All I Can Do Is Pray  

Monday, August 18, 2008

This morning I was listening to one of my co-workers tell her story about her weekend. At one point she said, "All I can do is pray," and immediately I thought "yeah, much good that will do you." But instead of listening to the rest of the story I got stuck on that phrase. Why do so many people pray?

Really, prayer has become such an alien concept to me that it's hard to remember what it was like to pray. I had to really think back about when I was a Christian. Did I pray? What did I pray about. Did I pray for people?

At first I couldn't remember a single instance of prayer until I thought about those moments when I just simply didn't know what to do, like when my cat ran away or when I was trying to get home by my 11:00 curfew and there was no way I was going to make it 5 miles in 5 minutes in my Dad's clunker truck.

And I think that's why most people pray. In a difficult situation, when there's nothing that can be done except accept what comes next, prayer helps people feel like they have some control over the outcome. And if they outcome turns out to be good when you're fearing the worst, then Presto! prayer works.

And for me my mumbled prayers were more like conversations with myself. I never really expected anything to change, but I held out hope. The fact that my cat returned and I ran into every green light on the way home even made me think my prayers had done something for a short time.

But we all know that it doesn't always turn out like that. Inevitably prayer will do nothing at the worst of times, like when a loved one is dying. Even though I was taught that prayer could lead to miracles, after I tried and experienced.. nothing, I came to believe that prayer was meaningless, at least if I was looking for a specific result.

But I think most people hold out hope because, like the lottery, there's that chance they may hit the jackpot. The fact that that chance is probably coincidence, is never really noticed. And even when our prayers are obviously ignored, people find ways to rationalize the outcome.

God has a plan for me.
She's in a better place now.
God works in mysterious ways.
I didn't pray enough.
I didn't want it badly enough.
I didn't know what I was asking for.

If any person told me to come to him for help and answered my pleas with silence, I certainly would lose faith. So why don't Christians lose faith in God? I think it's most Christians brought up with religion aren't challenged in their beliefs. Many people have such a good life that an unanswered prayer may mean something as trivial as finding a poor parking spot. But even when something bad happens to someone good, there's always a way to rationalize it. That person deserved it somehow. Or it's a test of faith. Or it's the plan of an unfathomable god.

It's impossible to argue against that kind of logic. Except that I think the rationalization is worse than the prayer. To accept that God wouldn't answer your prayers or the prayers of other believers requires either for you to believe that God is willing to put people through terrible pain and sadness for some higher reason or believe that people don't deserve to have their prayers answered.

So why do so many people believe prayer works? I'm sure there's a not a single, simple answer. But I heard an interview on Atheist Talk a few weeks ago that gave me an idea. In the episode I was listening to deconverts were talking about their experiences as believers. One deconvert was encouraged by his church to seek out rational, scientific explanations for the world around him. But he realized over time that the church doctrine did not match up to rational, scientific explanations. He explained that church doctrine was considered as much of a fact as any scientifically provable fact. The idea that Noah's flood was literal was as equal of a fact as the fact that the earth revolves around the sun. As a believer he never saw the difference.

I think most believers don't see the difference. When your raised to believe a certain way, you accept that belief. It's only when your belief comes in conflict with some other idea or thought that you begin to question it. Sometimes the belief is questioned and discarded, sometimes it is molded and refitted to not come into conflict, and sometimes the opposing thought or idea is discarded as false. That process can lead to three people with completely different world views. But there is also the person who has never had their beliefs threatened, never given them much thought in how they relate to the rest of the world. And that generalization probably fits the majority of Americans.

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10 comments: to “ All I Can Do Is Pray

  • The Exterminator
    Monday, August 18, 2008 at 8:38:00 PM CDT  

    Although I wish I could argue with you, I agree with your generalization at the end.

    People don't want to have their beliefs threatened -- perhaps because they're not sure, themselves, exactly what it is that they believe. As a result, atheists are reviled in so many goddy communities. Our very existence shows that beliefs can be challenged.

  • Venjanz
    Monday, August 18, 2008 at 9:14:00 PM CDT  

    I thought this was good.

    As for the generalization at the end, I would argue that since Americans do have their beliefs questioned, and since most people don't like that, people tend to form homogeneous groups of like-minded people so they don't have to deal with the inner conflict. The echo-chamber as it were. This is sorta a chicken/egg argument, but that's how I see it.

    I'm not just talking about religious beliefs either, it could be anything somebody feels strongly about, from baseball to politics, whatever happens to be your driving issue.

  • aprilbapryll
    Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 6:13:00 AM CDT  

    I think that "All I could do was pray" is sort of like "All I could do was hope", at least for me. If it doesn't happen, I don't generally rationalize it (I hate those people who say there was a reason for it or say it wasn't "meant to be" because that's horseshit). I just hope for the best and try to be optomistic. But you know me -- I don't fit in your catagory or theirs ;-)

  • Lifeguard
    Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 8:46:00 AM CDT  

    I think when people feel like events are beyond their control there's a natural tendency, as April put it, to hope that things work out. When faced with the prospect that the universe goes on doing what it does without any concern for what we want, some people anthropomorphize and claim someone or something behind it all has a will beyond scrutiny. Nice post.

  • Anonymous
    Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 10:05:00 AM CDT  

    Even back in my fundy days, I think I seriously questioned if God answered prayers. I am now more convinced that God doesn't answer prayers or intervene at our request.

    I still pray, though. I call it prayer. Perhaps a better definition would be meditation, contemplation or reflection. The purpose is more so self-discovery, -analysation, -awareness, than to change situations and circumstances.

    I also think that "prayer" (using my definition) would be useful to atheists and theists alike.

  • Maria Salva
    Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 3:19:00 PM CDT  

    Hmm.. It reminds me of some scenes in Hemingway's novels, The Old Man and the Sea, and For Whom The Bell Tolls. In times of trauma, the characters, though generally nonreligious, pray. When under extreme stress, and with no more else to do, begging to nothing in particular is really all that's left. What other way to occupy one's mind? SO, I guess there are some circumstances where I can find prayer understandable. For thinking it's going to serioulsy accomplish anything, that's another story.

  • Ordinary Girl
    Tuesday, August 19, 2008 at 6:48:00 PM CDT  

    Ex: Good point. I've wondered why people don't want their beliefs challenged, but I think it's because people don't like to be told their wrong and take belief to be too central to self.

    Venjanz: You're exactly right. We do tend to form homogeneous groups. And I don't think that's so bad as long as you don't stay in that group constantly. It can be exhausting to always be challenged, but at the same time it can lead you to some pretty wrong conclusions if you're never challenged.

    Thinking about it if free-thinkers really want to reach people who will embrace critical thinking, maybe it's reaching those people in the category of "never challenged" or "changes or compartmentalizes religion to fit". People who won't accept an idea that challenges their belief seem to put up barriers for all three.

    April: I kind of wondered about my co-worker. She repeated it a couple of times, so I'm not sure.

    Lifeguard: Thanks. Yeah, it is certainly easy to understand why people react in a particular way. I wonder though if there's a way to break through it.

    Davo: I don't think there's anything wrong with that and certainly many people reflect or react similar to April. I don't find that objectionable or dangerous. It's when people reject reality, which in some circumstances might be understandable, but probably not healthy.

    Maria: I'm with you there.

  • Anonymous
    Wednesday, August 20, 2008 at 3:58:00 PM CDT  

    Very good post. Even in my Christian days, I was never really convinced that prayer worked. I think my rationalization was that it was probably my fault for not being holy enough, asking too many questions, whatever.

  • yunshui
    Friday, August 22, 2008 at 6:39:00 AM CDT  

    Confirmation bias has a lot to answer for in answering the question "why do people pray?". If you pray, and the outcome is as desired, prayer works. If you pray and everything goes tits-up, "God works in mysterious ways". Also, as you said in the original post, praying gives one the illusion of control over a situation - "Yeah, I'm in a box full of scorpions and my hair is on fire, but I'll be fine 'cause God will protect me... ouch, though" It's an ego-massage more than anything, like having a big brother who looms up behind you just as the school bullies are getting started.

  • Preston
    Saturday, May 22, 2010 at 1:34:00 AM CDT  

    I appreciate this article, and it highlights why non believers tend to jump on this idea that true believers are praying for no reason at all. God isn't sitting around waiting to hand out answered prayers. What makes a person think that there is a God that wants to grant us our every whim? He made us to be self reliant and gave us the brains to do it. I pray because I owe him my praises, for my life, for my health, and for any and all that He allows me to be. I don't ask him for a boat, a miracle, a job, money, or anything like that. At most I have asked him for strength, which surprisingly enough happens to be in abundance throughout my life. The reason why prayers aren't "answered" is because its like a person going to the DMV and asking them for a car loan. Wrong question to ask the wrong person.


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