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.
No—Dawn Foster: Your point on CBT is a pertinent one: it can indeed improve the lives of those with depression. Depression is so difficult to treat because it involves more than addressing a chemical imbalance, but our whole conscious and unconscious selves. While it doesn’t work for everyone, we try it regardless: my friends who have found CBT ultimately -unhelpful don’t regret attending sessions and attempting to find some relief. The same goes for prayer: the reasons to engage in it are myriad. Even my atheist and agnostic friends have found themselves praying, or following a close approximation of prayer, in times of stress or emotional upheaval. Prayer can help to centre your thoughts in the same way that meditation can, and in a society in which we’re rarely unplugged and often multitasking, cut through the incessant noise, chatter and distraction.
Obviously those who don’t believe will likely dismiss prayer as foolish, but the benefits even outside of belief are tangible. The bidding prayers each Sunday at church prompt each of us to decide “our own special intentions”: what is most important to us. Doing so forces us to focus on one aspect of life, a predicament that sorely needs resolution, or a personal weakness that we wish to defeat.
But I rarely, if ever, pray for myself. In the past few weeks I’ve prayed for a friend who was murdered, and for her killers. I have prayed for friends marrying; an ill family member; and a homeless woman who asked me to. As we sat in a charity kitchen, she explained that people were happy to hand over coins, but she disappeared from their awareness moments later. Offering prayer, she said, meant a commitment to remember her concerns: a promise to hold her in my thoughts.
Praying for others is a selfless act that costs nothing but time and emotional energy. It offered a bond this woman was desperately missing. I hope she receives the support she needs to counter her addiction. The emotional impact from the promise of prayer was considerable for her, whether or not God answers.
Yes: The reason I mention CBT is that it works. It’s clinically effective in treating depression by showing sufferers how to challenge destructive thoughts and replace them with better ones. It’s founded on evidence-based science. Prayer is not like that. There is no evidence that petitionary prayer has any real-world effect. Space precludes me from citing the studies, but your assertion that there are tangible benefits of prayer is plain false. I’m sorry to be blunt, but that’s what the literature says.
Perhaps you mean no more than that those who pray feel satisfaction in a religious duty discharged, and that those who are prayed for feel gratitude. I don’t doubt these are genuine emotional responses, but they are indistinguishable from respectively sending and receiving the message “I’m thinking of you in times of adversity,” unless you believe there’s someone who hears the prayer. If there existed an omnipotent and omniscient being, it would surely be possible for it to visibly intervene in human affairs, yet once more the evidence is lacking. The extinction of more than 99 per cent of all species that have ever trod, swam or flown across this planet is consistent with this being a bleak and impersonal universe.
So far I’ve disputed your claim that prayer holds benefits for those who engage in it and those who request it, but I’m willing to advance a stronger argument. Prayer is not costless. It diverts us from the only reliable route to knowledge that’s ever been found. It’s not through divine revelation or prayerful penitence that humans understand how all organisms got this way through natural selection and random mutation, and that the molecular structure of genes is the basis of life. Saul on the road to Damascus didn’t learn this. We know it solely through critical inquiry, whose methods depend on experiment, debate and the clash of ideas. That’s what I’ll rely on, thanks.
No: I find it interesting that at no point do you seem to consider that praying for others is an exercise in empathy. The pursuit of knowledge is obviously one strand of a satisfying life, but connecting with others is also an essential part of what it means to be human. Prayer is one part of that bond: giving up time to think exclusively of others and their problems.
I don’t know anyone who is active in the church who doesn’t also volunteer with homeless people, families living in poverty, or those battling drug addictions. Few people simply pray; they also work to improve the material conditions of those in need.
Suggesting prayer is a waste of time is cynical, and also ignores the reality that people who have come through a traumatic experience need emotional support. Two years ago, I was among those who watched the Grenfell blaze in horror from a street nearby. Many on the pavements were praying as smoke and flames engulfed the tower. There was nothing else they could do. But praying with others helped them at that point, when they were terrified. There might not be a scientific study on the benefits of prayer in a disaster zone, but some of those in north Kensington were calmed as they reached out to a higher power, standing in the shadow of the building, the scent of the smoke impossible to ignore.
No one was forced to take part. Prayer doesn’t harm people, or intrude on others’ lives. Like meditation, it calms us. For many people prayer has helped at times of tragedy, and in a country that is beset by loneliness, that should not be sniffed at.
Life is about more than simply cold hard reason and scientific research. You don’t have to pray, or even see others do so, if you don’t want to. But prayer helps those who do it, because ultimately we all want connection.
Yes: It is not open to you now to redefine prayer as an ethic of humanitarian concern. Your manoeuvre is not legitimate, as it appropriates a universal impulse and classifies it as a religious one, and it’s not accurate, as this isn’t what religious thinkers mean by prayer. In the words of Cardinal Newman, “prayer is address to God that is initiated by humans; it is not conversational in nature; and it includes address to God in the second person.” This, or indeed any, definition of prayer is notably absent from your contributions. If I were a religious person, I’d find this perplexing.
Prayer is not therapy for us feeble humans: it is an “address to God.” If there is no divinity who hears, then prayer cannot fulfil the functions that religious teachers attribute to it. As Jesus says in Matthew’s Gospel: “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive.” Well, you won’t if there’s no one to deliver them, unless it’s by random occurrence, in which case there’s still no point praying for them.
No one is stopping you from exercising freedom of worship. But if you want to make speculative claims about the effects of prayer, then you need to substantiate them. If prayer is no more than an exercise that makes you feel good, then it’s of no greater intrinsic interest than my hobbies are to you. And if, in order to make you feel compassion towards others, it requires a conviction that God watches over you, then I can introduce you to many outstanding people who require no such blandishment to do good.
No: If empathy were a universal impulse, as you suggest, we wouldn’t live in a society where the “bystander effect” plagues public spaces, where people do not step in because they assume that someone else will. Countless studies have confirmed the existence of this effect. That is to say nothing of wider, structural injustices afflicting marginalised groups. Sometimes empathy needs encouraging, and if prayer helps is that really so terrible?
The idea that there are good people who are non-religious is a red herring. No one would dispute that; the question is whether prayer has an overall beneficial effect. You seem closed-minded on this point, which is a shame.
Your hobbies are probably of benefit to you. I wouldn’t rubbish them even if they didn’t appeal to me. Those who attack religious people, as you do, tend to argue from an arrogant and sniping position. It makes me wonder, why complain so vociferously? If you don’t believe in any higher power that is your choice. Why on earth are you so upset that others do?
Prayer remains a form of meditation (and endless personal accounts stress the benefits of meditation), and yes—for me and others—an appeal to a higher power that we often feel is answered.
Prayer certainly isn’t about making you “feel good” and no person of faith I know feels that way. It is about building interpersonal solidarity. It is about improving oneself, becoming a more generous person. It causes no more harm than exercise or stamp collecting. But it helps you connect with others in a society that’s as full of scorn as your responses—and often bereft of the selflessness that prayer, however imperfect, helps to encourage.