I have been corresponding back and forth with a Christian for about a week through e-mail (I read all the e-mail sent to me, and I often reply back, though I don’t often get re-replies). I asked if they mind if I post some of the e-mails on here, but have not yet gotten a response. The last I heard from them, they simply sent me a link to this site, which I think is tantamount to a brush-off.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need permission, but this person was polite and well-meaning, and I have no interest in making our private conversations public unless they condone it. Our exchange was largely one of them presenting me with tired clichés and my replies, but at times you could tell this person was truly trying to think of something interesting and personal to say just for me.
Regardless, I do want to focus on one particular aspect of Christianity that I think most atheists can relate to: the complete emptiness of prayer.
I’ll be honest, I have never talked to atheists about prayer, but I suspect that most have had the same experience as myself. Personally, I got nothing from prayer. I got nothing from prayer when I was raised Catholic and I did rosaries, I got nothing from prayer when I knelt down next to my bed before I went to sleep, I got nothing from prayer when protestant friends invited me to prayer circles, I got nothing from prayer when I prayed desperately while alone and searching.
Please don’t misunderstand me. To my knowledge, I have never prayed for anything. I was taught that asking for material possessions or for something to happen or for “a sign” is not how prayer works. I was taught (and I believe this is probably the predominant view) that prayer is communion with the divine.
Now, I was never expecting a full-blown conversation, or even for words to pop up in my head from an unknown source. In fact, I don’t even know what to expect. I guess I was hoping for some kind of intangible feeling, some sense of higher power or greater purpose, or something about it just feeling “right” or “good” or even “holy.” At the very least, I expected to feel something other than what I felt while praying, which was alone.
Even in large groups of people, praying has a way of making me feel completely and utterly disconnected. I can meditate with the best of them (since this is the goal of meditation; to remove oneself from where ever you are), but prayer completely eludes me. I have read thousands of accounts on the experience of prayer, and yet I have come to the conclusion that I am either incapable of experiencing what people describe, or that these accounts are lies/exaggerations.
When trying to explain this to Christians, I get the same, tired old spiel. I hear how I’m doing it wrong, and always an invitation to try it again. It kind of reminds me of talking to stoners. If you tell a pothead that getting high doesn’t really do anything for you, they tell you, “You must be doing it wrong.” They then invite me to toke up and do some inane thing like watch a movie or eat something unusual or listen to a horrible band (FYI: if a band only sounds good while stoned, they are equivalent to a person who is only attractive when you’re drunk).
Now, I have long abandoned prayer as something I am simply incapable of. I’m not opposed to prayer, and if you think you figured out the magical formula, detail it for me and I’ll give it a whirl (why not, I have time). But from what I understand about the burgeoning field of neuro-theology, there is evidence that certain individuals are genetically pre-disposed to being able to experience prayer.
I have no interest in looking up anything at the moment, but in years past I have read many articles about brain scans done on individuals who were either praying or meditating or going into trance. One particular thing I remember about those who prayed was that people who did pray often experienced stimulation in a portion of the brain that implied they recognized someone was watching them or was nearby. There are literally people whose brains are telling them during prayer that they are not alone, and I suspect that the reason prayer “works” for these people is that they have managed to trigger this brain response.
I wouldn’t bother trying to discuss things like this with Christians, because I don’t think they even believe in brains (they think with their cholesterol clogged “hearts,” after all). Still, it is interesting that religion has managed to exploit this induced state of schizophrenia in order to provide a nearly irrefutable proof to those capable of experiencing it.
Think about it… if someone explained to you a way to hack your brain (which is basically what you are doing when you pray), you might be inclined to listen to other things they have to say, especially if they work the whole thing into an elaborate folktale. I’m sure the healing power of religious ceremonies also seemed damn near miraculous before we understood the placebo effect.
As science delves deeper and deeper into understanding the true mechanics of how the universe and our bodies work, I have a feeling that religion doesn’t have a prayer (just don’t call this prediction a prophecy).