Humanists tend not to believe in prayer. Humanists believe in human ability and choice in a natural universe. Miracles are either impossible or explainable. Working material and social reality by merely thinking something fervently just doesn’t happen. Scientific evidence for the effect of prayer is scant. But personal experience of many is profound.
Prayer may not be humanistic, but is human. Many humans in all sorts of cultures pray. They talk as with ancestors, saints, gods, or God. Healing is an act of both medicine and prayer in many cultures. I don’t mind atheistic humanists, but I wonder if they’re acknowledging the whole abilities of the human being. Is it better to rise above wishful thinking? Prayer may seem sacred, but is it any better than blowing on the dice? What sort of prayer might a humanist pray?
One of my main prayers is: “Thank You.” But I wonder, who do I thank and how? It is, after all, a big and intricate universe. Things seem to work well, mostly. It is beautiful, varied, functional, so wonderful I want to express my awe and gratitude. But, to who? When I’m feeling loving I want someone to love. The devotional path, Bhakti, is said to be the purest and fastest way to pray praise that elevates the one who prays. Or my prayer might be contrition when I fess up to a wrong I’ve done and resolve to do better. All these seem a normal part of being human. Devotion, remorse, and resolve all fit within the humanist pantheon. If prayer focuses these, what harm?
Petitionary or intercessory prayer is all too human too, but it gets tricky when one tries to work the world from within. This could be merely magical thinking. It seems like someone might be listening, wants to help, and has ways to do it, but maybe that’s just human imagination. My humanist side is able to question the propriety of piety and the plausibility of prayer. Does it help all of us to have freer, fuller lives? If so, how?
My Aunt Mary always ends any conversation about family members having trouble by, “Pray for them.” I usually say, “I will,” though a big part of me doesn’t believe it works at all. Then again, there is often not a lot else you can do, especially when Aunt Mary requests it, and what if it does work? So I silently murmur, “Help them, please, O Lord,” feeling a bit silly for having tried, but also hoping it helps.
Does it help? This existential question is easier than whether and how an afterlife might be. Prayer affects not only the one praying, but those who hear it or know it is happening. It may awaken the angels or saints, who relay the message instantly to Central Command who somehow gives it full attention (while handling seven hundred thousand million billion trillion other requests every moment) and magically influences material, biological, psychological, and social reality to answer the request. Or in modern terms, it may affect the quantum realm with similar results. I don’t know whether you have to include praise for God and humility for your self for it to work, or if it works all the time for any who yearn and intend, or it is just more wishful thinking and emotionalized self and group delusion.
It at least works in the one praying. The usual mind is somewhat left as focus is sought and found. Heart, breathing, brain and metabolism rate all go down. Clarity is viewed. Relinquishing or resolve emerge. Often with the pictorial aid of revered images, Jesus or Krishna seems to be present. Deeper emotions and ideas are engaged. Sometimes, willfulness is relaxed to allow wisdom in from the gods or the unconscious. The one who prays can improve, if only because the limbic (mammalian) part of the mid mind seems nourished and connected. Vision can lead to the inner and outer doing that improves things for people and groups.
The Buddhists pray for limitless love: “May all beings, in all realms be happy; may they be free of pain and suffering.” Of course, pain and suffering are part of life for all beings. Wanting them to suffer less seems noble, far nobler than praying for one’s own private benefit. I like it also that they assign prayer to an energy-efficient appropriate technology: the wind flaps the flag that makes the prayer. No one has to know it’s happening, but when they do notice, it is. The prayers fly in the wind.
It’s plausible that prayer works even if there’s no One to hear and answer. The old atheist Karl Marx said, “Religion is the heart of a heartless world,” perhaps more appreciatively than cynically. Well, that is some heart at least, comforting even if illusory.
Prayer appears to work even if an absence of Presence. I’ve prayed for world peace, and that hasn’t happened… except mostly. Though war rages in Iraq and some other places, most of the world does live in peace. Did God grant it? If so, does He also grant the wars?
Most people believe prayer works, but then again, most people fall for placebos. Non-existent placebos regularly improve the health of up to thirty percent of those taking them while believing they’re taking medicine. It is one of the most highly-studied, reliable medicines we’ve never had. It would make a great product: “Studies consistently show Placebos work,” and “For whatever ails you.”
Belief helps make prayer work. Slightly over half the studies on remote prayer show some slight improvement in the recipients. Maybe I’ve been helping the family by following Aunt Mary’s request, and if not, no one hurt. I certainly would receive understanding appreciation from her and many others if I said I prayed. Group pressure to believe is pervasive.
As much as one part of me wants to believe prayer works, another part resents having to pretend it does. As with most things religious and spiritual, it comes with the manipulative expectation that we agree and approve. I might agree and approve, but not because I’m supposed to. It is as right to use brains to doubt group pressure or authority figures as it is to inquire sincerely among them or within oneself. I use my brain to doubt, but in that doubt is another doubt – that I’m wrong. Could I use my humanistic brain to activate my whole human potential? Would praying be a part of that, or misleading from it?
Having reduced my brain and prayer, can I now expand it all?
Putting my rationalistic, reductionistic minimalism aside, and letting down my doubting defenses, what if prayer really works, even for humanists? What if our every inner yearning is affecting existence towards its fulfillment? What if what we pray for – we get? Would that be good?
One would hope so. But what one hopes for can be shallow or even part of an unconscious egocentric viciousness.
At the age of about twelve, when I was the young one amongst older adolescents, and I had only two or three pubic hairs and none under my arms or on my face, I prayed to God for hair: “God, please give me hair on my body.” Doubter though I early was, I tested God’s ability to hear and answer. Now, later in life, with a chest almost as hairy as Austin Power’s, and hair on my legs, arms and back too, I have to admit, prayer works.
However, if you have ever happened to notice my large bald forehead, top, and back of head you know why I also add: You have to be specific. I should have also prayed to keep the hair I had.
Besides, is it good to be hairy? It’s comfortable enough, and though some people like it, others don’t. Is being hairy what I really needed in life? I should have prayed for hair, keep my hair, and money. Janis Joplin sang prayers for a Mercedes Benz, a color TV, and a night on the town. “Prove that you love me and buy the next round,” she entreated. She got all that, just as I’ve got my hairy body and bald head, so we’ve got to suspect that prayer works, which begs the question of what’s really good to pray for. God bought her so many rounds He had to take her home.
We can pray individually or collectively, but should we? Emerson once sternly stated that any prayer for private advantage is vicious. Overstated? Religious groups pray together. Is that always good? What if God granted the prayers of all those who want Him to smite their enemies, that is, from both sides? Not all prayer turns out to be for the best.
What if God answers not just our stated prayers, but our unspoken ones too? Mark Twain exposed the shadow side of prayer in his “War Prayer” story. The patriotic prayers to “support our troops” were answered by a mysterious stranger from God revealing the hidden intension to “tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells . . . to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead. . . to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief . . . to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land.” “For our sakes who adore Thee, Lord,” he went on, in all-too-familiar fashion, “blast their hopes, blight their lives… We ask it in the spirit of love of Him who is the source of Love.” He went on to ask the former fervent prayers if they still desire it to “speak, for the Most High awaits.”
Speak, for the Most High awaits. Existence may be attuned to our intension. The angels, saints, and God may hear our inner call. It isn’t just how it makes you feel, or that others hear it, or what could emerge in fact because of the mental momentum, all your being may speak all the time to all the beings, to the One being. Speak, for the Most High awaits. Prayer isn’t just what you want while on your knees. Many of our desires are prayers, secret wishes the universe would go our way. What is our way?
It may be that, as Rumsfield reasons, “the absence of evidence does not constitute the evidence of absence,” and an invisible, silent, yet all-knowing, all-powerful God hears our every prayer. Michael Novak, conservative Catholic theologian takes Rumsfield’s logic further: It is the God you can’t see, hear, or sense that you need to pray to all the more. The absence of Presence is its evidence.
This sort of logic steers a culture to spend all the more when the word SAVE is written large. It also helps us ignore the answer box under the coat of the presidential candidate and instead to praise his wisdom because he’s so mentally shallow and stubborn. It’s those darn humanists and liberals who actually do save, do see his lies and don’t see his brains, and care more for visible reality than invisible. They actually care for our actual world. Our Unitarian and Universalist traditions favor “deed, not creed.” It isn’t so much the inner belief as the outer action. It isn’t just belief or faith that matter; it is what you incarnate in your intension and action.
The most high that we can surely see is this lovely planet amidst this glorious universe. Whatever the actuality of gods and angels, or the mechanisms of prayer, what are the inner and spoken realities of our being? If the known and hidden parts of our prayers or intensions were really known by God, would we be proud and ready to receive? If we could work the world by praying here today, what would we pray for?
More obvious than Him is His. His good earth in this magnificent universe deserves our appreciation and care. Would praying for the stop to global warming and rising seas be more important than actually conserving our narrow range of global comforts? Should we rebuild New Orleans and pray the oceans don’t rise? On this planet is a delicately and dynamically balanced system of interactive life. In this web of life the human family plays and prays, plies and preys, doing what it can to survive. Most of that family is poor. Only a few have had their prayers answered in the form of material abundance. Of these few, fewer still care to eschew the traps of materialism, to ward off the glut that keeps them from caring for the glory. The glory of a healthy ecosystem teaming with whole, healthy, happy people living full, free, satisfying lives beckons. The marketing, military, and political systems of people mostly ignore or even ruin the makings of a good life. The religious systems cast shame on a truly good life and instead offer their contorted version of it. If prayer is answered, what is yours? What would you pray for this world?
Similarly, this little fellowship satisfies our growing enjoyments of community. It provides a safe haven for those marginalized by society and affords a place of free thinking and plain speaking. It does not impose ignorance with arrogance. It admits fallibility while encouraging ability. It loves God by caring for God’s goods – this earth, life, humans. It is small but important, both to those who attend and to the larger community. If prayer is answered, what is yours? What would you pray for this fellowship?
Finally, you are as much a child of God or of Nature’s God as anyone else. You have a right to as free and full a life as is possible. You, like any human, loves happiness and avoids pain. You, like any human, have a limited lifetime in which to live, learn, and love. You matter to others and you matter to your self. If prayer is answered, what is yours? What would you pray for your self?
Reverend Brad Carrier
for the Unitarian Universalists of Grant’s Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon
© September 4, 2005
Dear God, if it’s wrong to doubt, please forgive me that. I sense You want me to think, not to be gullible to any and every imagination. I pray that all people live fully and freely, healthily provided with life’s essentials, sustainably enjoying the sustenance and security of home, community, and worldwide mutuality. May this little fellowship be a happy home for all who come. May we be our authentic selves here, helping each other to our wholeness. May we serve our social and environmental region with intelligent and effective creativity, and may we be recognized and appreciated for this. May our financial condition always be secure, may our facilities always serve our mission and reflect our artfulness. May our leaders be wise, gentle, and supported. May I live my life fully, giving out the best of what I’ve learned, helping others to be full, free, healthy, and whole, even as I enjoy that in me. I love this wonderful world. I don’t need more, but if there is more, show me when the time is right.