I’m likely to offend some of you here. A few may think that an atheist has no right to opine on prayer. So let me just start by saying: I held many of these views when I was a Bible basher. They haven’t changed much since I became an atheist. Besides, in my cantina, I will speak my mind on the subjects of the day. It being the National Day of Prayer, the subject of the day is prayer.
Prayer annoys the bugfuck out of me and always has.
I remember praying once as a child. My father was late getting home. He had a long commute, the roads had iced up, snow was pouring down, and I was terrified he’d gotten in an accident. My mom was frantically calling people, trying to find out: had his plane taken off? Landed? Had he left the airport? I couldn’t do those things. All I could do was run to my room, beg God to spare my Daddy, and go tearing back into the living room to try to figure out what was going on from my mom’s side of the conversation.
Christians would say it worked. Daddy came home that night. Considering how many other daddies don’t come home despite their daughters’ fervent prayers, though, I don’t think praying did anything more than give me the illusion of doing something constructive.
We started each school day with a moment of silence. I can’t remember how old I was when I found out it was for prayer, but I remember having my head down on the desk and thinking, “But I don’t want to pray.” I never did. Prayer seemed too noisy. I liked just sitting there with my head on my arms in that warm moment of quiet before learning. A minute wasn’t enough, really. I could’ve done with a good hour. If I’d known about zazen back then, I’d probably have taken that moment to meditate. I never saw much point in bothering God daily.
Never saw much point in the Pledge of Allegiance, comes to that, but that’s a story for another day.
I went through a brief period in high school where I fell under the sway of a charismatic church, and I prayed. But it bothered me. What was I praying for? Didn’t God have enough to do without listening to me whine? And why the hell were these other people so proud of themselves – “I prayed for a red car, and God gave it to me!!” I’d think, No, He fucking well didn’t. You wanted a red car, you shopped, you financed, and lo! you have a red car. Good for you, you fuckwit. I’m sure God was happy to grant that prayer while kids starved to death in Africa.
The longer I stayed in the church, the more annoyed I got. It seemed that trivial prayers far outnumbered the weighty. We’d pray for people to find God (He’s right there, dumbass. It’s not like He’s hard to find), pray for this or that gotta-have-it thing of the week, pray for rain, pray for sun, pray pray pray for more more more. Prayer, in fact, was reduced to something like this: “God, please gimme this. You’re awesome if you do. Thanks!” We all sounded like teenagers, wheedling the latest in prestige items from a parent with a mixture of pleading, promises, and provisional praise.
Didn’t God get a bit tired of all this shit?
Time passed. I soon broke with the church over their shallow obsessions, discovered that the vast majority of American churches were no better, struck off on my own, and for reasons that will someday become clear, turned agnostic. I didn’t pray anymore, unless you count the idiom of “Oh, God, please make it stop” counts. As I hadn’t addressed the envelope, I doubted those pseudo-prayers ever landed in God’s mailbox. I sincerely hoped not, anyway. I was certain He got enough junk mail as it was.
It was during my agnostic phase that I had a dream:
In the dream, it was night, and I was on a train travelling up the Pacific coast. I’d wandered into the empty dining car to watch the trees go by in the full moonlight. And I was just starting to wax really lyrical on the sight when a man who looked a bit like Danny Glover walked into the dining car. At three in the morning.
Here he is, in a suit, carrying a briefcase and a cup of coffee, and there I am, standing there in jeans and a heavy metal t-shirt.
I turned and looked at him. He set his coffee down on one of the tables and sat beside it, one hand on the briefcase, the other over the top of the cup to keep its contents from splashing out while the train jigged its way down the tracks. He smiled at me. And it was a smile of such serenity, such love and contentment and peace, that I knew instantly that all of those folks who worshipped God as the Great White Father were in for a shock.
And yes, I did think, “Oh, my God, it’s God.”
And I felt like a runny-nosed little kid. And I wondered if my sneakers were untied. And I started to feel ashamed, but he kept smiling, and I knew I was just fine exactly as I was. Oh, the relief! I sat down in the booth opposite, and wondered what a heavy-metal agnostic chick and God talked about in a dining car at three a.m.
I never did find out. Right at that moment, I felt a breathtaking rage rise right up through me. It came from below. It surged up through my shoes and thighs and bottom and roared its way through my body like an andesitic eruption. I’d never felt so much vicious hate, such incandescent anger, in my entire existence. And it was all focused on God, who was still sitting there with one hand over his coffee cup and the other over his briefcase, smiling at me.
A few very important things struck me at that instant. I realized that God was bumming around in mortal guise, very vulnerable. That alien animosity I felt was Satan, getting ready to use me to kill God. And I didn’t think I could stop it.
I fought to keep it contained. Begged God with my eyes and my mind to please do something, don’t let this happen, don’t let me be the instrument of your destruction. You know what the fucker did? Sat there smiling. He wasn’t going to do jack shit to save himself. It was up to me.
So I got pissed. Maybe the lazy bastard deserved a good smiting, if He wasn’t going to help this poor helpless mortal, but it wasn’t going to happen through me. The rage and the hate nearly scoured me away, but fraction by fraction, I fought it down. Pushed it out. Get thee behind me, Satan, because God may not be lending a hand but my will is more than enough here. And slowly, sweating, shaking, I won that battle.
I sat there glowering at God. God sat there smiling at me. I was about to open my mouth to ream Him for a lazy, useless bastard when His smile changed. Pride and love poured over me like premium tequila. He gave me this satisfied little nod. Of course. He hadn’t lifted a hand to help me because He’d known I could do it all by myself. He’d had complete confidence in me all along.
That felt amazing.
Needless to say, I woke up a little bemused, and maybe a wee bit more agnostic than usual. I’ve often thought of that dream over the years, when people have bragged about the results of their prayers, how God had helped them. Bullshit, I’ve wanted to say. God won’t lift a finger to help you. Why should He? If you believe He created us, it shouldn’t be much of a stretch to understand that He gave us the power to help ourselves. It’s up to us to use it.
We’re not children anymore, utterly helpless to do anything but pray. There comes a time when you can’t go running to Big Daddy for every little thing.
I can’t understand that mentality. I truly can’t. The religious sorts talk
about their omnipotent, omniscient God, they pray for things, and they expect results. How self-absorbed is that? How petty, how weak.
I see people who ignore the gifts they’ve been given. If you’re a believer, you believe God created the universe and all that’s in it. Then why not believe that God expects you to use all of those things you’ve been given to make your own way? Is He really such a control freak that He can’t let you stand or fall on your own?
Does He really give two shits if you get that promotion or not? When Jones is praying for God to smite Smith, and Smith is praying for same, how is God supposed to answer? Why the hell pester Him over the petty bullshit?
I thought it when I was a Christian. I thought so as an agnostic. I think that even more so as an atheist: why should God help you when you’re perfectly capable of helping yourself?
And doesn’t it mean more when you accomplish it yourself?
The devout pray-ers don’t seem to think so. “Let go and let God!” they say. Willful helplessness. Determined to stay a child forever. And I don’t think that serves God or human beings.
I don’t pray anymore, of course. But if I did, I wouldn’t be praying for the petty things. I wouldn’t be praying for handouts. I’d be praying, “God, I’m about to try this. I hope it works. Wish me luck.”
Because He’s not going to do it for us. It’s up to us. Prayer is not a good substitute for action. Ask those parents whose kids have died because they won’t summon medical help, but prayed for a miracle instead. Look, God gave you the miracle. It’s called a hospital. How stupid of you to reject it.
Praying for world peace is a nice sentiment. It’s not going to create it. People going out and working themselves to exhaustion might.
Praying for an end to hunger, to disease, to pollution, won’t do half as much as engaging in the science and the activities that can solve those things.
I’m an atheist. I don’t pray. That doesn’t mean I believe prayer has no place. It’s a great and useful thing for the faithful, if put to good use. It’s a mission statement. It’s a focus. But it’s just empty words if you don’t follow up, right?
On this National Day of Prayer, you can pray for handouts. Or you can pray, “God, we’re about to try something big here. Wish us luck.”
And then join up with us atheists, and let’s get stuff done.