On Prayer

There was a prominent sign visible from the freeway near the on-ramp where I entered the flow of traffic. “Prayer Changes Things,” it stated. Black letters on a bright orange background, the sign mocked me. So I mocked back: “Like what, for example?”

I am a prayer skeptic. I do not say this to dissuade anyone from praying, because people I know – people I love, people I respect – pray in earnest. They value it. They believe in it. Prayer has purpose. So if you’re someone who prays, good for you. More power to you! Have at it, and I will not make fun of you for doing so… except it will seem from this point for a while that I am doing just that. I apologize preemptively.

As a prayer skeptic, I do not believe in an intervening God. I don’t believe God will grant my prayer request just because I attain an optimum level of sincerity, or because I pray in a manner that meets God’s standards, or because I met a population threshold of compatriots praying for the same thing I’m praying for. I know that in Matthew 18 it says that where two or more are gathered and are in agreement over anything they ask for, it will be done by “my Father in heaven.” Yes, it’s a red-letter passage. And yet, it rings false. God does not grant wishes just because a plurality asks for them. Sorry, but no. Go ahead and try to convince me otherwise.

Not to belabor the subject of my daughter’s death from brain cancer, but this is Exhibit A in my case against “Prayer Changes Things.” (In my defense, the event truly is a pervading element of my life.) There was no shortage of prayer on her behalf. People who knew and loved her prayed for her. People who had heard about her prayed for her. At churches, in homes, wherever people were, they prayed. We (yes, I prayed, too) certainly met the Matthew 18 criteria for numbers. The sincerity-level needle spiked in the red zone. She was beloved by many, many people. She was young, intelligent, kind… I could go on and on about what a wonderful young woman she was. And if there was something defective about our prayers, I can’t imagine what it might be. My wife and I even had a fallback prayer: that one of us would acquire the cancer in her place. Either one of us would have gladly made that trade. An intervening God had an ironclad case to consider.

So much for the power of that kind of prayer. God is not a wish-granting genie.

As a child, I grew up with prayer. I was taught to pray a bedtime prayer, naming family members both nuclear and extended, as well as friends and a kid in an Asian village who we supposedly sponsored through some organization or another. We recited a table grace that my father composed, a version of the Lord’s Prayer as it happens, and not really anything specifically having to do with food. I taught my own kids that prayer. And of course we prayed in church. There were the printed, chanted litanies and responsive prayers that sounded like so much blah, blah, blah….Come to think of it, they still sound somewhat like that to me today. If I’m reading someone else’s words, how sincere could it possibly be?

And then there’s the aforementioned Lord’s Prayer. I learned two versions. First I learned the King James version, then a more modern one. The church I’ve attended most recently uses the King James version even at the so-called ‘contemporary’ (as opposed to ‘traditional’) service. Why? Why say “Thy” and “Thine” when only a freak would use those pronouns in any other context? “Our Father who art in heaven….” He art? Really? I’m pretty sure that when Jesus taught that prayer to the disciples, he did not say it in 18th century English. So why should I sound like a doofus?

Some people in church close their eyes and raise their hands palms-up. Maybe that’s for better reception; I don’t know. But it seems showy to me and foreign to my perception of sincere communication with God. In short, I cannot imagine that God is impressed by it.

Now that you’ve read this far, I’m going to switch out of my prayer-bashing mode. I’m done with that now.

What role I acknowledge for prayer in people’s lives is a meditative, contemplative or focusing activity. I think that this kind of prayer can be beneficial to the persons who engage in it, not merely harmless. Furthermore, I think even some non-believers engage in a similarly purposeful exercise as a matter of routine even if they call it something other than prayer.

But the real benefit of prayer occurred to me in a way that surprised me. It was during the years of my daughter’s illness and death, and I would periodically send email messages to a group of friends and relatives about what she was going through. I would receive responses: “I’m (or we’re) praying for her.” “I’m praying for you and your family” Or, in the cases of non-believers, “I’m thinking of you.” The sentiments of believers praying for us and non-believers thinking of us were the same. I received messages of concern, sympathy, warmth, and love. Prayer skeptic that I was and am, I found these messages to be curiously comforting. I cannot rely on reason alone to explain how this made me feel.

Recently I heard a saying that instantly rang true for me due to my experience: “A joy shared is a joy multiplied, and a sorrow shared is a sorrow divided.” You might think that a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic such as myself would find that saying to be corny. And yet, I wish I’d heard it earlier. Maybe I wish I’d thought of it myself. Maybe that should be in scripture!

So yes, it turns out that prayer does change things after all. Curiously and surprisingly, prayers divided my sorrow and softened my heart.

Moral Objections

Lately there has been much complaining from certain quarters that ‘religious freedom’ is being infringed.  I suppose that there is a case to be made… if those doing the complaining are Muslims.  There have been widely reported instances of NIMBYism* when it comes to proposed building of mosques, or in one famous case, a community center.

Curiously, it is not Muslims who are complaining about trampling of religious rights, but rather Catholics and other Christians of a conservative stripe.  And by Catholics, I do not mean regular members of the Roman Catholic Church, parishioners or worshippers.  No, I mean the leaders.  I mean the exclusively male members of the hierarchy.

In fact, rank-and-file Catholics frequently and routinely disregard or even defy the pronouncements of the leadership.  For example, the Church (i.e., the hierarchy) has an official position on capital punishment, but members are split on the issue.  Politicians of the Catholic faith who favor capital punishment are seldom called to account by the Church.  When it comes to the issue of abortion, however, the Church has threatened excommunication to its office-seeking or office–holding members who don’t share its hard-line position.

Most prominently in recent months, and most pertinently for my writing, is the issue of birth control pills.  Per polling, 98% of Catholic women of childbearing age use birth-control methods disapproved by Church doctrine, compared to 99% of the general population.  The Catholic Church hierarchy can make doctrine and policy and rules all they want, but their members apparently do not feel particularly bound by it.  They make choices as to when and whether to be followers and let their own consciences be their guides.

However, in the name of religious freedom, they (leaders) are not content to impose their doctrine on their own not-really-under-their-control members.  No, they want to inflict their religious views on their employees of affiliated institutions – such as hospitals and colleges – whether or not those employees share their faith.  Never mind that the cost of birth control coverage on health insurance policies has been taken up willingly by the insurers; that’s not good enough for the Church leaders.  And never mind that they are, in fact, exempt from providing that coverage to church employees.  This is a labor law (that they didn’t resist in 28 states where it already exists) that they want to break.

So the ‘freedom under attack,’ per their reasoning, is the freedom to impose their religion on people who work for them.  So what then becomes of the religious freedom of those employees?  Why does the boss’s religion win the day?

If your boss is a Seventh Day Adventist, could you be refused insurance coverage for treatment on a Saturday?  If your boss is a Scientologist, could you be denied psychiatric care?  If your boss is a Jehovah’s Witness, could you be denied a blood transfusion?  Or a life-saving organ transplant?

As if denial of coverage for certain medical treatments on the grounds of religious objection were not enough of an overreach, some legislators proposed extending grounds for objection to moral ones.  So an employer does not need to be a Catholic to deny birth control pills or IUDs to women:  He or she could be any kind of Puritan with an inclination to pass moral judgment.  An employer could deny coverage for treatment of Type 2 Diabetes on the grounds that the employee’s own lifestyle choices contributed to the manifestation of the disease.

For that matter, under a ‘moral objection’ clause, an employer could deny prenatal and maternity coverage for an employee (or spouse) who already has two or more children.  The boss could have a moral objection to subsidizing the worker’s irresponsible reproductive choices.  Maybe the boss could even require an abortion!

Okay, the required abortion scenario is highly unlikely.  But I still want medical decisions to be made between patients and doctors, and I kindly thank medical insurers for respecting that.  And, importantly, I believe input on my medical issues from my employer to be unwarranted, unwanted, and inappropriate.  In fact, I find my boss’s nose in my medical business to be morally objectionable.


*NIMBY is an acronym for “Not In My Back Yard.”