The problem with prayer

Atheists are becoming more open about their atheism. I am, by definition, an atheist, but I think of myself more as a nontheist, mostly because there’s some baggage that comes with the word atheist, and I don’t like baggage. I think what separates me from some (certainly not all) atheists and from some (but certainly not all) believers is that I honestly don’t care what somebody else believes, and I’m not the least bit interested in trying to make believers reject their belief, nor am I the least bit upset or disappointed if an atheist starts believing in God. I honestly don’t think we have much of a choice about it, and none of it is based in fact (either way), so, from where I sit, it’s not like arguing over whether or not gravity is real, it’s like arguing over whether or not dark chocolate is better than milk chocolate. I certainly have a very strong opinion on that, but I’m not comfortable telling somebody they’re wrong if they like milk chocolate better. So what’s my problem with prayer?

The greater comfort that atheists feel being openly atheist has changed the dynamic a bit when it comes to national tragedies. For example, hurricane Harvey has been awful for millions in Texas. This brings out the typical response: calls to pray for the victims and people showing they care by saying they’re praying for the victims. But there’s a newer (or at least it seems newer to me) response. Memes like this:

Texas prayer delivery

A clear insult to people who believe in the power of prayer, and something to chuckle about (and feel superior) for those who don’t. I’m certainly not about to post a meme like that, mostly because I’m not interested in offending anybody for the sake of offending them, but there’s a lot about it that strikes a chord in me.

First, there’s the obvious: prayer without action, whether or not one believes in the power of prayer, is not as helpful as prayer and action. For many, offering a prayer feels sufficient, so the drive to act is gone, and the people in need are left with the prayer and not the action. But if those people weren’t going to do anything anyway, is there a net loss? There’s no question for me that if the choice is for Mary to donate money to the Red Cross OR pray for the victims, I want Mary to send money to the Red Cross. But if the choice is for Mary to sit on her couch and pray, or sit on her couch and not pray, what did we lose by her adding prayer to the equation? The answer could be nothing, but I’m not sure it is.


This came up in a FaceBook thread last night, and it was an unusual time for me because I was playing with my views on an issue as I was writing. I was thinking of new things from post to post. It was the kind of mental exercise that I experienced in the early days of FaceBook, but haven’t felt in a long time. It started on a post related to a meme like the one I posted above. One commenter, let’s call her Mary (to keep with the Biblical reference that I started above), wrote:

I believe, I have my conversations with God, i pray. It gives me comfort. When I have nothing to give other than prayers to other believers it makes us both feel better.

On the surface, this is fine. Who doesn’t want to be comforted in a time of tragedy? Who doesn’t want bad feelings to go away? We all want that, right? But I was struck here, as I am so often, by how self-centered it felt. That sounds like I’m really down on “Mary,” and I’m not. I think “Mary” has a good heart and clearly cares, but what’s more important here, “Mary” finding some comfort while sitting in her safe house that isn’t flooded, or easing the hardship of the victims of the hurricane? It in inadvertently becomes all about “Mary” feeling better. So my response was along these lines:

I appreciate that praying makes you feel better, but when it substitutes for doing something that will help those in need, it can seem a bit selfish. When the response is to pray (without doing anything else), it gives comfort to the person praying, but gives nothing to the people who are in real need. When I’m sitting in my comfortable family room with my air conditioning/heat working perfectly, maybe I’m not the one who needs to feel better.

Another commenter, let’s call him Paul (to keep up the Biblical references), chimed in and asked:

But when nothing else can be done, isn’t offering a prayer doing something? Sometimes that’s all someone can do. It shows that there is compassion for the affected. Not everyone can drop money in a basket, or give up time at work to go help. Sometimes all they can do is pray.

And that’s when my real point started to emerge (honestly both in what I was posting, and in what I was thinking. It was a moving target because my thoughts on it were developing as I was writing.  And I responded:

Well, that’s assuming that prayer actually does anything. If the person you’re praying for knows you’re doing it, it could provide some sense of comfort to that person, but I doubt that often happens. I think my point is that our need to feel comfort, when we’re not in danger, is pretty self-centered. It stops being about the people in need, and starts being about us being able to feel good, so we don’t empathize as much with those who are suffering. Feeling the suffering of others is part of being human. Maybe we’re better feeling it, instead of finding ways to make it go away so we can sleep better at night while people are drowning. Maybe it makes us better, more caring people, to feel the pain and live with it, rather than trying to find ways to escape it. I don’t know if this is true or not, but I can’t help but see it as a selfish act if I’m worried about alleviating my pain that only exists because of a connection with other humans. Seems like that’s working against the connection that makes us human. At least it seems that way to me.

At some point, “Paul” asked why I care if somebody prays, does it affect me, to which I responded:

[“Paul”], but I’m saying that it DOES affect me and you and [name redacted] and [name redacted] and “Mary,” because I think it’s an antidote to the emotional connection between humans, and that connection makes us treat each other better. Like “Mary” said, praying makes her feel better, and I’m saying that I suspect feeling better is the same thing as feeling less connected. I think that does actually affect us all.

So that’s my problem with praying now. It’s not because I don’t think anybody’s listening (I don’t, but that’s irrelevant), it’s because I think it becomes about us feeling better, when society benefits from us NOT feeling better.

And this isn’t limited to prayer. Many of us do lots of things to help ease the pain we feel from empathy/sympathy for those who are suffering. We give money, we write letters to the editor, we call our representatives and senators, we exercise, we watch movies and TV shows, we read books, we talk with friends, we post on FaceBook or write stuff for a blog that we assume nobody reads…and all eases the pain that we feel, thereby easing the connection that we feel with the people who are suffering. I’m not saying that doing nothing, and stewing with the pain is the answer. I certainly want everybody to take action to help others. I personally prefer things other than prayer, but any of those things can do what I fear, give us comfort, when it could be best for the world if we’re not comfortable.

Well, that made me feel better 😉


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