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May 17 2010

Why prayer is nonsense – part 1

0 – Master post

This is part 1 in a series of posts on prayer. Please use the links at the top and bottom of each post to navigate through the parts.

first, define prayer

It’s always important to define your terms. Especially in debate with someone that believes in a particular religion — it’s horrible to get knee deep into a theological argument only to have them suddenly say “But I’m a Southern Baptist Episcopalian Wesleyan, I don’t believe THAT!” It makes the whole theism-vs-atheism debate ultimately futile, because while on the one hand you have the blanket position “there is insufficient evidence for any deities”, on the other you have a unique flavor of belief with such subtle nuances as to be shared by absolutely nobody else in the history of mankind. There are as many versions of God as there are people who believe in God. So figure out what your goalposts are before you start trying to make the punt.

The same is true with prayer. There are a number of different varieties of belief about prayer, which are usually coupled with specific properties ascribed to the deity to which you’re praying. Of course, in this list, I’m probably missing a bunch of important variations, but like I said, this isn’t meant to be exhaustive. The one major commonality is that praying involves actively directing one’s thoughts to a deity, usually also assuming a physical pose of piety (e.g. one one’s knees with hands clasped, bowed low so your forehead touches the ground, etc.) They may have other names in more seasoned theologians’ vernacular, but I break them down like this:

  • Interventionary prayer — prayer where you petition your deity to intervene in a particular event
  • Imprecatory prayer — asking your deity to do something evil to, or curse, another person. I’ve only separated this from interventionary prayer because of its diametrical opposition to omnibenevolence.
  • Prayer for guidance — wherein you ask for help or more information in making decisions (the “show me a sign” prayer)
  • Sycophantic prayer — wherein one proclaims how much they love or adore their deity, or giving thanks for events or prosperity that has been ascribed to divine provenance
  • Meditative prayer — prayer whose only purpose is to either calm oneself or convince oneself to accept a situation as God’s will
  • Redemptive prayer — praying for forgiveness for an act that one feels transgresses some law or another, looking for divine absolution (which sometimes comes in the form of not being smote — no smiting, no anger from God, right?)
  • Ouroboros prayer — when a person’s faith is flagging, praying to the deity for the sole purpose of reinforcing their faith in the deity’s existence (e.g., because you’re having a conversation with this deity, it must exist) — a self-feeding prayer

I’m sure someone will come along and offer other kinds of prayer that they believe to be totally worth doing, but any new addition would likely be nothing more than a slight variation of one of the above. Of these, the only one that at all resembles anything actually proven to work is the meditative prayer, because science has already proven meditation causing brain changes, it’s an old saw that blocking off a time for quiet introspection has net positive effects on your well-being and clarity of mind, and the effects of attempted mental self-discipline in the face of growing panic during desperate situations is self-evidently beneficial in the event you need to take some drastic action. So, because meditative prayer so resembles meditation itself, it says nothing about the deity involved (or not involved as the case may be), and so can be, by and large, ignored for the purposes of this series. Let’s just say “we know meditative prayer can help because it’s just meditation” and move along.

Please keep these definitions in mind through the rest of the series. Knowing these different kinds of prayer helps decide whether each is effective in the presence of certain types of deities.

2 – Know your deities

15 comments

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  1. 1
    James Carey

    I had a bit of an ephinay the other day.

    Every once in a while I find two silverfish in my bathtub. Silverfish are very inoffensive little critters so I just usually let them stay for a bit. Finally I go to take a shower and I look at them and think to myself, you guys aren’t going anywhere, you aren’t going to do anything productive. Gave you time to get going, now it’s too late. Turned the water on and sent them down the drain all the while thinking “I bet the apocalypse will be something like this…”

    I have read several of your articles and I feel that there is an underlying venom that you try to camouflage with all of your facts, links, and introspectives. I am not particularily religious but even I realize that “prayer” is synonomous with “hope”. You say prayer is usless, it might be, but in my experience thinking good thoughts is never a waste. It goes further beyond trying to appeal to some diety, it is searching for some personal comfort to ease pain, fear, anxiety, etc. When you crap on prayer, you are crapping on hope.

    “My father is dying of cancer, rather than praying to ease his suffering, I’ll go shop for hats.”

    “My little girl has been kidnapped by a pedophilr, instead of everyone out of reach to offer any help praying for her safe return, you may as well squeeze in an extra game of solitaire”

    “My husband is a firefighter, instead of praying for him to come home safely, I cry myself to sleep everynight thinking that tonight will be the night he doesn’t come home”

    So I have a few questions for you. Why are you doing all of “This”? And more importantly, what is your moral compass? The Bible, the book of mormon have all been provided to you to tear apart and criticize but have you provided us with any sort of literature of what has helped form your own morals and core beliefs for us to inspect and criticize? If so, send me the link and I will be happy to read it and give it the same consideration you would on my beliefs.

    And for anyone who wants to know what my moral compass is:

    http://acc6.its.brooklyn.cuny.edu/~phalsall/texts/taote-v3.html#37

  2. 2
    nightfallz

    This promises to be a good read. The title sounded like it might be a tad different, but since you actually acknowledged the psychological benefits of certain forms of prayer, I eagerly await the upcoming parts of the series. :)

  3. 3
    Jason Thibeault

    You’ll like the next part, Nightfallz. And by like, I mean “you’re almost certain to find something to comment about.”

  4. 4
    Jason Thibeault

    I replied here. Since it’s off-topic, and got pretty big.

  5. 5
    George W.

    (comment moved here)

  6. 6
    Jason Thibeault

    Sigh… this is what I was hoping to avoid here. I’m going to take the liberty of moving your comment, George, because while it has a lot of good meat on it, it just… needs to be elsewhere. Sorry.

  7. 7
    Stephanie Z

    Because you’ve brought up meditation as a positive, let me just add my usual caveat that it is not beneficial or even safe for everyone. Meditation often contains a dissociative element (separating one’s self from outside sensation), which can be very bad for people who already have or are susceptible to certain mental health issues.

    That aside, I’m looking forward to the rest of this.

  8. 8
    Jason Thibeault

    That’s an excellent point. I guess I just wanted to get meditation off the plate, since it actually can have verifiable effects. The fact that these effects are not necessarily positive, is very important to note.

    Thanks as always! :)

  9. 9
    khan

    On occasion when people have told me to pray, I have asked: “To whom and for what?”

  10. 10
    Clifton

    I can only hope that Part 2 is a Colbert-esque “Better know a Deity”

  11. 11
    Shannon

    I for one am interested in seeing which gods, goddessess, rocks, plants, shiny things in the sky, and what not get listed in the next blog. That and I enjoy some of the comments :D

  12. 12
    Shannon

    Also as previously mentioned I am glad you added in meditation, and I am equally glad that some one pointed out that meditation is not all together a positive thing. Not that it cant be, for some people meditation is a very good thing, allowing for an introspective look inward and a refocusing of your mental state of mind, that being said, this is not necessarily a good thing for some people.(I suppose some people can not handle seeing beyond the mask they present to the world, which can happen when you spend too much time thinking about your own psyche.) Also off topic, while Jason does talk about what he does and does not believe in, I have never felt that it was in a mean spirited or harsh way, but more of an “Hey this is how I feel about this subject, deal with it way”, which can be rather hard for certain groups of people to take.

    Also I am not in anyway biased despite the fact that he is my brother in law in law, or something like that.

    Also I have not had any sleep in about 23 hours, so if this is rambling, well I make no apologies.

  13. 13
    George W.

    Thx.

  14. 14
    Jason Thibeault

    Great reply, and so multi-purpose! I’m going to use it the next time someone says “I’ll pray for you”.

  15. 15
    Jason Thibeault

    Dude, you’ve never, ever disappointed me, even when you’re rambling, so no apologies are necessary.

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