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Is Prayer Selfish?

By Valerie Tarico ~

Fall is prayer season. Some folks think of it as football season, and indeed, images of football players circled with heads bowed or pointing to the big guy in the sky are almost as familiar lately as birds flying south. But the real season kick off this year was the Republican convention, where the fervent supplications of Evangelicals and Pentecostals miraculously diverted Hurricane Isaac, so that the party could go on. Praise the Lord, Tampa was spared, and the death and destruction that might have befallen people who live there . . . befell somebody else.

Should the families of those who died in Louisiana and Mississippi sue the Republican prayer warriors for not being a little more specific? Couldn’t they have gotten the hurricane to touch down somewhere remote, where the only homes destroyed would be those of, say, birds and non-pet, non-farm and most importantly non-human mammals?

Ironically, the best defense of the prayer warriors might be the evidence (so popular with social scientists, freethinkers, and certain stage magicians) that prayer doesn’t actually work. The first statistical analysis was published over 100 years ago by Sir Francis Galton himself, and in the intervening years, scores of studies and meta-studies (here, here, here, here) and other analyses (e.g. here) have accumulated. The mountain of evidence stacks up one side of the balance. It points to the very same conclusion Galton reached:
  • Despite constant prayer vigils for the sick and dying, the devout—including devout Christians—have a similar life expectancy to everyone else.
  • In aggregate, research on prayer show no overall effect or one so weak that the most that can be said for God is that he – maybe—operates at the margins of statistical significance; not a very impressive claim for an omnipotent, interventionist deity. Put it this way, a pharmaceutical company that made similar claims and had similar results would be sued out of existence.
Oh, for the good old days. According to the stories of the ancient Hebrews, their god responded to prayer with dramatic shows of power. One story in 1 Kings, is about a prayer duel. The prophet Elijah and 450 prophets of Baal face off over two pyres, each of which is topped by a slain bull. All day long, the prophets of Baal pray, begging their god to send down fire from heaven to consume their bull as a burnt offering. They dance wildly with the servant-priests of Baal’s female consort, Ashera, and cut themselves with knifes in a show of fervent devotion. Finally, when they have exhausted themselves, their pleas unanswered, Elijah has the audience pour water over his altar. He then prays to Yahweh, who sends down such a fierce fire that it consumes the bull, the wood, and even the water. Eager to show which side they are on, the crowd butchers the devotees of Baal and Ashera.

Today, to get such impressive results Christians have to fake it. And sometimes they do. A group of East Indians once told me about a missionary school bus driver whose bus wouldn’t start after he loaded the last child. He asked the children to pray to the gods of their parents: maybe Vishnu, Krishna, Shiva, Ganesh, Devi or Brahma. Nothing happened. Then, after surreptitiously reconnecting two wires under the steering column (the same two wires he had disconnected a few minutes earlier) he asked them to pray to Jesus. The bus roared to life. In rural Africa, where credulity is in great supply and medical science is scarce, Pentecostals bring people back from the dead. By contrast, in the cities and on the football fields of the West, the power of prayer is roughly equal to the power of suggestion.

So why (Oh, dear God, why) must we be subjected to another season of Tebow-type posturing, and legal battles over invocations, and imprecatory spectacles in which Great Men of Faith publically exhort God to rain down sterility, death and suffering –in that order-- on the families of Barack Obama and Mikey Weinstein?

Why, in other words, is the human prayer habit so intractable? After millennia in which the natural order has rolled along meting out windfalls and hurricanes, life and death in precise keeping with the laws of biology and barometric pressure, why do people still pray?

The answer for starters is that there is more than one kind of prayer. Not all prayer is an attempt to manipulate whatever Power-that-be on behalf of some baldish bipedal primate or group thereof. Some prayers have another substance and purpose. I’ll come back to that.

But the prayers that are about us getting what we want, the kind of prayers I’ve been talking about, are simply irresistible. The favor-asking kind of prayer, also known as “intercessory prayer” is unlikely to go away anytime soon because it expresses some very fundamental aspects of the human psyche.

Hierarchy: We humans are social animals, hierarchical social animals. Anyone who’s been subjected to junior high knows that attaching yourself to popular and powerful people has its rewards. Our responses to people up the ladder are to some extent biologically scripted: we are acutely aware of what they want from us and we feel a strong pull to do it. Christians, even those who claim to have highly abstract God concepts, usually relate to God as if he were an alpha male with a human mind and preferences (only bigger and better). Like other underlings, believers draw nigh unto the powerful one, ingratiate themselves, and, in return, expect an increase in their own standing by proximity. They also expect something more concrete. Favors.

Reciprocity: Do you ever get unsolicited stickers or cheap cards in the mail from, say, the Environmental Defense Fund? My parents got free investment advice from Focus on the Family, and years or maybe even decades passed before my mother managed to get them out of her will. One of the core social instincts that keeps human society functioning is the impulse to reciprocate: If you smile at me, it’s hard not to smile back. If you are mean; watch out. If I give you the things you want, anything from investment advice to a burnt bull, I instinctively expect you’ll give back --- not exactly in kind, but in proportion as you are able.

Ego-centrism: Each of us lives in a universe with one being at the center, a me. Everything spirals out from there. Other beings are more valuable if they are of my species, my gender, my color, my nationality and my religion. They are especially valuable if they are close enough to have become, in some small way, a part of me, as in my brother or son or wife. Dick Cheney broke with other Republicans on gay rights after his daughter came out. Nancy Brinkman, founder of Komen, committed to fight breast cancer when the disease struck her sister. What we care about radiates out from each of us like ripples from a pebble in a pond, getting weaker as it gets bigger, until it fades away altogether. 26,000 children will die today of starvation, says the bumper sticker. Why should God answer your prayers? The answer is quite simple: Because the world is about me, and those 26,000 children are so far away and so numerous that I can’t wrap my brain around . . . . Who were we just talking about?

Exceptionalism: Much of literature is devoted to the fantasy that the rules don’t apply to us. Our dream protagonists are superhuman. They are unconscionably rich, incomparably beautiful, and able to survive blows to their heads and internal organs that would leave any realistic story devoid of characters by the end of the first chapter. In children’s fiction, the Harry Potter series plays out this sort of fantasy for several thousand pages: there are Muggles and then there are those to whom the rules of physics don’t apply. The Twilight series offers a more titillating version of exceptionalism to love-hungry pubescent girls and their adult analogues: the fantasy that some supernaturally beautiful and powerful male who has been around for hundreds of years finds you as addictive as heroin. The ancient texts gathered into the Bible give us a glimpse of how long analogous fantasies have held appeal for people of all ages. Instead of a nubile seventeen-year-old, a tribe of wandering herdsmen is Chosen by the supernatural one. As he fights to protect them (and ultimately bring them into his immortality), the sun stands still, walls fall down, water turns to wine, the blind can see, and poisonous snakes have no effect. Ask anything in prayer, believing, the Chosen are promised, and it shall be done. And death shall have no dominion.

Desire and helplessness. By contrast with fantasy, the real world can be quite a let-down. Life is complicated. We often feel powerless to affect the things that matter to us, large and small. Parking lots get full just when we’re in a hurry. Information we’ve studied disappears when we walk into a test. Kids get hurt. Income and bills won’t line up. Hurricanes come out of nowhere. The human condition is fraught with yearning, frustration, danger, and the specter of our own mortality; and our ability to protect ourselves and those we love is limited. At the same time, most of us have some hazy memory of a time when things were different, when an all-powerful parent or even two could anticipate what we wanted and make it happen. The magic of an omnipotent caretaker kept us safe in a scary world and, when we were hurting, that magic made things better.

Is it so bad to want such a benefactor again? Is it so bad to ask a favor now and then and to give God a little credit when things go our way? Unfortunately, I think the answer is yes.

I say this because intercessory prayer doesn’t merely exploit ego-centrism and exceptionalism, it reinforces them. This is true in part because the subject of many prayers is some form of zero-sum game, football being the obvious example. Asking for God to stack the odds in my favor is asking him to stack them against someone else. One team has to lose. The last parking spot can go to only one driver. If I want God to improve my SAT score, I want it improved relative to the other test takers. In ways that are sometimes subtle and sometimes not, prayer frequently seeks advantage in a competition. It is understandable that each of us wants to come out on top, but to sanctify this desire—to make it holy--is degrading. It makes both us and the world around us a little meaner.

Today, to get such impressive results Christians have to fake it.Ironically, the same problem holds for many prayers of thanksgiving. When orthodox Jewish men thank God each morning that they were not made “a gentile or a slave or a woman,” the ugliness is obvious to everyone except those doing the praying. But we often miss the self-centeredness in what can seem on the surface like simple expressions of gratitude. When a man can face national television audience and say, Praise God, he made me late for the plane that crashed!-- what is he saying about the people who arrived on time? When a sports team gives God credit for their win, what are they inferring about the other team? When we sit around the dining table in our most slimming jeans and thank God that he has blessed us with pork roast and potatoes, what are we implying about those 26,000 kids who will die tonight for lack of a thin gruel? What is the subtext of the common saying, “There but for the grace of God go I?”

There is an alternative, another kind of prayer that isn’t about requesting or celebrating special treatment at the hands of an interventionist deity. Instead it is about something within us, about our struggle to live in alignment with our deepest values. In fact it is about resisting the self-serving impulses that drive so many bowed head moments. This kind of prayer takes many forms.

For the traditional theist, it may begin with the words of St. Francis, “Lord, Make me an instrument of thy peace. . . .” Alternately, the message may be less eloquent, more wry, more hesitant. It may borrow words from a single wisdom tradition or a mix or none at all. It doesn’t matter. Because such a prayer is experienced as a sacred conversation, the act of giving voice in prayer to deeply held values and yearnings can be powerful – even self-fulfilling.

Others of us may find that, in the absence of a traditional god concept, our prayers feel more like meditation than invocation, more like being than asking. We may not even think of them as prayers because the word carries so much sordid, selfish, superstitious baggage; but I think it is ok if we do. A prayer may be nothing more than a deep, centering breath; a moment of silence; a thrill of delight; or a surge of love that brings tears to our eyes, reminding us beautifully, painfully, quietly of our small place in the greater whole. In a world with gods or without, in our world today or even a world beyond belief, that is a kind of prayer worth praying.