Secular communities must offer humanity a real alternative to tired dogmas and text worship—possibly including some forms of prayer.
My relationship with prayer has evolved over the years.
When I attended Child Evangelism camp as a child, first as a camper and then as a teen counselor, we used to sing, God answers prayer in the morning, God answers prayer at noo-oo-oon, God answers prayer in the eeevening . . . My youth pastor explained why it didn’t always seem that way: Sometimes God says yes, he told us, sometimes He says no, and sometimes He says wait. That struck me as a little mean, but having been taught that doubt was from the devil, I pushed those thoughts aside.
As a college student struggling with bulimia, I couldn’t understand why God would say no or wait when I asked for healing. Surely He didn’t want me sneaking and lying and wasting food! But my pleas sent heavenward had little effect. Absent divine intervention, I eventually found relief with help from my parents and therapists. Metaphorically, in other words, I followed the path of 19th Century abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass, who famously said, “I prayed for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.”
Over time I lost my faith that the Christian God existed and, along with it, my faith that He was listening to our prayer requests. I stopped praying. Years later, when I first saw a website created by and for former Evangelicals, the banner across the top stung. 26,000 children will die today from starvation, what makes you think God will answer your prayers. I winced. Had I really been so self-absorbed as to think God heard my requests and not theirs? Had I really said grace over dinner, believing that He personally provided my family with bounty while others starved? Ouch!
If you grew up religious, as most Americans did, you probably have some first-hand experience that prayer doesn’t work—at least not in the way your Sunday school teacher or Rabbi or Christian college professor said it would.
So, why would I ask readers to consider the possibility that atheists might benefit from praying?
Not Just Requests
Because prayer, as a human endeavor, is much more than simply a series of special requests. It also can be a form of self-expression or introspection, or a deliberately altered state of consciousness. The kind of prayer I sang about at Child Evangelism camp—called intercessory or petitionary prayer–is like half of a conversation between two persons, one human and one supernatural, with very uneven power. Petitionary prayer is, essentially, begging for favors from a meta-parent who claims to love you but can’t be trusted to meet your needs without cajoling and flattery. But that’s not the only kind of prayer.
This point is important, because as atheists and other non-theists move to develop wholly secular spiritual practices that eschew any form of supernaturalism, we may find that while some forms of prayer are fundamentally superstitious or otherwise dysfunctional, others can be adapted to serve secular spirituality and enhance quality of life.
The secular value of prayer depends in large part on the intent. Are prayers meant, in the words of psychologist and theologian J. H. Ellens “to persuade, inform, beguile, suggest, inveigle, ingratiate, encourage compliance with our wishes, or merely reflexively benefit us psychologically and physiologically?” The latter set of goals is perfectly compatible with superstition-free living, and in fact is highly desirable.
Goals of secular “prayer” might include values clarification, finding calm during a time of turmoil, or listening to a quiet internal voice that we now recognize as our own.
What is Prayer?
For centuries, scholars have sought to define, analyze and categorize prayer; and in recent decades they have applied to this task investigative methods from fields including psychology, sociology, anthropology, medical research, and neuroscience. But the more scientists try to study prayer, the more they recognize that it is a broad, complex, multi-dimensional human enterprise.
One challenge is trying to divide different kinds of prayer into any kind of reliable taxonomy. Quaker theologian Richard J. Foster identified what he saw as 21 different kinds of Christian prayer, which he clustered into three types that he called “inward, outward, and upward.” Inward-facing prayers are those seeking personal growth, either by creating some form of transformative insight/consciousness or by requesting God’s assistance with change. Outward-facing prayers are those seeking to influence the world external to the person praying. They may be public prayers, for example, or requests that God fix some problem situation. Upward-facing prayers are those that seek to alter the believer’s relationship with God himself. Foster believed that these categories relate to three core human needs: transformation, ministry, and intimacy.
Psychologists Bernard Spilka and Kevin Ladd in The Psychology of Prayer: A Scientific Approach, analyzed a number of prayer studies and then applied factor analysis to Foster’s three categories. They found that the various labels used by researchers didn’t neatly overlap. Nonetheless, themes emerged—including “personal examination, tears, sacrament, rest, radical, suffering, intercession, and petition.” In their analysis, “radical” meant seeking God’s help with boldness or radical personal change. “Intercession” included requests made on behalf of other people, while “petition” meant requests made on behalf of the “self.”
Much of the language used by these prayer researchers implies a world view that is fundamentally at odds with secularism. As a nontheist, I believe that this worldview is at odds with what we know about ourselves and the world around us—and not just as it relates to prayer. I further believe that many kinds of prayer are actively harmful—harmful to the person doing the praying and harmful to society as a whole.
A Look in the Mirror
And yet, that isn’t the whole story. Yes, prayer is strongly shaped by cultural and religious traditions, including archaic superstitions, but prayer also reflects the thought patterns and yearnings of those who pray, some of which are profoundly and universally human. If we assume there’s nobody on the receiving end, then prayer is in some ways like an ink blot test. It’s us projecting ourselves into the universe. It offers insight into our deepest fears and highest hopes, our overweening capacity for self-absorption and impressive generosity, our remarkable gullibility and admirable persistence in the face of adversity. It reveals how we relate to each other by showing how we relate to an other who is woven from the fabric of our own neural architecture. In coming years, the study of prayer may offer insights into that neural architecture itself.
Life Can Be Hard
If we hope for humanity to move beyond faith and superstition, we need to treat prayer seriously, meaning we must seriously examine the hypothesis that prayer not only offers insights into the human psyche, but that it also provides real benefit. Adam Lee, offers a warning to fellow atheists:
Human beings have always been, and still are, at the mercy of a complex and often frightening world. It is only natural that people in such circumstances would be eager, even desperate, for a way to calm their fears and give themselves confidence, and this is what prayer provides. It gives believers a “direct line” to the highest power in the universe, the one whom they are told is on their side and will make sure everything turns out all right for them. This ability to cope has always been one of the major perceived benefits of religious belief, and atheists who seek to make inroads against theism would do well to remember it.
If nontheists hope to challenge the kinds of prayer that are morally and intellectually harmful—the prayers that provide cheap emotional or spiritual salve while our neighbors suffer or that twist and cripple our internal sense of dignity and empowerment—we must also be mindful that coping with life is hard. Stripping away dysfunctional coping mechanisms means we must replace them with something better.
The Baby from the Bathwater
Embracing ancient wisdom may be essential if secular communities want to offer humanity a real alternative to tired dogmas and text worship. Some forms of prayer are relatively compatible with the emergence of wholly secular forms of spirituality and may be borrowed, largely intact. For example, where the Abrahamic religions treat God as an external “other,” many Eastern traditions treat the divine as an internal center point. Contemplative prayer practices can help to draw a person into this center, sharpening consciousness and clarifying values so that they can shape lived experience. Atheist neuroscientist Sam Harris discusses psychological benefits of these practices in his book Waking Up.
Even forms of prayer that are laced through and through with superstition may provide enough natural benefits to those doing the praying that they will be abandoned broadly only when something else takes their place. A variety of studies looking at the personal effects of prayer on the believer suggest variously that more prayer is associated with increases in hope, attachment and forgiveness, resistance to addiction, feelings of unity, and decreased marital conflict.
To date, these studies document a correlation between prayer and measures of wellbeing, but without establishing causal relationships. It is to our benefit that prayer has now become a serious topic of study, with dedicated communities of scholars within the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Religious Research Association and Division 36 (Psychology of Religion) of the American Psychological Association.
If humanity is ever to benefit from the best that religion has to offer, we must unpack the box and sort the contents so that we can separate handed-down rubbish from that which is timeless and useful. In the Bible, prayer takes many forms, ranging from prayer “without ceasing”—meaning an everyday mindful connection with something bigger than the self—to “forty days in the wilderness”—meaning a retreat from everyday routines to re-center in that which matters most.
In the Christian tradition, prayer can be a social activity, an orchestration of shared values and intentions. Alternately, it can be a solitary cry of anguish or confession of that which feels too dark to share. Each of these types of prayer expresses a core part of the human spirit—what it means to us to be who we are, where we are: mortal women, men and children, keenly aware of our fragility, seeking to live well and die well in community with each other.
These dimensions of prayer are too meaningful to be left, to quote Christopher Hitchens, “in the dustbin of history” even though many aspects of religion must be. They are too important to be ceded to the traditional purveyors of institutional superstition and patriarchy. They are part of the inheritance of humankind, a finely-evolved product of millennia of human suffering, joy, wonder and yearning. They belong to us all, and for the sake of our children we must begin the long, complicated process of cleaning and claiming them.
This article concludes a 4-part series adapted from the chapter, “If Prayer Fails, Why Do People Keep at It?” by Valerie Tarico in Christianity in the Light of Science: Critically Examining the World’s Largest Religion, edited by John Loftus.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.