Prayers -The Pros & Cons (Through the eyes of a Secular Humanist)


 Prayer is a unique combination of meditation, wishful thinking, simple greed, conscience-clearing and a desire for peace of mind. It’s all rolled into one! And it’s all quite selfish when you examine it.

Since most people begin prayer with their eyes closed and their hands clasped or at least at rest, you’re off to a good start in the area of relaxation. That’s really all meditation is anyway, which is why it works for so many people. You’re clearing the mind of stray thoughts and probably taking a few slow, deep breaths. So right off the bat you feel better! No surprise there.

Keeping your eyes closed is very important. Otherwise, you’d be looking at a door or another person or an activity outside a window—whatever. And that won’t do. The brain can’t handle that sort of distraction during prayer.

These two elements of prayer are different but inseparable. You can’t really believe in an invisible God (wishful thinking) unless your mind is at rest, and you can’t feel relaxed if you’re doubting your invisible God. So they support each other. And, no matter how bad things are, you will always feel better if you can calm down while contemplating your troubles.

And if you believe—well, actually even if you just hope—that your worries will be somehow be taken care of, by someone or something else, of course you’ll feel better when you’re done! You really want to believe that there is someone out there who cares about you and your personal plights. You really want that. Who wouldn’t? It doesn’t take too much gullibility, at least when you’re young, to think that such a thing is possible.

Anyway, when we left off you were taking quiet breaths, your eyes were closed, your hands were at rest and your blood pressure had probably already begun to drop. Good start. You also believe, or at least hope, that there is some kind of God out there who will hear your prayer. This is a combination of wishful thinking and meditation, both of which serve to reassure and relax you. You are now on your way to an honest to goodness prayer.

The third aspect of prayer is less attractive and morally ambiguous. Nevertheless, it is the main reason people pray. You want something. Whether it’s a new car or a cure for cancer, you want something. Prayers of petition are by far the most common. You pray to find your car keys, pass a competitive exam like CAT,MAT,SAT,RAT or whatever, win first prize in a lottery.... well, there is no end, is there? Of course you always pray, at least once in a while, for world peace and an end to world hunger, although those categories are already pretty well covered by beauty pageant contestants during their semi-final rounds of competition.

There is truly no end to the things people pray for. The list of things prayed for by the number of people who have ever prayed for anything, would probably be a billion to the power of a trillion. Somewhere in that range. We are a needy and greedy bunch, aren’t we? However, amidst all this avarice, let’s not forget our topic here. The claim is that prayer “works” and so we must figure out how our list of unanswered prayers can be accounted for.

Well, that’s easy! Here’s how it works: you count the hits and ignore the misses! What could be easier? It’s what people do every day, so where’s the mystery? For example, a poverty-stricken young girl can pray for more food for a hungry belly, but it never arrives. She then prays her mother will not get pregnant again and suffer childbirth for the tenth time. Soon her ninth sibling arrives. She then prays for a horrific hurricane to end, but it continues and kills ten of her relatives. And so on. After 15 years of this, the young woman finally prays for one, small imitation gold bracelet, and bingo! She receives one for her birthday! So prayer works! See? It’s so easy. Just count the hits and ignore the misses.

This is not an exaggeration. When you ask people about prayer, all they ever talk about are the hits. Why? Because they’d sound like utter jackasses if they mentioned all the things that were never granted by their loving God. This stand-on-its-head logic is carried so far that people can and do ignore the hundreds of dead and mutilated people in a plane crash and focus strictly on their beloved child, the sole unharmed survivor. Surely this “miracle” is the result of your prayer of supplication, asking God to keep your child safe on the plane trip. And you will credit God for answering your prayer. Preferably you’ll be able to do this in front of news cameras.

While “thank you” and “forgive me” may seem quite different, they are not. Both emotions, offered to God in prayer, have the same end result: to make you feel better about yourself. You pray for something, that something comes true, so you say thank you to God and feel rather smug for having done so. Lots of people break coconuts and have their head tonsured as a token gratitude for things received. Saying thank you to God in a silent prayer is a lot easier than taking the time to write a letter of thanks to your local fire department or your local hospital ER doctors and nurses.

Prayers are easy. Actions are harder. So prayers are the usual favourite. And something else to consider is that prayers of thanks provide you with a feeling of joy. Pure joy. This is not to be dismissed lightly. Like the relaxation techniques used consciously or unconsciously at the beginning of any prayer, so too will this feeling of joyful thanksgiving provide those all important endorphins. To achieve relaxation followed by a feeling of bliss is no small feat; and it is certainly a pleasurable accomplishment! I can think of no reason why people would not seek it out regularly, almost like a narcotic, especially in a world in which most of us have little control.

Clearing your conscience is a less attractive but nevertheless real feature of prayer. We all know if we have done something to harm someone else or cheated someone in any way. We know. This often awkward, prickly conscience develops at a very early age and requires no gods of any kind to come into existence.

So asking for forgiveness, from anyone actually, but especially from God, can’t help but make you feel, well, humble. You are being anything but humble, but it feels like humility. People seek out forgiveness, for the most part, to feel better about themselves, not to assuage the feelings of others. Example: Asking someone for forgiveness for killing their perennially barking dog is unlikely to ease their hurt or pain in any way. They may say that, but it is doubtful they’ll feel any better. However, you will.

Asking God for forgiveness is even better because you have already been told by a religious leader that just by asking you will be forgiven. It’s a lot easier than making reparations for your hurtful actions. And, it makes you feel better!

At some point in your prayers you will engage in praise. Worshipful adulation is an integral part of praying, for obvious reasons. Why would you pray to a beggar? So somewhere along the line you will engage in the glorification of the object of your communication. You will feel love, honor, respect and adoration—in other words, you will worship. Aloud or silently, you will praise. Once again, we are talking about very pleasurable emotions. Like hero-worship of any kind, including idolizing and building a temple for Amitabh Bachchan in Kolkatta. This produces endorphins.

Helping to expedite the arrival of those endorphins are two activities that often accompany prayer:
First, there is repetition. Whether chanting Hanuman Chalisa or Vishnu Sahasranamam, there is something soothing and comforting and slightly hypnotizing about repeating certain phrases or even just sounds; otherwise, religions wouldn’t do it so much! It takes your brain to a quietly different place.

Second, there is often the validation that accompanies group prayer. You feel very confident when praying with others. You are all addressing the same God in the same way with the same words. Validation. A bonus in this is that you will also feel a powerful bonding with others. This sense of community is also a feel-good activity.

If prayer could truly change anything, other than to summon those delicious endorphins, there would be no war or hunger. Like miracles, prayer appeals to the gullible, self-centered core we all share in varying degrees. Why would anyone who had a shred of love for our fellow humans use prayer to try to influence the outcome of a sporting event? Would a truly loving God care about victory to Indian or Australian cricket team in a world filled with starving children? Is that what prayer is for? To help the rich cricketers get richer?

Also it is so funny to see the Cricketers from across the border answer a question with "INSHA ALLAH we will do well & win" [ God willing, we will do well & win], but tragically they lose to India in every important match. Their Allah seemingly likes India more. Yet, they keep praying, thinking that last time they didn't pray properly.

Why more people do not take offense at such trivial, petty, self-centered prayers is a mystery. But at the end of the day, there is no getting around the fact that prayer in general is a selfish, small-minded, lazy way of dealing with life. It is the world’s Number One Cop-Out. It is a distasteful habit that, hopefully, humankind will someday outgrow.

Assuming hypothetically that there is a God, let me prove that God cannot change his mind, because he is assumed by all religions to be perfect. There is always a best choice in any situation. For someone to change their mind, they have to deem their new choice better than their old one.

Suppose, for example, that god thought initially that one plus one equals three. God then changes his mind to thinking that one plus one equals two. This situation is impossible because, for god to change his mind to the best choice( 1+1=2 ),he must have previously made a worse choice. This cannot happen because god must be wrong in the first place. But god is never wrong, remember ? By definition,he always knows the best choice, because he is omniscient. God always selects the best choice from the start.

In real life situations, problems do not have such neat solutions. They may not be completely wrong like 1+1=3, or completely right like 1+1=2. Sometimes the best choice is only slightly better than the other choice. But all questions have a relatively best answer. It is impossible for humans to calculate the best answer to a real life question, because we must look at " every tiny effect on everything else"

Chaos theory says that butterflies flapping their wings in the Amazon forest affect the weather in Chicago. But for an omniscient and omnipotent god, this is no difficult task at all. God always makes the best choice, because he is never wrong. Every choice he makes is perfect & there is no better choice. So god can never change his mind, and cannot be persuaded to make a different choice. If god's plan is set in place and god's mind is made up, then how can prayer change anything ?

Actually when someone prays, only two kinds of situations exist. Someone prays for something that is not according to god's plan or someone prays for something that is according to god's plan. Praying for something that is not according to god's plan is pointless because we can't change his mind about anything and what god wants to do is already set in place.

The second choice is equally pointless. If something is according to god's plan prior to the prayer, then it is going to happen regardless of whether you pray for it or not. What is the point of praying for something that is going to happen anyway ? It's like praying for the preservation of the Law of Gravity. It's going to happen anyway, so why pray for it ? Sheer waste of time and human energy.

Either your prayer is against god's will and hence won't happen because you cannot change god's mind or your prayer is according to god's will, but does not make a difference because god's will would have been carried out anyway. In both of the situations, prayer is pointless.

So shouldn't we stop praying , and start working sincerely and boldly take responsibility for our actions.

 I can appreciate that when people feel powerless—when they feel like they cannot do anything to aid in a terrible situation—they grope desperately to find some magical act that might help; all too often, prayer is the result.

Even if we assume hypothetically that there is a god or gods, prayer is the act of asking an unproven omniscient (all-knowing), omnibenevolent (all-kind) & omnipotent (all-powerful) entity to help you :
- with problems he should already know about ( since he is omniscient)
- In ways he should already want to ( since he is omnibenevolent)
- Using effort that costs him nothing ( since he is omnipotent).

What a waste of time, effort & resources! But if prayers are giving you a sense of security you are welcome to do it. At least you are not beheading innocent people like some are doing.

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Comment by Idaho Spud on April 15, 2017 at 9:27am

I prayed 2 or 3 times a day for 45 years, and don't remember it ever being enjoyable or relaxing.  Well, maybe a little relaxing at times, because I fell asleep sometimes. But there was no joy or bliss as I remember.  I also never got into the worshiping or praising jebus/god thing.  I'm just not a praising or worshiping kind of guy.  

Oh, sure, as I was indoctrinated to do, I thanked god for his blessings (even though I couldn't tell if he indeed had ever blessed me).  I prayed for help in overcoming sin and for wisdom (although I couldn't tell if he indeed had ever helped me).  And, I prayed that his will be done, in case any of my requests were not "kosher".  

I finally woke-up to the fact that the hits were 0%, and the misses were 100%.  A few years before I quit, prayer became unpleasant and irritating.  I think it was because I was subconsciously realizing the 100% failure rate.  It never felt like anyone was listening.

I probably never felt the positives of prayer that some people did because even though I was brainwashed to be a believer, I also loved science, and was mostly logical.  I think that kept me from becoming a hard-core radical believer.  

I remember somewhere around the age of 20, while still a believer in mormonism, thinking that either there was only one correct religion, or there was none.  That only made sense.  So, I was a believer, but not totally.

Comment by V.N.K.Kumar on April 15, 2017 at 9:25am

@Idaho Spud: Your comments are hilariously funny.

Comment by Compelledunbeliever on April 15, 2017 at 12:47am

 You've done it again!!!! This is truly the best explanation of the psychology behind prayer I have ever seen. I feel like I've been hitch slapped!!! Keep up the good work!

Comment by V.N.K.Kumar on April 14, 2017 at 7:07pm

@Grinning Cat: Thanks for supplementing my post.

Comment by Grinning Cat on April 14, 2017 at 12:25pm

all the prayers in the world were answered and granted...

...would both teams win every sports match?

...would a lot of people end up happy, healthy, and well off, and simultaneously sick, suffering, destitute, and dead?

...would we end up with no religions, since quite a few prayers ask for the unbelievers to see and accept the "truth" and "salvation" of the one true religion -- for several incompatible values of "one true religion"! (Judaism and Christianity do this, and I'm sure there are others.)


Prayer also often involves putting one's ideals and fears and hopes into words, thinking out loud as it were, directing them "to someone" in a way that might help the social/​emotional/​nurturing "old mammal brain" relate to them. As that meme says, "You'll pray for me? Great! I'll talk to my cat for you! Expect the same results." Talking to your cat can be useful and therapeutic, even if s/he doesn't understand your words. But we don't expect that to magically change the world, without us doing something more.

Also, speaking of meditation and repetition, former Catholic priest turned atheist and psychologist Stephen Uhl attributes the perceived "power of prayer" to self-hypnosis, just as in completely secular contexts people have made changes they hadn't consciously thought they could make.

Comment by V.N.K.Kumar on April 14, 2017 at 6:17am

@Loren Miller: Well said dear friend.

Comment by Loren Miller on April 14, 2017 at 6:12am

Ever since I first saw the YouTube video which referred to "praying to a jug of milk," I can't consider the concept of prayer without having to resist laughing out loud.  Prayer is a no-op, an action which accomplishes exactly NOTHING, despite protestations to the contrary.

Consider this, too: if all the prayers in all the world were answered in the affirmative, imagine the chaos which would ensue from conflicting wish fulfillment!

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