Without a Prayer

In the latest edition of RE Today magazine there are a series of opinion pieces on prayer. Here’s mine:

A popular banner slogan of the working class humanist movement of the nineteenth century in England was ‘Hands that help are better than lips that pray.’ Today few humanists would be so crass as to deny that one can both pray and help but there is still force in the argument behind the slogan. In appealing to an entity outside of humanity for an amelioration of conditions, we run the risk of fatalism or resignation in practice and failing to see that improvements in our personal and social conditions come from taking our destinies into our own hands. Even if what we can achieve in doing so is much less than we might wish, because of the circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is still better than doing nothing – and praying is effectively doing nothing.

In fact it is worse than doing nothing. Praying can allow us to feel like we’re helping even though we’re not – and the feeling can be very powerful. Bertrand Russell hypothesized that the very source of the habit of prayer was and is in a human desire for control. If there is an all-powerful being that can be suborned by our prayers, we – in his words – ‘acquire a share in omnipotence’. The earliest prayer recorder in Europe is a prayer for rain and even later religions like Christianity foster the same view of prayer as petition. In the Bible, Jesus says that if you pray to god in faith then you will receive what you pray for.

But in fact, our prayers for a change in the external environment are useless and the feeling of control and sense is a fantasy. Double-blind tests carried out to assess the effect of prayers for the welfare of others have demonstrated that prayer has no effect on a sick person prayed for. In some studies, prayer has been recorded as having had a small negative effect on the health of the patients prayed for, if they know they are being prayed for. Those who are unwilling to let evidence disrupt a warming belief easily explain away this truth. Did you receive what you prayed for? Then rejoice – God is great! You didn’t get what you wanted? Well, the creator of the universe moves in mysterious ways… Either way: Praise the Lord!

Even though there is no such entity as the personal God of theism and therefore no one to pray to, might not the act of prayer be beneficial for what it can do for us who are praying? This is a popular defence of prayer and it comes in three guises. One is the argument that, although the feeling identified by Bertrand Russell is merely a fantasy, nonetheless it is a comforting fantasy – it can make us feel better about the tragedies that beset us. This is a secular case for prayer as placebo. The second secular defence of prayer is that the act of praying itself is healthy in that it has demonstrable physical and psychological benefits. A third defence is that group prayer can have socially cohesive effects, bonding a community together. Is there much force in these secular apologetics for prayer?

There might be, if we did not accept that truth was an equally – and perhaps more important – good than the three secular goods realised by prayer. I personally would certainly prize truth – in of itself and as the guarantee of other utilitarian goods unlikely to be achieved if one’s life is lived on the basis of lies – relatively highly. Simone De Beauvoir said, ‘I tore myself away from the safe comfort of certainties through my love for truth – and truth rewarded me.’ We can all feel those rewards. When we give up illusions like that of prayer, said Russell, ‘Even if the open windows of science at first make us shiver after the cosy indoor warmth of traditional humanizing myths, in the end the fresh air brings vigour, and the great spaces have a splendour of their own.’ In any case, there’s a whiff of hypocrisy around secular advocates of prayer as placebo and of paternalism around secular advocates of prayer as community building which many will find unpalatable.

This leaves us then with the defence of prayer that it has demonstrable health benefits on those who practice it. Studies show that time spent alone in prayer decreases stress and the likelihood of related mental and physical conditions. It can also play a part in building mental resilience, which has been pioneered by humanistic psychology as a desirable trait for mental health. The explanation of these effects is mundane, however, and not divine. Similar – and sometimes greater – positive effects can be obtained from certain types of meditation and related activities, and have been fully explained in physiological terms.

Contemplation, mindfulness, and personal reflection are useful and healthy activities, and a world away from the idea of prayer as a petition for favours. But even good things should be taken in due moderation. Time spent in such reflective solitude is an accompaniment, not an alternative, to time spent in dialogue and reflection with others, through which processes our thinking can be clarified still further and our moral and other choices be made in a more considered way. It’s through a combination of these two sorts of reflection and thought that we can live a more integrated human life in correspondence with reality – not by looking outside of humanity for favours or peace.

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