there’s a new web site, prayer 2.0, with an interesting discussion regarding different ideas about prayer. my reply turned out to be quite long so i figured i’d simply post it here. one contributor said this, among other things:

in my mind, “pray” is something you do when you don’t want to do anything yourself. it is a way of unshouldering responsibilities …

another problem with prayer is that it is not about conversation: prayer is one way. it is an odd sort of monologue, in that it is subservient, but it is still soliloquy. it has none of the back and forth that characterize reason.

here are my thoughts:

prayer, as it is conceived in various traditions, is very multifaceted. at its most basic level, it is engagement with a benevolent other-than-ego, non-corporeal other. (how’s that for theological mumbo-jumbo? i hope the next words will shed a bit of light).

what form that engagement takes and who that other-than-ego is – well, that’s an interesting question.

let’s take two extremes. feeding monkeys on your birthday to ensure prosperity is a form of prayer: “hey big power, i need/want more money, i’m doing what your priests have told me, so let’s make it happen!”

on the other extreme, there is work as prayer and the buddhist metta or loving-kindness meditation, in which we ask, among other things, for good things to happen to our adversaries.

in the first instance, we have a desire for something that is not essential, and we try to persuade whatever forces “out there” to get it for us. that would come close to what you described as shirking responsibility.

mother teresa saw her work as prayer. few people would call that unshouldering responsibility.

whether there is a god or not, prayer focuses. for example, when i make an effort to ask for good things for my enemy, next time i meet that person, i will be more inclined to act kindly towards that person.

deep prayer is often more like a conversation. it is engagement with god – whatever/whoever god is/stands for. and there is absolutely nothing that says that prayer has to be without reason. i think that’s a misconception by people who are under the mistaken assumption that god is only the the very limited god that is being talked about in some christian churches.

but god, or the concept of god, is much, much bigger than that. he/she/it/they ranges/range from the very human gods as, for example, envisioned by the hindu gods, to the immanent human goodness envisioned by some unitarian universalists – and anything in between. i don’t think it’s useful to judge spiritual practices only by what happens in one form of practice of one religion.

(this post can be found on the carnival of life, happiness and meaning)

10 thoughts on “prayer

  1. Michael

    I can appreciate your position. I would rather, however, remove the mumbo-jumbo that you mention and stick with the logical, the observable, and the practically philosophical. I see little difference in your two extremes. It is my understanding, after considerable reading and conversation with Buddhists that there is no god at the core of Buddhism. While there may be “higher beings” (commonly known as Devas) Buddhism, at its heart, does not teach the notion of praying nor worship to the Devas or any god or gods. If, as a Buddhist, you wish to add the “feature” of prayer, you may of course feel free to do so, but once you have done that I believe that you are closer to being a Baptist than to being a Buddhist. Prayer is prayer.

    Mother Teresa was an intensely religious person. Of course she “saw her work as prayer.” Objectively, I see her work as beneficial and her prayer as self-delusion, just like all prayers. Being elevated to sainthood does not cut much ice with an atheist. One does not need prayer to focus anything. It is my contention, as stated, that prayer is simply an attempt to have a conversation with a fictitious being, generally for the purpose of personal abrogation of responsibility. It does not matter in the least (to me) who is doing the praying or what is being prayed to. To me, prayer is self-delusion, period.

    What you are saying at the end of your column, from my point of view, is that prayer is a conversation. Of course, I disagree with that views. Since there is no one on the other end, I see it as equivalent to talking to yourself. Nothing wrong, with talking to oneself; I do it all the time. But a person praying does not see it as talking to themselves, which is a part of the delusion.

    You may bring in whatever gray areas you wish. Praying involves a god. There is no praying without a god. I don’t believe in gods. Therefore, to me, any prayer is self-delusion until you are able to produce an all-powerful invisible god in the sky for science to examine in some detail. No such presentation has ever been made. I don’t believe it ever will be.

    None of this is intended to influence you, or what you can believe in. If you wish to add prayer to Buddhism, or to exalt the prayer of Mother Teresa rather than her Earthly work, I will take issue with you because I think you are wrong, but I continue to respect your human right to delude yourself. ;o)

  2. Nancy

    Michael raises the question: who is at the receiving end of the prayer? Or with whom are we conversing? Michael’s starting point is: there is no god/higher power/whatever name. With that apriori assumption, the obvious answers are, nobody and no-one.

    My a priori assumption is that there is a God, who both listens and speaks, but in my experience certainly has not condescended to grant my wish lists (some of which have been close-to-the-heart desires!).

    I am increasingly mystified by prayer (which is not to cede that there is a god!). The work-as-prayer resonates with me, and the loving-kindness meditation your mentioned above both inspires and challenges me. But generally, god defies my demand on/from prayer (I remember laughing at that so-called experiment where people prayed for people in hospitals, and there were no particular indications that prayer ‘works’. I wondered: did anyone ask if God were willing to participate in the experiment?)

    Frankly, I’m pretty sympathetic to Michael’s take on prayer, and may yet join him. I routinely come to the line of “is this just self-delusion?” and cannot fully convince myself that it isn’t. And yet. I continue to pray.

  3. jael

    For me, prayer is an inner focusing. I never pray on a schedule. I look at my impulse to pray as an indication of where there is real need, in others or in myself. I pray when there is nothing I can do. I pray for direction. I pray for protection from harm. I pray for people I can’t help in any other way. I use prayer to focus my compassion for others and for myself. I don’t know who can hear my prayers, a god or gods, or a whole committee delegating one member to respond to my prayers as they see fit.

    The feeling I have when I do pray is one of focus and calm. Prayer helps keep me from getting stuck in negativity after someone has hurt me or the world has disappointed me, and helps me focus my next step. Sometimes prayer helps me recognize that I need something which is being offered to me.

    once as a young single mom I was physically ill and a group of people was praying for me, and I experienced pain relief, and healing. I thought the fact that at least 3 groups of people were praying for me made a physical difference, and I know it made a difference in my mood knowing that many people cared about me and my child.

  4. Scott

    I’m going to stick with Prayer 1.0, I think. 😉

    With due respect to the atheists present, I don’t understand why atheists even bother themselves with thinking about prayer or religious doctrine. Understanding prayer requires a familiarity with religious experience, and since atheists don’t believe in religious experience, I don’t really understand how they can comment on prayer with any sort of authority other than to express disbelief in it.

    Well, we expect disbelief from atheists. What really puzzles me is why they have any opinion on “Prayer 2.0” at all. I have no opinion on atheism because I have never experienced the “absence” (for want of a better word) of God. In other words, I believe in God, and anything that I say about atheism will be coloured by my belief. It wouldn’t be fair of me to speak out about atheism to atheists because to do so would only cause doubt in their minds and I don’t have the right to sow doubt about others’ beliefs.

    On that point, I don’t think that “Prayer 2.0” helps anyone, atheist or believer. For atheists, prayer is not necessary and if anything, can only sow (dare I say it) doubt in their atheism, doubt which could potentially cause them harm.

    For “believers,” we already have Prayer 1.0, so we don’t really need a new form of prayer. All we need to do is pray with faith. Prayer 2.0 sounds awfully like “praying without faith” to me, and praying without faith is just what Michael says it is; it is self-delusion.

  5. Rudolf

    Jael has some good and valid points. Peace is available thru prayer. There are some intelligent people in this comment column. I particularly agree with Scott as he says, “All we need to do is pray with faith.” Not everyone can do that.

    I agree with the original post: “in my mind, ‘pray’ is something you do when you don’t want to do anything yourself. it is a way of unshouldering responsibilities …”

    -That way the cosmic universe can get a handle on it.

    Some interesting points on avoiding responsibility at Prayer 2.0 website.

    Meanwhile monkey man has come into some pretty exotic situations that led somewhere because of his belief in his feeding assignment.

    Praying to human goodness – now there’s a concept!

    I have had some good from the powerful Anglican Prayer beads I recently got at St. James Anglican Church. 1stly, they were very beautiful. 2ndly, noone was buying them. A local fellow makes them. I immediately wrote my own prayer and began using them. Actually I don’t think of it as a prayer. It is a string of condensed positive affirmations that I made gel through the acquisition of these prayer beads. Upon using them even the 1st two times, I was better able to focus on my work, something I have found very difficult. On top of that, I experienced several new situations that were very positive and fulfilling for me. Both of these results were directly related to the content of my “prayer.”

    You kids should try Huna prayer. Or maybe someone should think of Prayer 3D. Make that 5D.

    On the other hand there are ineffective prayers, and when you’re doing them you don’t realize why they are so. A great way to pray an ineffective prayer is to start with the phrase: “If it be Thy will…..” or to beg for some stuff without taking on the responsibility to become aware of results all around you. I wouldn’t worry about making prayer into an issue about whether or not it is a conversation or not, or whether there are gods involved. Just conform it to your own will and take some action on your desires! Most of them are good anyway, aren’t they!?

    Meanwhile, there are options to prayer that may bring similar results: writing down goals, meditating, networking…

  6. CG Walters

    Thank you, Isabella.
    For me, truth is personal and the consciousness that created the world before us is so complex that it can and does simultaneously manifest an infinite number of realities that sometimes appear to the human mind to be diametrically opposed to one another….all are true, though maybe only to their adherents (believing makes it so).
    Peace and wonder,

  7. isabella mori

    thanks, everyone, for dedicating all this time to this topic.

    i think rudolf made a very good point, “i wouldn’t worry about making prayer into an issue about whether or not it is a conversation or not, or whether there are gods involved.”

    let’s link it to what scott said about prayer being an experience. so we can look at it pragmatically – does the action of prayer work for you or doesn’t it?

    “work” of course, being a very subjective term, as cg walters points out. in a subjective reality where people experience god/gods/goodness existing, prayer can have its place, as focus, as a way out of negativity, as wonder, as mystery, as conversation, as petition …

    and i think there are quite a few people who wonder whether they’re “just” talking to themselves when they pray. indeed, i feel that i mostly talk to myself when i pray. prayer, among other things, helps me evoke and connect with that part of me that truly only desires goodness for this world and myself. i personally have little connection with a god “out there” – immanence works better for me than transcendence.

    btw, i think the voice of atheism is very important here, and we always need to listen to it and learn from it. i hope that these words here don’t turn you off from further discussions, michael.

    nancy’s “and yet i continue to pray” embodies so much of what, in my mind, mature spirituality is all about. it is not childish belief in a piece of supposedly sacred paper (the bible, the quran, the upanishads, etc.). it is wrestling and interacting with the sacred, weaving in and out of surrender and rejection, adoration and grave doubt.

    “and yet” – looking reality straight in the eye, taking it all in, considering but not succumbing to either misery or facile pleasures, knowing that the world (truth/reality/god/the universe) is so much bigger than we can ever grasp: “and yet.”

  8. Rudolf

    “Pray, v:. to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.”

    From The Devil’s Dictionary, 1911, by Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914)”

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