This is a guest post written by Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College. His most recent book is What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life.
Last week, I got a call from one of my cousins. A well-respected rheumatologist with a jocular edge, she is a devout Catholic who finds enormous comfort and inspiration in her faith. She called to see if I would be willing to let four nuns pray on my behalf for thirty days if it just might change my life for the better? It was, she explained, all for love.
Sure, I said. Why not? If four nuns want to pray for my well-being, that’s fine with me.
My cousin’s belief in the positive power of prayer is common. Millions of Americans — and hundreds of millions of other people around the world — pray all the time. Indeed, prayer is one thing that Christians, Muslims, Jews, Rajneeshees, Hindus, Mormons, Sikhs, and worshippers of Viracocha, Perkūnas, and Tāne all have in common.
What is prayer, exactly? Simple: It is mentally asking a magical, invisible, powerful deity to do something. It is sending heartfelt, mind-powered texts to a God. Sometimes it requires a certain ritual, sometimes it involves specific hand motions, often it comes with closed eyes or furrowed brows, occasionally it is aided by deep concentration or the sacrifice of an animal, but in the end, it all boils down to the same thing: earnestly petitioning a God to grant a wish, respond to a need, fulfill a request, or offer help.
Despite being one of the more common, widespread activities that humans engage in, prayer — by its very own logic and nature — is riddled with problems. Here are some of the biggies:
Imagine you have taken your daughter to a skateboarding park. While there, she falls and hits her head. There’s blood. She’s crying. But you just sit there, doing nothing. You don’t go to her, you don’t put ice on her injury, you don’t call 9-1-1. Some other adult rushes to help your daughter, and when she finds out you are her parent, asks you, “Why didn’t you help your daughter?”
And you reply, “Well, she didn’t ask.”
Pretty awful response, right? I mean, you were there, you saw what happened, and you had the power to come to your daughter’s aid — but you didn’t simply because she didn’t outright ask you for help? Such inaction isn’t just immoral; we’d call it irresponsible parenting. If your child is suffering and you know it and you have the power to do something about it, you do what you can. Such loving help should never be contingent upon an explicit or even implicit request.
Or consider this scenario: There’s an old lady who lives next door to you, alone. She’s very frail. One day, during winter, the power in your neighborhood goes out. There’s no electricity for heat. You go out to chop some wood to build a fire in your fireplace. Now, you could also build a fire in your old neighbor’s fireplace. But you don’t provide her with any wood and you don’t make sure she is warm because, well, she hasn’t asked. So you’ll just let her freeze.
Again, awful, right? Maybe she didn’t ask you to build a fire because she’s too embarrassed to ask for help. Maybe she doesn’t want to be burden. Maybe she’s too weak. But it doesn’t really matter. Your assistance shouldn’t require or depend on her asking. Knowing she is in need, you should make sure she is warm, whether she asks or not.
And, thus, we come to the first problem of prayer: Why do you even have to ask God for help? Doesn’t God already know you have cancer, or that you are unhappy at your job, or that your spouse has a drinking problem, or that you can’t pay the rent, or that there is a drought, or that a war is causing all kinds of suffering? The idea that God would only take action when and if asked is deeply problematic. It suggests that God is either not all-knowing (since He doesn’t know things unless you tell Him via prayer) or He is immoral (since He only helps those in need if asked).
Once I was teaching a class at night in a neighboring town. The only route home was a road with traffic lights at every intersection, set to a timer. If you got the green light at just the right time, then you got a green light at every intersection, all the way, and the drive home was quick and smooth. But if you got at a red light early on, then you would get stuck with red lights at every intersection, making the ride home much longer.
So, this one night, I decided to pray for green lights all the way home. I picked Pan, the goat-god, as my deity of choice. I prayed soulfully and hard. And then, at the very first intersection, I got a red light. Damn! Pan didn’t answer my prayer! But before I gave up on Pan’s beneficent might, I quickly reckoned: “Hey, maybe I didn’t get the green light because Pan knows that two miles ahead there is a drunk driver, and if I had gotten the green lights, I would’ve been hit by him. Pan put a red light up to save me from that accident. He knew best!”
In other words: My prayer for green lights wasn’t answered the way I wanted, but that’s because Pan had a plan. Being all-wise and all-loving, Pan knew what was in my best interests at that moment.
This little experiment taught me so much about the very nature of prayer: It’s a self-contradicting heads-I-win-tails-you-lose phenomenon. It works like this: People ask God for things. If they get them, it is proof that prayer works! If they don’t get them… it is still proof that prayer works! It just means that God has answered their prayer in a different way. And that’s because God knows better. He has a plan. When He closes a door, He always opens a window. Or a drainage pipe. But if that is truly the case — that God has a plan — then why bother praying in the first place? Why not just “let go and let God”?
If God is in control of everything, and God knows what is best for you, then praying is pointless.
All stories of prayer working are purely anecdotal. Sometimes inexplicable things happen. Usually they don’t. Sometimes people miraculously recover. Usually they don’t. Sometimes people survive dangerous, horrific ordeals by the slimmest of chances. But most don’t. For every sole survivor of a plane crash, there were hundreds who died. The universe is permeated by things like probability, odds, chance, luck, misfortune, and a whole heap of uncontrollability. Some people experience good things for good reasons, bad reasons, or no reasons, while others experience bad things for bad reasons, good reasons, or no reasons. Accept reality. Separate fact from fantasy. See life with clear eyes.
Naturally, when people find themselves in hopeless situations, or when they feel powerless, or when they are trapped in circumstances beyond their control, or when they just need a sense of connection to something bigger, more powerful, and more loving than what they can find elsewhere, prayer is an understandable option. It can be calming, it can be comforting, it can make someone feel like maybe — just maybe — they can magically alter the course of events affecting them or their loved ones.
But that doesn’t erase the logical contradictions and immoral implications of petitionary prayer.
(Image via Shutterstock)