A friend called me recently. The doctor just found a “suspicious” lump and scheduled a biopsy. As you can imagine, she is anxious that she might have cancer.
What can a good agnostic say to such a person? Consider these options:
- I’m worried about you.
- Rest assured that I’m hoping for the best.
- I’ll be thinking about you every hour . . .
- Well, maybe you don’t have cancer, so you might be OK.
- I’m glad you have a good doctor who will give you excellent medical care.
Now compare the above impotent responses to the following (add reverb for effect when you read these out loud):
- I will pray long and often to almighty God to ask Him to intervene to protect you from anything harmful.
- I will ask God to see that you are healed promptly.
- [or even this!] Keep in mind that this life on Earth is temporary for all of us. But we will be together in heaven forever and I will keep praying for you.
Promising to pray makes it appear that one is really doing something. It would certainly be much more satisfying to both me and to my friend I I could honestly tell her that I was doing something rather than settling for the agnostic version of prayer (i.e., “I hope it isn’t cancer” or “Would you like to talk about your upcoming biopsy over dinner?”).
The false efficacy of prayer plays into one of the great fallacies of our time, that action—any kind of action—is progress. Any action is progress. False logic like this is often employed in our world. For instance, any action is progress causes many people to believe that any military action (even when the US attacked Iraq–the wrong country–and thereby created huge numbers of new enemies) was appropriate following the 9/11 attacks. Similarly, when one prays (which has never been scientifically proven to be effective at thwarting disease), one feels like one is doing something, implying progress.
I admit that it would feel better to call on God, the ultimate bodyguard, to fight off my friend’s possible cancer. I know that it would be satisfying to believe in prayer. I used to say prayers when I was a young child who was forced to go to church. I was half-convinced that I was doing something to end world hunger by praying. Or that I was increasing my odds of doing well on a test at school. I think I believed in prayer as a result of watching my mother, who prayed that the car would start on cold days (and it often did). If a “Hail, Mary” didn’t turn over the V-8 engine of that big Oldsmobile, she pulled out the big artillery: she switched to “Our Fathers.”
My friend who is facing the biopsy is a church-going friend who has many theist friends. They have undoubtedly already told her that they will pray for her. I’m sure that these promises bring my friend great satisfaction. And all I can do is to sit around hoping and fretting for her.
How nice it would be to have prayer in one’s arsenal. I’m jealous.
This psychological feeling that we are doing something about problems we can’t really affect is only one of the many psychological benefits of prayer. Here are some of the other benefits of praying:
- Prayer as Meditation
- Prayer as giving one’s self silence and space
- Prayer as an opportunity to think through real world problems.
- Prayer as a means of giving one’s self comfort and protection from future fears
- Prayer as a cure for loneliness. Prayer gives one a guaranteed friendship with God or the angels. No matter how dysfunctional you are, those imaginary beings will stay with you.
- Prayer as a means of control over things that annoy or scare us.
Interestingly, the psychological relief that one actually receives when one prays for any of the above reasons does not require that God really exists. One can get lots of benefits from believing in prayer and praying, even if prayer doesn’t really cause a God to intervene in the physical world.
And here’s one additional thing that might be the most compelling reason of all to pray. Sometimes, while spending quality time with my two young daughters, it occurs to me that they will get old and die, just like me. Worse yet, there will likely be a long period during which they will continue living while I am dead and gone, and I will be completely unable to assist them in their moments of need. These are disorienting, intensely distressing thoughts. They expose me to be the utterly helpless being that I am.
Prayer to the rescue! Wouldn’t it be nice if I could do something about being separated from my daughters? Who wouldn’t jump at a chance like that? “Dear God: please allow me to be with my daughters in heaven someday, where we’ll be reunited for eternity.”
Ah, there . . . Now that’s better than doing nothing, right? If only I could really believe in an imaginary being who would intervene to grant my wishes.
Prayer is a strong tonic that really seems to work as a result of belief in prayer. To make prayer “work,” one must take a big leap of faith. The risks we face as mortal beings constitute a type of terror that drives us to believe in whatever might work, whether or not it actually works.
I wish I believed in God sometimes, because I would love to have something to offer my friends who are facing problems I am otherwise helpless to solve. I wish I had control over things that are actually out of my control. I wish the most powerful person in the universe served as my powerful genie, granting me lots of wishes. Assuming that the traditionally portrayed God existed, I wish I were smart enough to tell Omniscence what to do.
But I know better, so I can’t believe in God or prayer. I can only hope that my anxious friends forgive me when I have nothing to offer them except impotent excuses such as “I hope things come out OK.”