Prayer is ubiquitous in the religious world. It is the way in which believers reach out to their gods, almost always asking for something for themselves or others. Much has been written about this remarkable phenomenon. Believers see it as a personal connection to their god, while non-believers see it as asking for favors from an invisible fantasy man in the sky. I intend to cover ground that is somewhere between those two extremes.
First, we need to objectively explore the mechanism of prayer. Prayer is typically triggered when a person identifies a negative situation affecting her life or the life of another human being. In an attempt to ease that negative situation, the person will ask for assistance from a supreme being that is assumed to be all-powerful, and thus is able to turn the perceived negative situation into a positive one.
After she has prayed, she expects her god to do something in return. If the negative situation that she prayed about improves, she will attribute the improvement to her god. If it does not improve, she will attribute it to god’s will, inscrutable but infallible. In essence, whatever the god decides to do is acceptable to the person who has prayed, since her god can do no wrong. In the eyes of the believer, regardless of the outcome of the prayer transaction, faith has been affirmed.
It is readily apparent to a neutral observer that there is no logic involved in the perceived mechanism of prayer as seen by a believer. There is no observable phenomena that works in the manner described. In science, the diametrically opposed outcomes would be seen to be clearly different results, with the law of cause and effect dictating the distinction. Just as clearly, the believer’s faith is obscuring her perception of the transactional mechanism of prayer.
I submit that the actual transaction involved in prayer is an unconscious attempt by the petitioner to absolve herself of any responsibility for the negative situation. If she was praying for her boss to go easier on her at work because she is having trouble with job performance, her perception is that she has placed the problem in the hands of her god. She does not need to seek a solution or take any further action. Whatever her god decides is all right with her; her responsibility is ended.
By praying, she has made a decision (whether consciously or not) to take no responsibility for her own problem. She does not have to try to improve her work habits. She does not have to ask her supervisor or a co-worker for help. She does not have to learn anything new. In fact, she does not even have to even think about any of that. She can blithely continue doing exactly what she has always done, including the things that caused the problem.
This analysis is also true if the prayer is made on behalf of a friend. In that case, the prayer has absolved the petitioner from any responsibility to help her friend. She does not have to risk the ire of the friend by bringing up the poor job performance, or come up with any solution to the friend’s problem, or take on any of the friend’s work. All she needs to do is ask her god for help, and then she is off the hook.
Obviously, the prayer transaction is not nearly as simplistic as it first appears to be. What has actually happened inside the simple meme of prayer is part of a very common blueprint for one of the ills of modern society. First, prayer allows people one more avenue to abrogate their responsibilities for their own lives and for the lives of people that they care about. It is just another way to “let somebody else take care of it.” In this way, prayer joins drugs, alcohol, and many forms of non-religious fantasy as a way to bury one’s head in the sand and ignore the world around them.
The party doing the praying has also successfully avoided the need to communicate with another human being. Instead, she can stay completely within herself, an island of humanity, with no need to take a chance on looking foolish. Rather, head firmly planted in the sand, she can transfer all responsibility for communication to the invisible man in the sky along with all responsibility for taking action.
Humanity does not need any more excuses to act irresponsibly. We have proven over the last several generations that we are more than willing to let others make the decisions for us, no matter how bad for us those decisions may be. Prayer deserves to be placed, firmly and finally, in the same category as not bothering to vote, or waiting for Batman to save you, or the piercing unreality of reality television.