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.