July 2005


What is the nature and objective of prayer? It is a difficult and divisive subject, largely because so many people take prayer so personally.

What does the word prayer mean to you? Many religious people devote considerable time and energy to prayer. Many atheists dismiss prayer as some kind of glorified shopping list. Few people, whether religious or not, think that praying for something means necessarily that you will get it. Prayer is different from most other human activities. Most people do things to obtain results: they work for money, they eat to not be hungry, and sleep to not be tired. When something repeatedly fails to result in the desired outcome, most people become disenchanted with it. It is irrational to repeatedly do something and to continually expect a different result to occur. Yet many indisputably rational people, like Einstein or CS Lewis, prayed on a regular basis.

OK, so if the object of prayer is not to obtain some outward, demonstrable result, what is prayer for?

In general, there are different classes of prayer:

Payers that ask questions come in two flavors: those that ask about oneself and those that ask about other things. What makes payer different from other forms of introspection? The difference lies in the perspective from which the question arises. I may ask myself, "why am I doing this?" and this may be a good question to ask, but my answer is necessarily subjective. In prayer the question is rephrased: "What does God think of my doing this?" Not that anyone can know the mind of God, but one can compare one's actions and intentions against an external framework of ethics and beliefs (religious doctrine). It is still necessarily subjective (unless this is a group prayer and discussion), but it is more of a comparative analysis.

Non-religious people can ask comparative questions: "What do my friends think about xyz?" but they have only their own surmises to guide them in considering what their friends believe. Religions usually make a concerted attempt to describe their beliefs in considerable detail, while your friends may not. Asking questions of the cosmos is a worthwhile occupation, and if you can do it better through prayer, then you ought to pray.

As stated above, objective analysis shows that requesting something of God has no effect on whether something will or will not occur. Why ask? I guess it depends on how much you want to know about what you want and why you want it. If I said I had a pet genii and I could give you a wish, what would it be? Why would you wish for that and what would your wish say abut the kind of person you are? If you said you wanted a new car and I said you could have a new car, but only if your daughter gets leukemia, you'd figure out that keeping your child healthy is more important to you than a new car (I hope). Praying for requests can help you to clarify what is really important to you.

Why give thanks? Almost half the people in the world don't believe that there is anyone to thank. What if they're right? Why bother?

I happen to think that being thankful is good for people. To be properly thankful, you've got to be at least a little bit humble and humility is something too many people have too little of. It's also a good way for many people to figure out what's good and bad in their lives.

Regardless of whether there is a God or not, if a person sincerely prays rationally, the exercise of that prayer will stretch the person in new directions as they ask themselves questions nobody else knows to ask them. It's good for the soul.

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