On this blog, I’ve written a lot about my various objections to religious belief. But I haven’t really discussed my own experiences as a religious person. I was, after all, a self-proclaimed Christian until my late twenties, so there’s potentially quite a bit to talk about.
So, I thought I’d write a post or two on my personal “before and after” experiences with particular Christian phenomena. This post will be about prayer.
I don’t have a clear first memory of praying. I grew up with it, and simply took it for granted. My general habit, as with most Christians, was to close my eyes and “speak” to God inside my head. Most of my time in prayer was shared with other people: Usually in church on Sundays or in bible studies. However, I do remember praying alone fairly regularly.
The prayer experience itself was limited to a one-way stream of supplications, expressions of gratitude, and other odds and ends, usually expressed through my thoughts. I never actually heard God speak, nor did I expect him to. My belief was that God was a close but silent presence, always willing to listen.
I don’t remember ever asking God for anything material, like a bicycle or a stereo. God was not a Santa Claus-like being to me. Instead, I prayed for help with personal issues, usually relationships. I suppose I thought that God could somehow influence how other people saw me.
Not until I began to have serious doubts about my faith did I ever question the efficacy of prayer. I simply assumed that if a prayer wasn’t answered, God just didn’t want to answer it, not that he wasn’t listening, or didn’t exist.
Overall, prayer was something of a comfort. It was nice to feel there was someone there, any minute of the day or night, to hear me out, even if he never offered a verbal response. It was a bit like having a friendly dog to talk to: Someone who was never going to respond, but was always listening. (Of course, I thought of God as more intelligent than a dog, so that made the experience a little different!)
When I look back on my prayer experience, I see it as a positive, if minor, influence on my life. Psychologically, it was helpful.
But prayer also looks rather odd to me now. Weirdest of all is the idea of closing one’s eyes while praying. What’s the point? Presumably it’s designed to eliminate visual distractions. It’s quite hard to talk to someone who isn’t there – where, exactly would one look?* – so the natural thing, I suppose, is to shut one’s eyes.
Today, I’m also quite impressed with how firmly believers believe in the power of prayer, even though it’s never been shown to be effective, and looks for all the world like a one-sided psychological phenomenon. Many religious people balk at the idea of their beliefs being scientifically tested. This idea must be very threatening, because most people understand that scientific conclusions, in today’s advanced technological world, are difficult to dismiss offhand.
Rather, it’s much easier to maintain your beliefs when you can draw on anecdotal stories that appear to support them, and ignore those that do not. In this way, the believer can live in a comfortable cocoon of apparent confirmation, and reserve what they think is deserved scorn for the baseness of scientific investigations of something so sacred.
But, as with my own experience, I think prayer probably has a real, beneficial effect. It really can help the person praying, even if not in the way they think it does.
* Some people still look upwards, as if to the “heavens” when they pray or worship (and some still shake their fists at the sky when angry with God). I can’t help but find this a little funny. We all know very well that God isn’t among the clouds, or floating somewhere in outer space. Yet the temptation is still there to imagine God somewhere in the sky.