Thursday, January 27, 2011

Pray for Understanding

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).


  1. Spot on. I think prayer can be rather easily dismissed because of the fact that believers always attempt to shift the goalpost of evidence to that which is just out of reach of being independently verified, but somehow still real enough to affect the material world.

    The New Testament is quite clear on its "ask, believe, receive" theology. Believers are then forced to make all kinds of excuses for God – it wasn't his will, I'm not supposed to pray for that, I didn't have enough faith, etc. It's just one of many mysteries that makes much more sense when you realize it's just not real.

  2. I hadn't even considered it, but you're right; the Bible explicitly describes prayer very differently than modern Christians generally preach it. This is generally the case, however, because Christians have been philosophically back peddling since the Renaissance.

  3. Every time this thing called prayer comes up in my presence, I think of the people who were being ushered into the "showers" at Auschwitz, and other death camps. Surely when they realized what was going on, they prayed...desperately, but prayed nevertheless. Such is the real power of prayer, in my opinion.

    Perhaps they were praying for the wrong thing?

    I'm not saying it doesn't work, but this example is a poor advertisement for it.

  4. I think prayer works on the same principle that meditation works. It's the mind's power, nothing more.

  5. I think prayer is a game to take people away from their notions of personal power. The most perfect prayer doesn't even refer to god. I made it up myself. Here it is:

    I am not all-powerful. What will happen, will happen and I have no control over it. I accept this.

    That's the true message of prayer, and god isn't even in the picture. By the way, I know what you mean with respect to the religious guy who wrote to you last week. I had a comment the other day on my non-graphics blog. From the profile of the commenter, it's clear he's a religious wingnut but all he said was, "I invite you to visit my blog."

    Now, I liked that. Of course I didn't respond. His profile was enough for me. Still, it seems some religious people aren't relentlessly vicious and crazy. They're polite and don't press. This kind of religious person I can put up with.. I only wish there were more of them. (I still haven't gotten a polite question or comment from the religious brigade, alas.)

  6. Whatever would make you think a Christian doesn't believe in brains?

  7. That was a bit a hyperbole, though to be fair... the Bible isn't clear about the matter. The King James Bible mentions the heart as the center of thought, will, desire, etc over 700 times. But like the firmament, the "heart" isn't scientifically recognized as being well described in the Bible.

  8. The more science delves deeper and deeper into understanding the mechanics of how the universe and our bodies work, the more we realize that the odds of such precision happening by chance is virtually impossible. Religion is not going anywhere - it is programmed into us.

  9. Religion is no more programmed into the human brain than slavery, misogyny, or any of the other social constructs religion has brought us.

  10. Famous skeptic, John Tyndall:

    Religion lives not by the force and aid of dogma, but because it is ingrained in the nature of man. To draw a metaphor from metallurgy, the moulds have been broken and reconstructed over and over again, but the molten ore abides in the ladle of humanity. An influence so deep and permanent is not likely soon to disappear...

  11. Oh, well... if a famous skeptic said it, I should take it as the atheist word of... whatever atheists believe in.

    How about you quote me: religion is an idea that must be transmitted. No one is born praying, talking to god, sacrificing, or doing anything remotely religious. Religion is taught, in the same way that eating with a fork and knife is taught. People will naturally ask questions and seek a means of defining morality or concepts greater than themselves, but religion is not the only sources of answers (and it's far from the best).

    You should argue the concept, not try to dazzle me with quotes from people I never heard of and don't care about.

  12. Not trying to dazzle - just food for thought. I was hoping you might be more open to listening if it came from someone of a like mind. History reveals there has never been a civilization that did not practice religion of some kind. It is a universal phenomenon. It is a part of human nature ingrained in us so, you are correct - people naturally seek something greater than themselves. So in your opinion, what is the better answer?

  13. The fact that every culture does some general practoce is not grounds for its usefulness. Prejudice exists in every culture ever recorded, but we would be better without it. The fact that no two religions in history have agreed is evidence of how arbitrary "religion" as an all-encompassing concept is. Not every culture in history even worshipped gods, and very few believed in only one.

    In order for me to give you the better answer, I'll need a question.


If your comment is too long, break it into multiple comments and post them all.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...