to live for another month. He asked the congregation to pray for them, right then. Zuckerman says this about the experience:

I remember that as I sat there, my initial reaction was: flummoxed. Pray to God to heal a baby's defective heart? Really? But doesn't God, being omniscient, already know that this baby's heart is defective? And doesn't God, being omnipotent, already have the ability to heal the baby's heart if he wants to? Isn't the defective heart thus part of God's plan? What good is prayer, then? Do these people really think that God will alter his will if they only pray hard enough? And if they don't pray hard enough, he'll let the baby die?

This bit pretty accurately sums up how I, personally, have voiced my thoughts on prayer over the past year--and on a superficial level, it's still true. I still find it pretty pointless.

What I don't find pointless is the effect that prayer has on people. Zuckerman touches on this too, summing it up like so:

So while I sat there, absolutely convinced that there exists no God who heals defective baby hearts, I also sat there equally convinced that this mass prayer session was a deeply good thing. Or if not a deeply good thing, then at least a deeply understandable thing.

Zuckerman describes what's so understandable about the experience--the support that this young couple felt, support that would indubitably be there when their child passed.

Even before reading this passage, my views on prayer had started shifting. For instance, I have friends that meditate. I don't question their claims that meditation helps them to clear their thoughts and deal withs tress. It would never cross my mind to see it as a pointless act, although I don't meditate myself.

Why then take such a reflexively negative view of prayer? I don't have a clear answer, but I'd say that it was part of casting off the nets of my former faith, at least for me.

And don't mistake me--there are times when prayer is harmful. When parents pray over their children instead of getting them medical attention, those prayers are harmful. When people pray for an abusive partner instead of doing what they need to in order to get away, those prayers are harmful.

But in general, I've come to see prayer as a type of meditation. It makes people feel connected to something larger than themselves, it offers clarity and stress-relief, and that's good enough for me. I can't promise I'll never question it again, but for now....for now, I think I have a new understanding.

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