A selfless act of charity, or distraction from the rational world? Two contributors make their casesby Oliver Kamm and Dawn Foster / September 3, 2019 / Leave a comment
Yes—Oliver Kamm: Religious liberty is precious. That much, I expect, is common ground between us. But this Jeffersonian principle shouldn’t prevent us from making moral judgments about different ways of living. Between prayer and a life of intemperate hedonism, I’ll always choose the latter. If you want to pray I’m not going to stop you, but I won’t respect your choice or the religious convictions that guide it.
Enjoyed as works of literature, liturgical prayer (such as the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) can have rhetorical power. You may even feel a bond with your fellow worshippers, and human solidarity—with the dead as well as the living—is often a comfort.
But when you’re engaged in private prayer, these considerations don’t apply. In your personal adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication, there’s no one to hear you. Or, if you find this an impoliticly dogmatic assertion, let’s just say we have no experience of disembodied consciousness and every reason to believe that the entire sum of thoughts, memories, cognitions and emotions is, to take a phrase of Francis Crick’s, “no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”
It may be that those engaged in religious devotion find solace in the mere act of contemplation. But sitting quietly and thinking is not the same as communion with God (at least it isn’t when I do it). Methods such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) provide balm to distempered minds without the mumbo-jumbo. And unlike petitionary prayer, where God is asked to do something, CBT has been demonstrated to be effective.
But amid a national crisis, mightn’t it be worth bowing to the logic of Pascal’s wager, clapping hands together, pointing skywards and hoping something turns up? History says no. The Christian churches in Britain observed a day of national prayer during the Sudetenland crisis in September 1938, and then a day of thanksgiving the next month as the Munich Agreement appeared to have answered their supplications. Spending less time in prayer and more in Socratic dialogue would be much to the benefit of our fallible species.