2014-01-04

The Most Common Objection to Prayer


There are several objections to prayer. I read them all the time on blogs, websites, and comments sections. I hear them from students and parishioners. Many people experience a profound discomfort with what prayer DOES, even if they pray all the time.


For instance, some say prayer is like talking to an imaginary friend or a cosmic sky fairy. Of course, this presupposes that God is not real. Rather, God is some figment of our imagination, projected upon the universe, to give life to our hopes and fears. But this is not so much an objection to prayer as it is to the very idea of God. It's kind of a "fundamentalist atheist" knee jerk response to prayer, which brings the argument into starkly binary black-and-white, right-or-wrong, all-or-nothing mode of discourse.

But when you drill down far enough, few ideas or events seem to actually have such a simplistic resolution. And if one can find rational justifications for the reality of God-- and there are many such as THIS or THIS or even THIS-- then this objection is not justified. But I don't want to write about rational justifications for whether God is real. I have done so elsewhere.

Others pose a more interesting-- and less fundamentalist-- objection to prayer: Namely that if the laws of physics are an expression of a "Divine Mind", then why would God need to abrogate or interfere with these laws to respond to prayer? God is transcendent and unchanging, after all, so God does not need to "respond" to anything. God has already done it from before time began, so prayer changes nothing, nor can it have any effect on the universe.

However, if we presupposed a "relational universe" in which finite minds interact with an Infinite Mind to express the infinite potentiality within Godself, then you get a THIRD kind of option between two options of "Prayer changes nothing because God is eternal" and "Prayer causes God to intervene to change the world in ways God would not have done otherwise". However, I do not wish to re-outline that solution here. I have done so in the essays "What does prayer do?" and "Miracles, Minds, Science Fiction and Scientific Probability".


However, neither is this is not the most common objection to prayer that I usually come across. The most common objection I see is usually expressed in ways such as this:

"There is so much need in the world! Why spend time praying about it, when you could actually go out and DO something about it?"

"Prayer is a passive activity that does nothing. What we need is people who will go out and change things!"

"Don't just talk the talk (in prayer). Walk the walk!"

"Don't just sit there (in prayer)! Do something!"

I think there are at least two answers to this objection (in addition to the essays I referenced above). The first answer will only be acceptable to those who believe in a God who is in relationship with the universe. The second should be acceptable to anyone, regardless of whether they believe in God or not. That's right. I just proposed that the second answer will not only be understandable, but even acceptable, to even an atheist.

There are two different kinds of answers because of the essential nature of what prayer is. Prayer may be simply defined as "human communication with God" using any and all human abilities, as a response to Divine grace. Thus, prayer has two essential dimensions: The Divine dimension and the human dimension. Although these two ways of viewing prayer are complimentary not contradictory, they can be considered separately.

Thus, one way to understand prayer is as a way to bring oneself into harmony with Divine Love, so God may work through us to heal the world. This is the Divine side, and thus will not be convincing to those who are on the fence about God's reality. But another way to understand prayer is as active meditation: Visualizing the good we want to see done in the world, so we can embody and enact it. This is the human side. And as a human phenomena, it can be understood and appreciated by humans in general.

Speaking as someone who has a rational faith in a God of Love who has expressed Godself through Jesus Christ, let us deal with the "Divine dimension" of prayer first.

I think that prayer does actually access what God is doing in the universe, and act as a conduit for more of God's Love and healing energy to be released into the universe. And, if God is both a conscious, communicative Mind and the Source of Love, it is not inconceivable that asking God to communicate with others would result in God imprinting a special sense of God's presence and Love on other conscious minds. And if God can communicate God's desires for healing and Love with other minds, it is not absurd to imagine a cascade effect, in which finite minds who have grasped infinite Love work together to do amazing things in the world.

So, in this sense, praying for victims of a tragedy that one cannot directly help, or asking God to intervene to stop oppression or warfare, is not "doing nothing". It is precisely doing something by asking God's healing intention to become aligned with the needs of the world, and the minds involved directly with those needs, to spur on creative solutions which might not have been thought of had those minds not come into greater harmony with God's healing potentiality.

And, as I argue in "Miracles and Minds", if the physical universe is something like the "Body of God" (i.e. the objective self-expression of Divine Potential) then it is not irrational to assume that the transcendent consciousness of God can work through God's "Body" to accomplish highly improbable things, in a way similar to how our consciousness is able to work through our bodies to do highly improbable things. Thus, in a relational and interactive way, the prayers of our minds open the universe to express more of the potential of the Divine Mind, to better enact the healing of the world.

Of course, all of this depends on whether one believes there is such a God or Divine Mind. If one doesn't, then one will not buy much-- or any-- of this first answer. So, let's turn to the second answer.

The second dimension of prayer is the human side. And so we ask whether prayer is justified on solely "humanist" grounds. And I think it is.

Is it ever justified to "visualize the good we want to see done in the world, so we can embody and enact it"? Of course! From small things to big things, we see this in every human endeavor. Would we want someone to bake us a cake without reading the recipe and visualizing the steps of baking? No! Would we want someone fixing our car without understanding and visualizing the mechanics of our vehicle? No way! Would we want someone to do brain surgery on a loved one without consulting the MRI and envisioning how best to do surgery? Heck no! And can we find political and social solutions to the world's biggest problems without inspired leaders who can cast a vision of new and innovative solutions? Never.

So we can easily see that visualization and imagination is necessary for almost any endeavor worth doing: From the perfect golf swing, to writing a great novel, to providing medical care, to leading a country.

And how do we visualize and imagine? Does this come out of thin air without something specific to ponder and meditate on? Not usually. Medical manuals, X-rays, and MRI results form the background upon which doctors visualize new solutions. Polling data, demographic studies, legal structures, and political philosophy form the matrix from which national leaders imagine political solutions. Even empirical data, research studies, and an intuitive sense of the potentiality in nature forms the basis upon which scientists visualize new solutions to old conundrums.

If this idea of "meditating upon data to visualize new solutions" is true for almost every type of professional endeavor, what about the private endeavor of becoming a healthy, moral, self-actualized human being? Of course. Every human who aspires to personal and moral excellence needs to put put aside time daily to meditate and envision how they can become "the best version of themselves".

No wonder a standard Buddhist reply to the objection "Don't just sit there! Do something!" is to say "Don't just do something! Sit there!" And by this they mean that in order for action to be meaningful, skillful, and well-directed, it must first be visualized and meditated upon.

Now, Buddhist meditation is often wordless contemplation of the Infinite grasped through the finite. Which, I will admit, is a bit too "open ended" and "free form" for all but the most advanced practitioners of meditation. All the great religious traditions-- Hindu, Jewish, Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim-- have a version of this "wordless contemplation". And all of them reserve this advanced form of meditation for the most advanced practitioners. And all of these religious traditions ALSO have verbal prayer as a way of meditating and connecting their adherents to the Divine.

Verbal prayer includes prayers which use pre-written texts as an aid to devotion, short mantras that can be chanted or sung, as well as impromptu prayers that express the existential needs of the individuals. When viewed from the human side of prayer, these texts and words have a very important function. They hold up certain concepts to the mind's eye so that practitioners can meditate on them, roll them around in their imaginations, and begin to visualize themselves enacting them. Prayers for love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, and healing become a powerful way to imagine these virtues into reality. Meditating on these virtues, asking for them to become real in the lives of the communities involved, is a powerful way to actually release these virtues as people collectively envision these values being enacted.

This is basic human psychology, practiced by every effective organization throughout time. All effective forms of social mobilization have always included practices that help adherents envision the key values of the organization to they can embody them in practice. In fact, without such mechanisms of meditation, visualization, and practice, organizations loose their reason for existence and fall apart, because the central vision has not been successfully crystalized and instilled in its members. There is a special "religious" name for these practices and mechanisms for visualization: Liturgy. Liturgy comes from a Greek word which means "work of the people". It refers to the work of a community to put into practice the highest ideals held by the community.

Thus, if we want to "do good" in our communities, and "become the change we want to see in the world" we must have a "liturgy" which helps us rehearse, repeat, and imagine the values which guide our practice. Without such a liturgy, we will soon find ourselves lost, with no sense of forward drive or purpose. The myriad concerns and distractions of life will eat away our time and attention, until days and weeks and years pass by without having done anything we believe to be significant.

So, if we are to create a daily liturgy of some type, which presents our core values in a way we can envision and embody them, how shall we do it? We could make a list and read it several times a day: "I think it is important to do/be X, Y, and Z." That is definitely better than nothing.

Or perhaps we could enlist our own subconscious, and elaborate our list into something like this: "I invite myself to envision X, to dream of embodying Y, and to feel myself living out Z." That could be more effective. But it still feels a bit contrived, in my opinion.

Or perhaps we could take a leap of faith, and believe that there is a Transcendent Self who made our selves to become beings of excellence, creativity, and beauty. And perhaps then I could address my values and virtues to this Transcendent Self: "God, please help me to become X. Empower me to do Y. Work through me to accomplish Z."

And so even the most staunch atheist, or most fervent humanist, can begin to see why prayer is not "doing nothing". In fact, even on completely naturalistic grounds, prayer is doing something incredibly important. It is aligning the self with her or his highest values, by meditating and envisioning a life of virtue, so that people can go out and embody this life for the healing of the world.

Of course, this still leaves open criticisms of prayers that are selfish, silly, pretentious, hateful or exclusionary. But note that this is no longer an argument against prayer in itself. It is an argument that certain kinds of prayers are better than other kinds of prayers. And this is essentially a religious argument. One has already admitted that prayer CAN do something good. The question becomes: How can we form our prayers to do the most good, to become the highest version of ourselves?

And at this point, I just invite people to pray with me "as the Spirit leads". If you want to know how I pray in community, take a look at the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. And if you are interested in how I pray privately, check out my Prayermap. And if you don't want to do either, that is fine too. I encourage you to pray, meditate, and imagine yourself becoming someone filled with Love and grace and peace. You never know, you might just experience a profound sense that God is with you, working through your prayers, while you are at it!


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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.