I was born in a Catholic family, that says a lot when we talk about religious practices. Catholics may be one of the most hardcore when it comes to praying. There is practically a pro forma prayer available for any possible thing you’d like to petition to God. Or, if you think your prayers are not enough, you can do an indirect approach and go pray to a saint to help smooth talk God to hear you. Other Christian denominations prefer a more spirited and enthusiastic way and each denomination have their own prescribed style of doing it. But prayer, despite its many forms, is still praying. It is humanity’s way to seek aid or have a talk with God (or gods, depending on your religion).
This aspect of praying bugs me for years, since I was a child. My issue with it has to do with why we pray in the first place. Do we need it, or is it another useless practice born from our superstitious nature?
As a boy attending religion class (yes, we had those) we were taught that God loves us and that He is an all powerful and all knowing God. If we pray to ask for aid from God, why do we need to ask it in the first place? If He is all knowing then doesn’t that mean I do not necessarily need to pray for him to know that I need help? And since He loves us then why not help us then? Isn’t helping someone who desperately needs it one of the best expressions of love?
I asked this same question to a friend one day, a somewhat über religious friend, and she answered me like this:
“God does know all and he does love us, it’s just that he moves in mysterious ways. Take it like this, since He knows everything, He also knows what is good for you and what is not. So, He only gives you what you need in order for you to be a better person.”
Well, she quoted a lot of scriptures and said a lot more things than what I wrote here, but it’s the gist of what she said; and for the life of me I could never remember the bible quotes.
My friend’s explanation did not satisfy me. My rebuttal goes like this:
“A child of three or seven got raped and then killed by a psychopath; what part in the whole affair made that poor child a better person? A boy of fifteen along with his family gunned down or gassed in a chamber due to some sick ideology; what part in the whole damned, insane, series of events made those poor folks better persons by getting their heads blown up?”
What followed after was a long and bitter argument that left us not talking to each other for weeks; but, that is beside the point and not part of the story. However, I advise you, dear reader, to only start a volatile topic only with someone you do not like (but still forced to interact with out of civility), so that you can use the argument that will follow as an excuse to not talk to him (or her) till the sky falls down and the fires of Hell engulfs us all.
Anyway, back to the point I am going for.
Since I did not get a satisfactory answer from my friend, I started googling about praying and most of the articles that pop up have this basically to say:
- We pray because God commanded us to do so.
- Praying is our act of submission to God.
- Prayer is our way to talk to God.
- Prayer invites God into our lives.
To be frank, these arguments did not impress me either. If we need to pray because God commanded us to do so or that He wanted us to submit to Him, then it totally does not make sense.
If our God is an all powerful God and He was the one who created us then it is a totally illogical and despotic (somewhat assholish) move on his part to give us free will and then command us to pray and submit or else…
If praying is our only way to talk to him, then why did he make it so hard? Ask anyone, it’s hard to talk to someone who does not answer back.
If prayer invites God into our lives, does that mean He is absent from it to begin with and He needs an invitation before He intervenes? If all these are true, then it sounds like God is some petulant child who wants attention and praising and some cajoling before he does anything.
I was never a religious person, but I do believe in God (see other post for my reasons… Yeah, I know, so cut it!), so it was hard for me to reconcile my belief and – in my eyes – the silly act of praying and all the meaning attached to it. For years I had this mindset that praying is just a waste of time, and boy was I wrong.
What changed my mind? Science, baby! Science!
I know it is somewhat strange to have the two mixed up. Science and religion has been on opposing ends of the fence ever since someone had the brilliant opinion (insert sarcasm here) that the two could not mix. (Imagine a white bearded guy in a fancy antique get-up saying: “Hey guys, science totally makes our religion look shitty.”) But, trust me, the presence of science doesn’t really mean it will partypoop on religion’s parade. So, here me out first.
Have you heard of placebos? A placebo is a substance with no medical benefits whatsoever, but still provides scientifically observable and verifiable effects to the patient. There’s a ton of research done on placebo, involving a wide array of illnesses, and it all comes down to one thing – placebo really works even though the substances given were basically water and sugar or the like. It even works despite the patient know that he was not taking medicine, but just some shit the researchers found under their lab coats. Scientists are still scratching their heads how the fuck this whole placebo thing do what it does. What they do know, though, is that it involves our mind and that it all has to do with believing – really believing – that what we take helps ease our suffering. And in some bizarre, still unfathomable way, it does make us better. It appears that our mind is hardwired to take-in our beliefs and physically manifest it in some way.
What does that have to do with prayer, you ask? Put it this way, if someone told you that prayer will help ease your suffering, and you believe it so strongly, then chances are it will. I know, weird right?
Here is another relevant research worth mentioning:
Two groups of rats were put in separate cages. On the cages’ floor ran an electric wire which turns on and off every now and then. However, on one cage there was a switch which, when clicked, turns off the electric current; the rats in this cage were taught how to work the switch and know that by clicking it the pain will go away. The rats with the switch emerged in relative good health (even though they did not use the switch quite often, or never even used it at all), unlike the other group, despite the severe dose of electricity they received and even when the rats were given the same dose of electricity with the other group.
The researchers concluded that the rats with the switch faired better because they believed that they can control their situation by just using the switch. “Control protected the health of the rats with the switch, and the lack of control stripped their hapless brethren of even their own internal protectors.”
So, again, what does that have to do with prayer? Well, prayer is our switch, it is our means to have a sense of control over our situation in life. If we believe that the mere act of praying, in some way, helps us face the adversities we have to face day by day, then something in our heads just click and it makes us feel much better. That’s why we hear so many people say that they feel better after muttering a good prayer, that’s probably it.
How about if I pray for a loved one, you ask? Well, sadly, no… It does not work like that. Of the many research done about the effects of prayer for a third person there is not a shred of evidence that points to its effectiveness.
What does that mean? It simply means, to my mind, that prayer is not so much for or about God, or for or about other people, but more about us. It appears, if I interpreted correctly the findings of science, that prayers are for the prayor and not the prayee.
In one of my odd voyeuristic moments I surfed over some prayer request websites and you know what I noticed? What people pray says a lot about who they are.
(Note: I’m talking about personal prayers here and not the kind done in front of an audience)
Prayers, as I see it, focuses the mind of the one praying and what he utters are those things that really matter to him. One can see clearly what we want in our lives by the mere act of praying. Praying forces us to confront our lives, to look deep within us and see what our hearts truly desire; discarding the inconsequential, the irrelevant, and highlighting the meaningful, the valuable.
Praying is not so much about talking to God, but more about having a conversation with ourselves, a moment where we give ourselves a time off from the trivialities of our existence and really hear what our heart whispers. Praying helps us find ourselves in the tangled mess of our own indifference.
What does your heart tell you? What do you say when you pray? Is it petty or mean, or is it something else? Find it out and maybe then you will truly know who you really are. And if you did not like what it tells about you, then maybe it’s time for a change of course.
Whatever the case may be, it seems we do need prayer. Not for God, mind you, but for ourselves. Why? Because Science, that’s why!