As you probably know, there was a huge tsunami in Japan a couple months ago, and almost 25,000 people are dead or missing because of it.
For most religious persons, disasters like this are an obvious time for prayer. As a first reaction to this sort of catastrophe, we will get on our knees and plead with our Maker. "Please bless and watch over the Japanese during this difficult time," we say. And there are probably many of us who have literally done nothing else concerning the disaster, besides pray.
A good friend of mine (whom I'd call a "devout" atheist) posted the following status as his reaction on Facebook: "Everyone that's praying to their god(s) for Japan... You do realize they're Shintoists, right?" According to the dozens of comments, it seemed the rhetorical questions being asked were twofold: "first, if those who believe differently than you do are going to Hell anyway, why would you think your God cares about them; and second, if God had the power to stop that tsunami, but didn't, what makes you think His intentions are benevolent as opposed to arbitrary or even vicious?"
(The first question is called "the soteriological problem of evil," and I discussed it briefly in the beginning of an older post (which you can read here, if you'd like). So, for the purposes of this post, I'm going to sort of skip over it.)
I have to admit, I never fully noticed how truly baffling prayer must look to an outside observer. One commenter on the aforementioned Facebook post described prayer derogatorily as "clenching your hands together and talking to yourself," while another asked, "[has] praying ever actually helped anyone out? [Or is it merely] a way for people to feel good about themselves, without actually having to do anything to help."
My purpose in this post is to explore some of the reasons why people pray (though, admittedly, I can only speak for myself; my descriptions of other people's intentions will be little more than speculation). I feel like my atheist friends have raised some questions that are worth asking, and that deserve at least an attempt at some answers.
So, why do we pray? Sometimes we pray for guidance. Sometimes we pray for comfort. Sometimes we pray for forgiveness. Sometimes we pray asking for a favorable event to occur, or for an unfavorable event to be prevented by divine intervention.
These reasons are not necessarily "bad," but maybe they're sort of self-centered, in a way. If they are our only reasons for prayer, then our God becomes little more than a Santa Claus, from whom we want to demand our preferred gifts. Maybe this is why my atheist friends are confused. Let's face it: if there is a God, He is not Santa Claus. He doesn't give you anything you ask for (even if you've been a "good" boy or girl). If that were the case, bad things wouldn't happen to good people, or at least, bad things wouldn't happen to good people who pray. I think it's obvious that God's intended relationship with us is not centered on providing for all our desires. He wants to help us, yes; He loves us. But as any parent knows, sometimes love is more about teaching us to fish than it is about giving us fish. If all we do is ask for fish when we pray, we might not be getting everything out of the relationship that He intends us to.
So perhaps if we want to interact with God more maturely, we ought to know what He wants with us. What are His intentions? Everyone has different answers to that question, and maybe that's why everyone prays in a different way, and everyone prays for different reasons. Maybe that's why some people pray for hours during their free time, while others pray only when participating in religious ceremony. Maybe that's why some people will only acknowledge God and pray to Him when life is easy, while others only remember Him when life is hard.
I think the main reasons I pray are to either express gratitude or to discuss personal spiritual goals. I want to "go on record," so to speak, with the parts of my personality I'd like to improve. I feel like when I talk things over with my Heavenly Father, it adds a sense of accountability. "I promised God I'd do _____, so I'm going to do it," I'll tell myself. In my experience, that has a much stronger effect than mere meditation. And talking to fellow human beings is great too, of course - but I feel like there are some things only God can understand.
And there's the kicker. God can understand. To my atheist readers: please try to imagine the idea of a Being who literally understands everything. It's a powerful idea. Many of your friends, myself included, honestly believe such a Being exists. I think this is one of the biggest reasons why we talk to Him. It's not like we all hear a voice replying to us (though some do), but think about it. If you want to talk about cars, sports, or music, wouldn't you prefer to talk to someone who understands cars, sports, or music? Even if they don't talk back, it's more fulfilling to pour your thoughts into someone if you know that your words won't go in one ear and out the other. That's why people with similar interests flock together. If I want to discuss the philosophical implications of a film I've just watched, there are certain people I'll bring it up to, and certain people I won't. And with God, you can bring up anything.
Let's see if we can take a step back now and try to address the original controversy. "Why pray for the Japanese," my friends wonder, "if your God obviously let the tsunami happen?" And here's where we get to a question of what kind of God we worship.
Let's stay with the tsunami example: why did that happen? Did God directly make it happen? If you believe so, then you must believe that either 1) nature is not a mostly-autonomous force but is only the manifestation of divine whim, or 2) Japan just plain deserved it. Either way, you're stuck with the implications that God can be blamed for literally everything that happens in this world.
I think that sort of idea paints a false image of who God really is. I don't think God is into micromanaging, being in control of every little thing and every big thing and invisibly holding us all by strings, like a puppeteer holding his puppets. If He were, then whether we pray or not would really be up to Him anyway - but if we were to pray, perhaps we would only ask Him for things we want, and then we would stop trying to achieve that thing ourselves. After all, if God's completely in charge, then He's the one to ask. This sort of theology is dangerous because it has the potential to make us lazy. "I have a smoking addiction," we say, "but my life is in God's hands. If it's His will that I get the strength to quit, then I'll be able to quit." This kind of thinking is why people pray for tsunami victims to get help without actually doing anything themselves to help the tsunami victims. Even if God didn't "make" the mess, it's His mess, we say. And the spiritually lazy part of us wants to just let Him clean it up. We then dismiss all urges to take action, and instead we just pray, really hard, that God will sort it all out. Let's not pretend like this kind of thinking doesn't happen. Many of us are guilty of it now and then. We want to worship a God who's micromanaging everything in the world, so we can have an easier time blaming Him for our problems and relying solely on Him for our solutions.
Is it any wonder why atheists wonder why such a God would be worth worshiping?
I suggest that God didn't make the tsunami happen. "Well, sure," you say, "but He let it happen, at least. Why didn't He prevent it?" And again, we're back to the selfishness. What is it that we really want from God? Do we really want Him to prevent anything that's bad? Or maybe we recognize that the universe needs to have opposition, some good and some bad, some yin and some yang - and we want God to only prevent the things that are really, really bad. Are we saying we're qualified to draw that line, the line that defines which things are permissible, versus the things that are so bad they absolutely cannot be allowed in the universe?
When we're confused about unfortunate or evil things in the world, it's easy to be mad at God, to make a villain out of Him. But just because God allowed a tsunami doesn't mean He hates us, or doesn't care about us. Perhaps God is pained by seeing it happen, too. I think it's safe to say He never wanted it to happen. Then why didn't He stop it, you ask? Because He's chosen to put limits on how He uses His power. If God were without any limits whatsoever, if He were infinitely transcendent, beyond space and time, etc, then He'd be awfully detached from mankind, in the same way you feel detached from ants or amoebas.
The God I worship is not detached from mankind by the infinity and timelessness that early Christians borrowed from the prevalent Greek philosophies of what perfection means. In other words, my God is not responsible for everything that happens in the universe. He's certainly not responsible for my actions, for example: I am.
Put another way: the God I worship is not the "Unmoved Mover" as described by Aristotle; instead, He is more like the "Most Moved Mover" as described by Clark Pinnock. He is a Father, as described in the scriptures. He is co-operating with mankind in the universe, getting His hands dirty and striving, with us, to make the universe a better place. I believe it is more accurate to describe God as a cooperator rather than a controller. God is legitimately invested in relationships with His creations, and He is profoundly affected and moved by us. In short, God sacrifices omnipotence (as traditionally defined) in order to grant us genuine free will.
And that is why I pray to Him. I want to build and develop my relationship with Him. I believe we're on the same team. If I really thought He was in absolute control of every little thing, I wouldn't bother to talk to Him or ask Him for inspiration: I'd just lazily trust that whatever ends up happening is going to be His will, anyway. And if that were the case, why would I try to help Him, cooperate with Him, or communicate with Him? Puppets do not need to talk to puppet-masters. But students do need to talk to professors; children do need to talk to parents. And I do need to talk to my God.
I would like to point out one more reason why I find prayer so helpful in my life: it reminds me to acknowledge that I am not alone in the universe. Therefore I prevent being excessively prideful, or excessively lonely. I can always stay humbled, reminding myself through habitual prayer that I ought to acknowledge the Divine; meanwhile I can also stay comforted, reminding myself that I needn't face my challenges entirely alone.
To sum up my reasons for prayer: I pray because I believe that God wants to have a personal relationship with me, and my interaction with Him makes me feel like that relationship is strengthening. When I don't pray, I feel the difference. I feel further away from Him, in the same way that I feel further away from friends or family members when I don't speak to them often enough.
And when I pray on behalf of others, I legitimately believe that God has the power to offer them comfort or help, but I also acknowledge that God doesn't work alone, and that He will often need me to do my part to act, to comfort, and to be the answer to my (or others') prayers.
I know this post is a little disorganized and probably long-winded. It has been sitting here for two months in "draft" mode, and I thought tonight would be a good opportunity to sit down and write all the thoughts that have been stewing in my mind. I don't know if these ideas have come out as articulately as I would have liked them to. So, maybe it's more of a rushed treatment than the subject matter deserves. For that, I apologize.
If anyone has any additional insights or questions, please leave me a note in the comments, and I'll be happy to discuss more!