Believers in God can be classified into four major groups. There are those who believe that God must be infinitely powerful and infinitely benevolent. There are those who believe that although God is, no doubt, infinitely benevolent, He or She is not infinitely powerful, a fact they regret. Then there are others who believe that God has not been infinitely benevolent in some occasions but has always remained all-powerful. These believers are somewhat resentful of God. And finally, there are others who believe that God is a bit mean and not that powerful. Some among them believe that God must be very much like the average man or woman in these respects.
All these four conceptions of God oppose each other so that they cannot all be true, but none of them is incompatible with praying to God.
Most prayers involve a request. We pray to God asking to improve our condition and to diminish our sufferings. The assumption here is that our prayers may have some effect on the course of events. It would be clearly silly to request something from God if we thought the request would have no effect whatsoever. Still, even if the prayers were to have an effect we will lose interest in praying if their effect were not on human affairs. If it were thought that prayers may only affect the formation of sedimentary rocks, for example, they will soon lose their appeal.
But even if prayers requesting something from God are believed to influence human affairs, there is another assumption involved, namely that what we request is, on the whole, good. This assumption is quite unjustified. When I was a child I used to pray requesting that my great grandmother should die because, when she died I was promised a horse. And many people pray requesting from their God things that are not good.
Among those who assume that prayers must only have good effects there are many who hold that, good as prayers are, they are not as effective as religious dances that culminate in human or animal sacrifices. They see praying as a very soft substitute for a more virile request. They are convinced that public prayers are better than prayers in private which they despise as a newfangled way of communicating with God and another illustration of how our world is going to the dogs.
However, most advanced religions recognize that what is best in praying is a sincere heart and this is more likely to occur when we pray in solitude. Many people are induced to pray in public for motives that are not religious. Many are cynics who assume a religiosity they do not feel in order to court the religious-minded. Still others may pray in public for fear of incurring the hostility of the believers. These motives for praying are not good on account of not being sincere.
But even if public praying were sincere still it may have very bad effects. In the Middle Ages, when populations in Europe were affected by plagues, people congregated in churches to request from God that the plague should go somewhere else. This somewhat unkind request was not granted because the plague found a propitious condition to spread rapidly among the crowd.
There are governments which find public praying so good that they enforce it by law. The enforcement of public praying by law encounters serious difficulties when the population does not believe in the same god. If we had some evidence in favor of one god rather than another it would be theoretically conceivable to bring most people to believe in that god, but since this is not the case making people pray to one god is quite arbitrary and likely to result in social unrest. In order to avoid this the law may enjoin to pray publicly to any god or to all of them at once. But the objection to this, as I pointed out before, is that the different conceptions of god oppose each other and cannot all be true.
There are people who approve of enforcing public praying in the schools on the grounds that it affords an occasion for some minutes of meditation, a thing, they say, students especially need. I find these grounds extremely flimsy and misleading. I love to spend part of my day in silence and I value the dispassionate meditation that may result from it. But the time spent in listening to one or more people repeat a religious formula, far from being an inducement to meditation is a hindrance to it. Particularly if the formula is the same every day and the repetition makes it mindless. It would be better if the prayers were not repetitious and if they came, not from one religion, but from all existing and extinct religions. This would have the salutary effect of acquainting people with conceptions of human life different from their own, and would result in tolerance towards those who do not share their arbitrary beliefs.
There is another aspect of praying that I have, so far, not considered. The best prayers are expressions of gratitude to God for the fact of being able to be aware of the wonders of the universe. But even this is based on the untenable assumption that God cares about human beings. The universe is large and our scope is very limited, both in space and time. It is only our human conceit that makes us believe that God may care for us more than for animals, plants, rocks or atoms or that it cares for us at all. Why should God care about tiny specks that crawl for a second on the surface of a minute planet lost among billions of other astronomical bodies? The reason must be that we are the only existing being with a soul capable of love and we have repeatedly tried to prove this by torturing those who are too wicked to see this plain truth.
There are better ways of reacting to the wonders of the universe without involving the belief that the reason for the wonders is us. The best men and women are indeed moved by these wonders and respond with reverence towards the universe. They do not request from the universe that it should yield whatever they happen to desire. On the contrary, when their desires are not satisfied they acquiesce and fully realize that we are not lords in this mansion. We are furniture and, at times, when we meditate on the grandeur of the universe, we become admiring guests of this beautiful world.