Nothing Fails Like Prayer

I’ve long been astonished at how forgiving Christians are of their god. They’ll pray hard for something (eg, “Please don’t let my husband be dead at the bottom of that collapsed mine”), and when their god fails to honor their pretty reasonable request, they give him a free pass. “God works in mysterious ways.” Any reasonable person would conclude either that there is no god or that he’s not so nice as he’s cracked up to be.

Let’s do a little thought experiment. Say that when you were hired at your job, your boss said things like “Ask and ye shall receive” and you were led generally to believe that your boss was a pretty nice guy with your best interests at heart. So say you go to him one day and ask for a small raise. Let’s say you’ve got a sick spouse and the hospital bills are just killing you. You’re not asking for a million bucks. You’re asking for maybe a 1% raise to help defray the costs a bit. And let’s say also that you’re a great employee, always working hard for the company and doing your best to honor the company’s values. And then say that your boss declines your request. Later, when things get even worse, you ask again and he declines again. This goes on for a while, and even as you ask for smaller and smaller things that any reasonably decent human being would grant, your benevolent boss either refuses to answer you or just declines to give you any breaks. After a while, you’re going to conclude that your boss is a jerk and that the general perceptions of him are mistaken. You’re not going to talk about how he works in mysterious ways or has your best interests at heart. He’s negligent or cold-hearted at worst and simply a capitalist at best. And he’s human, in any case, with his own interests to protect.

So then if you won’t give this guy a free pass and go on raving about what a good guy he is (and if you say you would, I charge you with lying to yourself), why would you give a supposedly omnibenevolent god a free pass for being equally (or more) negligent? It’s a cop out to allow that God works in mysterious ways when your reasonable prayers go unanswered and to give him credit for being omnibenevolent and merciful when things happen that make it seem as if your prayers have been answered. It’s a sort of cognitive dissonance to allow this, and I can’t understand it.

Of course, prayer is very problematic anyway. If one can influence an omnipotent, omniscient god through prayer, that god’s judgment would seem to be in question. That is, by asking for something, you’re in effect undermining the god’s omnipotence and omniscience and omnibenevolence by suggesting that you can offer some direction. To do this suggests that you’re not convinced of the god’s omni-anything and thus raises the question of why you’re appealing to the god in the first place. And on the other side, if you trust your god’s judgment and figure he’ll do what he wants anyway, then what’s the point of prayer? If you don’t believe your prayer can actually influence your god, why bother praying?

The fact is that prayer is really just a literary form that’s been passed down for thousands of years. It’s well-documented. First a direct address (“Our father, who art in Heaven”). Then some praise and grovelling (“Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done in earth as it is in Heaven.”). This is a transparent appeal to the god’s vanity and has always struck me as sort of a sycophantic trick that really sort of insults the god’s intelligence, though flattery, as they say, will apparently get you everywhere. After you’ve got the god reeling from your flattery, you tuck in your request (“Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive them that trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil.”). Finally, you close with some solemn word and often more praise and hallowing (“Amen” or “In your holy and gracious name, Amen”). This form appears across at least western religious history and seems to me to reflect a broader religious ritual that people have been lulled through tradition into enacting more than a real attempt at communication with any god.

At any rate, it seems to me that given all the bad things that happen in the world and all the praying that gets done asking for reprieve from bad things, either prayer fails miserably and is, as I’ve proposed, an empty ritual, or the various gods are really lying down on the job. Neither proposition is an especially glowing recommendation for prayer or for religion.

7 thoughts on “Nothing Fails Like Prayer

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