Pray for What?

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If I’m your guest for dinner and your family tradition is to hold hands or bow your heads to pray, or we’re at a restaurant, and you want to pray; I’ll respectfully observe your tradition. I don’t say grace nor will I ask your God to ‘bless the meal;’ however, I’ll not be disrespectful. If you’re my guest, you may expect the same courtesy. I don’t pray, but if you do, it’s ok.

In Catholic grade school, we recited Grace Before Meals before lunch, and Grace After Meals when we returned. I don’t recall saying it with my family. As an adult, I said the short prayer you can see on virtually any episode of Blue Bloods. If you take too long and the food gets cold, I may pray for an end to your jabbering.

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I consider some, perhaps most, prayer to be harmless and it maybe even good for you. That’s right. I said some or most. Openly expressing gratitude, which is perhaps the least felt of all human emotions, should be a good thing. But, in my opinion, not always.

Thanking God for the touchdown is silly. So is divine gratitude for a political candidate winning or for scoring in the lottery. These examples are nonsensically selfish and may be harmful. While I’m good with being grateful, I’m not okay with all forms of prayer. I shouldn’t care, but I’ve long held my opinion.

I’m fine with prayers of worship like God is Good, but if I hear God is Great yelled in Arabic, fight or flight may take over. Back as far as I can remember, I had issues with asking God for anything. It made no sense to me — still doesn’t.

My parents told me that God helps those who helps themselves, or a similar form of the phrase. I’ve never given up on the basis for that idea. For example, I went to see a house being remodeled and found the painter sleeping. After inquiring about his health, I asked if he worried about being fired. He said, “The good Lord will provide.” Raising eye brows, I said, “Oh. I see.” Lucky him. I wasn’t the owner.

prayer-4As often happens following severe droughts in South Texas, the many weather gods provided too much rain. Severe damaging floods came after the months of virtually no rain. As Father Conor McGrath was reading announcements from the Parish Bulletin in his wonderful Irish brogue, he adlibbed a joke by saying, “And would the gentleman who is still praying for rain please stop.”

Another time McGrath told us the joke about the man named Thomas, who continuously prayed to win the lottery and began to lose his faith. The gambler blamed God’s failure to grant the prayer as promised. I can still hear Father Conor deliver the punch line from God, “Thomas, I need a wee bit of help here. You’re needin’ ta buy a ticket first.” We must do our part.

Valerie Tarico made some good points in her post about why some prayer is neither valuable nor innocuous. It encouraged me to make my own case.

She said, “Atheists, agnostics and other secular activists may think prayer is hogwash, but a lot of other people like praying and they like to think that it works. So, why not just leave the habit alone? It seems harmless enough.”

Later, after she highlights some of the perks of prayer, she presents her case against the troubling hidden costs of petitionary prayer. This is her list of 7 problems, with comments that are mostly mine.

Petitionary prayer:

  1. Suppresses critical thought. During our meal, if you begin to choke on a turkey bone, would you prefer that I pray for your recovery, or would you like me to perform the Heimlich Maneuver to dislodge the culprit?
  2. Undermines agency and responsibility. Let go and let God, right? We are not responsible for anything this way. Remember the painter? I agree that sometimes it’s good to let go of things. But, we need to do what we can (think Serenity Prayer).
  3. prayer-2Promotes a habit of self-deception. If God is right, why bother? Wouldn’t he do that same thing even if we didn’t explain it?
  4. Distracts from more promising endeavors. This is one of the most profitable things sold by TV preachers. What else might those resources do? Feed the hungry or clothe the naked?
  5. Promotes victim blaming, including self-blame. If God grants requests from some, what does that say about those who get no response? If God heals your wart, but not mine; something must be bad about me.
  6. Teaches people to mistake abuse for love. Deferring to Ms. Tarico, “Being forced to praise and adore a powerful person who requires vulnerable dependents to beg for what they need…and who then grants or denies these requests in some inscrutable pattern, is not love. It is abuse—and as many former Christians have testified, it primes people, especially women—for further abuse.”
  7. Replaces compassionate action. There are times for inaction and times to act. We are all in this together and helping one another is what we do best. Tarico refers to Julia Sweeney’s monologue, “Letting Go of God.” I watched it. It’s well-done and funny, but two hours long. If you’re of the Free Thinker persuasion, watch it — especially if you were raised Catholic.

As I’ve implied, some types of prayer, like contemplative meditation, gratitude, and communing with something greater than ourselves, may be useful even for non-believers. But, Valerie Tarico said it best.

“It’s time to get off of our knees and take care of ourselves and the people around us. We’ve long passed the infancy and adolescence of our species. Regressive fantasies can be delightful, but at some point, clutching a teddy bear and squeezing our eyes shut and lisping “Now I lay me down to sleep” ceases to be sweet. The world needs adults who, in Sweeney’s words, are willing to get up in the morning and mind the store.”

May we all live in the real world and acknowledge that we need each other more than invisible fantasies born from the minds of men.
Mind the gaps, the store, and look both ways.

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15 thoughts on “Pray for What?

  1. My mother’s husband was a funny, sweet, silly man; at thanksgiving one year he got really really solemn, raised his hands for attention, and said, “this one holiday, I’d like to do it right “(we are the family who starts eating before the food has even been served)-“-let’s all bow our heads a moment while I say Grace.” and we did, a bit unsure about what this loon was up to. He shouted, “GRACE! LET’S EAT” and we did.

    My great aunt Jenny was a Benedictine nun which, as you know, is a contemplative cloistered order–their main mission in life was to pray for things. In the 50s, the big deal was praying for the end of Communism. And they did. I couldn’t even wear my new red winter coat when we went to visit her, because it upset her. Red, she whispered, was the color “they” wore. And I am sure that when Communism ended, they were all totally convinced that their prayers contributed toward that.

    And, after all, who can say all those minds, working in unison–we are, after all, a herd animal, given to synchronized swimming and river dancing–didn’t have some small impact on the entire process. =)

    Beyond that, ‘minding the store’ probably has a lot more to do with it, as does get off your duff and get to work….

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    • I assume your aunt’s order prayed for the end of atheist communism, but they forgot to tell god what to replace it with. Now they have the most draconian, mafia-based form of capitalism imaginable. Maybe they need to ask god to stop screwing around and just make a better world. LOL. Happy New Year judy.

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      • Well, I don’t think they got quite that deeply into it, nor did they consider that the replacement might be worse than the original. it was not exactly an in-depth prayer thing, lol. they probably felt that God would work out the details…

        And Happy New year to you, as well.
        And the days, did you notice, are slightly longer than they were. yay us.

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  2. “My parents told me that God helps those who helps themselves, or a similar form of the phrase.”
    There’s this and “Trust in Allah, but tie up your camel” (which comes from the Golden Voyage of Sinbad movie which is awesome). What amuses me is these things are *exactly* what the bible and qu’ran say isn’t true at all. One should never have to help oneself but entirely trust in these gods. It’s quite an example of how theists self-edit when their god fails and they realize that they have to do things for themselves.

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  3. Oh I just love this. I shall pontificate…
    LOL
    First, I should say I pray. Although, seldom what people consider prayer. I only pray like we’re ‘supposed’ to pray on rare occasions. Like when my babies run scary fevers or I’m hidin in the closet while a tornado goes by or getting cancer lasered off…you know, those kinds of prayers.

    I pray for traveling mercies, but my therapist says that’s OCD, so I do not think I get any spiritual bonus points there. She’s all, “If the angels do not protect you, will you blame them, or will that be God’s will?” and I’m like, “Uh, I won’t care, cause I’ll be dead.” This leads into other scenarios that make me extremely uncomfortable and I start to chew the inside of my cheek, cause she’ll nag at me if I get at my cuticles. *achem*

    I have never let go and let God, but then, I just let go, so who knows where it goes…

    Often, I pray for others’ strength or to ease their suffering, but I think of my prayers, not necessarily unto a god, but more a raising of energy. I believe in energy. Don’t need other people to, but do. I believe in all sortsa things like that.
    My prayers are mainly gratitude, steadily through the day.

    Now, about the bad things, oh YES.
    I’ve read and heard a lot about #6, and suspect it even more often.
    I cannot imagine that any deity gives a flyin fig about sports or more than 90% of what people are shouting “God is good!” about. Lost on me. Now, Karma, she gets around, cause you know, energy.

    I love the “God helps those who helps themselves.” Always have, probably always will. You know the one about the guy drownin, right? If you don’t, I’ll tell you.

    Great post! 🙂

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  4. I’m always happy to read these things on certain aspects of my lifestyle because generally those who don’t practice them are more honest than those who do! Discussing prayer in Christian circles, to me, lots of the time is like riding a bike on a treadmill. You don’t get very far into the subject. Thank you for your honesty. I never wish to incite debate… Only discussion. However, I felt the need to push a single, individual point at the main premise, it seems to me, against prayer. #1,2,4 and 7 specifically seem to be based off this dichotomy of Prayer vs. Action. This is definitely a point against what the church says prayer is. However, in my experience I see that those who have the greatest impact are those who take responsibility and act upon it. I have my first aid training. If I see a stabbing victim on the street I know a few things that may extend their life to the point where they make it to the hospital. This doesn’t imply that I either pray for the guy… Or I help the guy. I can do one, neither or both because they are not mutually exclusive options. If I have excess funds and an opportunity to support a child in Africa, I can pray for the child, support the child or do both. They are not mutually exclusive either. IMO, prayer, like faith, without responsibility and action is indeed dead. Maybe I’m just an oddball Christian. That very well could be. 🙂

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    • Thanks for the comment. You may pray as you wish, of course. In my case, please wait until you’re finished with your medical and first aid efforts before you do ask for divine intervention. We indeed should do as you suggest to help others. But if you send your money and devote your time to TV ministers, religions, and religious activities, you cannot be doing both. To me, both your faith and prayer are meaningless because there are no gods, not because you are irresponsible. You are not an oddball, but seem like a normal believer to me. Again, thank you.

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      • Just to be clear, I do not spend my time with TV ministers or donate to them. In fact I much prefer a personal touch in going for a few pints or coffee or something to inspire discussion and hopefully some learning. However, I would indeed focus on saving the person, if at all possible, simply because with my ability I have a responsibility to use it. My belief on religion comes down to a simple phrase found in James. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress…” Thank you for your thoughts.

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