UNDERSTANDING PRAYER: Why I Do Not Pray
Editor’s Note: Spokane FāVS is publishing a series of columns on the subject of prayer. Prayer is a common religious concept and is used in secular, colloquial speech and circumstances. Early humans may have used a version of prayer, even before the advent of formal religious observances.
But what does prayer mean? What is it? Who does it? Can you pray if it isn’t to a Divine Being? How do you do it? Is it a solitary and/or communal activity? Why do it at all? What motivates a person to pray? What are the expectations on the part of the pray-er? Should there be some type of tangible outcome or after effects? These and other questions will be addressed over the next few weeks.
I do not pray.
The I-do-not-pray declaration followed a health crisis in my extended family that was ultimately resolved. But while matters were still in doubt, I my social media feed was full of prayerful responses.
“I am praying for you.”
“My thoughts and prayers are with you.”
“Please pray for us,” from members of my own family.
I love my family. But as a committed atheist, I said then that it would have been hypocritical of me to join in.
At the risk of redundancy, I thought some of what I said in February might still resonate, for better or worse.
I understand the almost reflexive reliance on prayer when crises engulf our lives. People deserve to find comfort how and where they can. If praying provides that comfort for people of faith, so much the better.
But I do not pray.
I have always appreciated people of faith who do not try to impose their beliefs on me. So, I would never, ever try to persuade anyone else to accept my beliefs.
But it cannot hurt anyone to offer an explanation.
This is how the Oxford Dictionaries define prayer: “A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.”
As an atheist, I do not believe in God, or any deity, for that matter. I do not think a “solemn request for help” from what I believe to be a non-existent deity can produce results sought by the supplicant. And if a prayer cannot produce results, it follows prayers of thanks also have no meaning to people who believe as I do.
In times of crisis, a religious person might well argue that positive outcomes are influenced by the outpouring of prayer. On the other hand, there numberless persons who deal with medical crises, for example, where the outcomes are tragic despite fervent prayers of their family and friends. Good people pray with all the devotion and sincerity they can muster and still people die.
A person of faith, confronted with this reality, will suggest that the determination of life and death is all part of God’s plan. A non-believer looks at those opposite outcomes and asks, “What makes this baby worthy of life and that one marked for death? What makes this family worthy of joy and the other deserving of grief?” What master plan is truly at work here?
A person of faith will look at the great tragedies of this world – fires, floods, hurricanes, plane crashes, school shootings, terrorist attacks – and see some larger design.
A non-believer sees the universe acting in predictable ways based on fundamental physical laws. Determination of life and death, as a result, can be quite random until it overtakes all of us in the end.
Issues of life and death raise the prayer stakes. But what about less significant “requests for help” from the deity, a second sort of prayer? What about all those prayers undoubtedly voiced every week when the Mega Millions jackpots surge? Millions of people will pray for the jackpot, but only a few out of millions will every win.
How about all those holiday prayers from un-naughty, nice children asking for a new bike, or the newest PlayStation? How about prayers for a better job or a better marriage?
People of faith insist prayer works because they have received the benefit, the prayed-for outcome. God has answered their plea. But when the benefit does not come or, worse, tragedy strikes, is it because someone did not pray hard enough, did not pray to the “right” god, or simply was not worthy in the eyes of the deity?
There is a third sort of prayer, a prayer not for a specific outcome or benefit but simply seeking comfort in the act, a form of spiritual meditation. That is prayer as ritual. My dear wife, Carla, a lapsed Catholic, falls in that category. I do, too, under certain circumstances. I have led Passover Seders, reciting the appropriate prayers. I have been known to recite the called upon prayers when lighting Hannukah candles. And I said Kaddish for my father. There is comfort and familiarity in the ritual even though I do not believe those prayers are a conduit to the almighty.
So, I understand the impulse and respect it. As I said, people should find comfort wherever and however they can.
As I watched the social media reaction to my family’s health crisis, I honestly struggled with my own response. Staying silent would have been unconscionable. I love my family and sincerely wanted to offer support, but without giving offense. Atheists are often outliers within their own families.
It would have been hypocritical to voice a prayer of support. I could and did offer my love, my concern for the family’s well-being. And I sent all the positive energy I could muster, believing that optimism can be a force multiplier, as Colin Powell once said.
In my family’s case, a person of faith might say that God responded to all those prayers and intervened. After all, the crisis was resolved. Life prevailed.
But a non-believer looks at the outcome and accepts some of that randomness in life while also thanking modern medical science for developing technologies that sometimes work to our benefit.
For that, I am sincerely, if not prayerfully, grateful.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full-time teaching at the end of May 2020. He writes a weekly opinion column. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon.