Prayer for the faithless
Is there any point in praying if you don’t believe in a God? Logically, ‘no’, but practically ‘yes’. There is evidence that praying relieves anxiety in the person praying and some (anecdotal) suggestion that the subject of a plea can benefit from it in practical and useful ways. But if you have no God who do you pray to? What sort of things can you pray for? And when might you pray?
First, what is a prayer? Wiki’s answer: Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication. Prayer can be a form of religious practice, may be either individual or communal and take place in public or in private. Here’s my very different definition: Prayer is a kind thought followed, whenever possible, by a kind deed. Prayer is seen by most people as an act of adoration of a deity or a request to that deity for help for themselves or for others.
Clearly,if there is no deity, praying to one would be pointless. But those like me, who I called Hopeful Agnostics in an earlier Daily Paradox article, do not say there is no God, only that we have too little faith to believe in one. We do not deny the possibility of a God. That is why we are called agnostic and not atheist. Admitting the possibility of a God means that praying to that God makes sense provided there is a chance that God will respond in some way.
So if those who, seeking the truth about life, find no support for the ‘God’ (singular or plural) theory, how can they pray? I have a personal theory that many who profess a faith and who may even attest verbally to that faith in church do not believe the detail of what they say. I have no doubt about the sincerity of their faith expressed as a belief in God. But all Faiths have expanded the belief in God to try to influence social and political conditions in some way. For example, it is only a few years since a favorite Christian hymn said “the rich man in his garden, the poor man at his gate; God made them high or lowly, and ordered their estate”. Clearly not a durable belief.
There are many examples of ludicrous extensions of a basic belief in God that deter potential members from joining a particular sect and many examples of tenets of faith being ignored by the faithful. That doesn’t interfere with their having a fundamental belief in some sort of God. If you lack that fundamental and sincere belief who do you pray to? The answer is that you pray to whoever or whatever is masterminding the universe…if they exist. Some would call this conditional prayer.
I do not agree. The prayer is as genuine as it can be even if it seems unheard. But two people at least hear it. The person offering up the prayer hears it. They are making an effort, however small, to influence their, or, better still, someone else’s life by asking a favour. Nothing wrong with that, we do it all the time. If you look back at my definition of prayer you will see that it is clearly about other people. I do not, with that definition, rule out praying for yourself, either for some achievement or for greater wisdom. In that case the kind thought is for you. WIth this sort of prayer I personally always add “not my will but thy will be done”. No point asking for something to hurt you or others.
We do not know how, if at all, our prayers actually help other people. We do know that if you tell people you are praying for them they are grateful beyond the polite gratitude of social exchange. Even an atheist can say to someone in difficulty or sorrow that they will pray for them. I have never heard anyone reply ‘don’t’ bother’.
A prayer from another person may be like a butterfly, landing briefly on a shoulder before flying away forever. But some of the most beautiful sights in the world are butterflies in transit. You never know what fleeting happiness you may give.
A prayer gives us a moment to think beyond the chattles of the day. Call it meditation, call it relaxation, call it contemplation, it is, I think, simply a kind thought followed by a kind action.
And it is one that benefits me as well as the subject of my supplication.