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.