Without a prayer

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that I’m not really a believer in “retail prayer”, the idea that you pray for something and get it exactly as ordered in the next supernatural delivery run. Actually, I don’t see anything that convinces me that petitionary prayer in general has any effect. Reports of answers to prayer are very liable to confirmation bias, various studies have shown prayer to have no effect, and as ever, there’s the uncomfortable question of favouritism if God chooses to answer some prayers, but not all of them. But that’s not to say that I think prayer’s useless.

I think there’s a definite place for a more meditational form of prayer, one that isn’t about a celestial wish list, but contemplation, leading to an acceptance of the way things are and greater motivation to help those in need. It doesn’t promise a magic wand, just gradual realignment of our character and priorities. And it does work, at least anecdotally – when I was a young, enthusiastic evangelical, I went through a phase of spending an hour every day praying and reading the Bible, and during that time, I felt like a completely different person.

I didn’t deliberately try to engage in any sort of planned programme; I just wanted to put in the time to read and study the Bible, and the prayer followed naturally, especially as I was at university and had plenty of time on my hands. All I had to work with was an interesting analysis of the Lord’s Prayer, viewing it as a sort of template and breaking it down into key prayer themes. So I just got stuck in, and it had – well, I don’t know, exactly – some sort of impact on me.

My overwhelming impression of that time is that I was happy, and comfortable in my own skin. I also found that I was becoming more relaxed, more balanced. Normally, I’d have expected that the sort of zealotry that leads you to pray all the time would result in a very conservative theology. In fact, my memory is that I started to become more liberal. It was the only time in my life when I felt that the Christian idea of becoming more Christlike was more than just a pipedream, but my theology was actually becoming softer and less dogmatic.

I’ve got various faults, which I won’t bother to list in detail here, but if they didn’t vanish, they certainly felt more under control than at any other time I can remember. If I had to summarise, I believe I was a better person. I see a lot in Buddhist meditation – both the practice and the results – that’s reminiscent of this experience, as well as various mystical traditions on the fringes of religion. It doesn’t seem to have any connection to particular theological understandings, but it seems to bear fruit.

Of course there are reasons to be sceptical about this testimony. People and their moods and inclinations are incredibly complicated, and there are a huge number of potentially confounding factors. My memory may be inaccurate, and the effects may have been unrelated, could be an unsustainable short-term high, or I may even be getting cause and effect mixed up. There’s also the practical consideration of how I would go about finding that sort of time in my schedule these days.

Even if my recollection and understanding are accurate, I don’t think this says anything about the truth claims of Christianity – there seem to be versions of the same sort of thing in all religions and belief systems – but it may say something about how to operate the wetware inside our heads. Essentially, it may be a useful tool for improving character, and getting at least some of the temporal benefits of religion without religion’s claims necessarily needing to be true.

I find that quite an interesting prospect.

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

8 responses to “Without a prayer”

  1. unkleE says :

    Interesting thoughts, as usual, RA. Thanks.

    “when I was a young, enthusiastic evangelical, I went through a phase of spending an hour every day praying and reading the Bible”
    Isn’t it ironic, you sound like a way more committed christian than I was at that stage of life. I have always found it difficult to focus and concentrate on prayer, except on some specific occasions. And yet it was you who gave up the faith and I who continued – who would have predicted it?

    “I’d have expected that the sort of zealotry that leads you to pray all the time would result in a very conservative theology. In fact, my memory is that I started to become more liberal. It was the only time in my life when I felt that the Christian idea of becoming more Christlike was more than just a pipedream, but my theology was actually becoming softer and less dogmatic.”
    You (and I) might be surprised at this, but studies apparently show that people who read the Bible regularly are more compassionate and humane, concerned about social justice, less materialistic, less patriotic and (surprise!) more likely to believe that science and faith are compatible. So your response seems to fit right in there.

    “I’m not really a believer in “retail prayer”, the idea that you pray for something and get it exactly as ordered in the next supernatural delivery run.”
    Hopefully there are few christians who think that. God is personal, not a slot machine.

    ” I don’t see anything that convinces me that petitionary prayer in general has any effect. Reports of answers to prayer are very liable to confirmation bias, various studies have shown prayer to have no effect”
    Not surprisingly, I disagree here.

    1. The studies I think you refer to include medical studies treating prayer as a widespread treatment or therapy, and testing whether it improves recovery. I have found more than 20 such studies, and the majority of them find prayer does improve recovery, though the biggest and most publicised study found it had a slightly negative effect. People quote the big one but don’t look at the overall picture – you can see them all in Intercessory prayer and healing.

    2. But prayer as a therapy (some small improvement in most cases) is only one aspect – we need also look at prayer as miracle (major improvement in a few cases). And here there is some good evidence – if you are interested, check out Healing miracles and God.

    3. Many prayers are for less tangible things, like peace of mind, guidance, etc. One can explain peace of mind as psychological, as you do, but guidance may be less easy to explain that way and most christians could tell stories of God’s guidance. (Yes, confirmation bias is possible, but it may also be that the guidance actually occurs.)

    Thanks for your thoughts, I’ll be interested to see where they lead you. best wishes.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      I’m most surprised that you’re so surprised about me having a strong faith before moving towards disbelief. Faith journeys don’t fit any neat pattern, and there are plenty of examples of people who were in much deeper than me, and lost their faith in much more dramatic ways.

      I’m not even going to address your claimed evidence for miracles, because even if you take every story at face value (and bear in mind that these stories are vanishingly rare and reported by Christians), it still only demonstrates an unexplained mystery, not any sort of miracle.

      • unklee says :

        No I wasn’t surprised. Like I said, I just thought it was ironic.

        I think healings unexplained by medical science, occurring after prayer to God, must be some sort of evidence – i.e. the mystery isn’t unexplained, for there is a correlation.

        And the “reported by christians” is not the whole story – many of them were non-christians beforehand, and the ones I am referring to are documented.

      • Recovering Agnostic says :

        Ever heard of selection bias? People (alright, then – Christians) notice and talk about “strange things” that can in any way be connected to prayer. They couldn’t care less about any cases which they are clearly just unexplained weirdness. Connecting “healings” (more properly, surprising recoveries – show me an amputee who’s regrown a limb and I’ll be interested) with prayer is no more convincing than ESP stories along the lines of “I dreamt about mum and then I was woken by a call to say she’d died.”

        Anyway, that’s a mighty fine God of the Gaps you’re building, and He’s getting smaller all the time. How small do those gaps have to get before you wonder if there’s any room left in them for even a “Size 0” God to squeeze into them?

  2. unkleE says :

    PS There are three links in my reply – on the words “studies apparently show” (para 2), “Intercessory prayer and healing” (point 1) and “Healing miracles and God” (point 2) – that don’t show up well in my browser, so I hope you don’t miss them if you are interested.

  3. unklee says :

    “Ever heard of selection bias? People (alright, then – Christians) notice and talk about “strange things” that can in any way be connected to prayer.”
    The only way this could be fully resolved is if we knew the percentages of people prayed for and not prayed for, healed and not healed. Then we could run a Bayesian analysis. But we don’t know most of those percentages. In particular, we might know when someone is praying, but we cannot know that no-one is.

    Nevertheless, using Bayesian logic, every healing that cannot be explained by medical science, but which followed prayer, is a piece of evidence that shifts the probability that God is healing slightly in the positive direction. And every healing which occurs after no-one has prayed shifts the probability in a negative direction – except we can never know that so there can never be any healings in this category – just a lot in the unknown category. So the mathematics (IMO) supports my conclusion.

    “that’s a mighty fine God of the Gaps you’re building, and He’s getting smaller all the time. How small do those gaps have to get before you wonder if there’s any room left in them for even a “Size 0″ God to squeeze into them?”
    Science moves forward by looking at the things that are not yet understood and searching for hypotheses and data to answer those questions. I am doing exactly the same thing. Here are events that medical science cannot explain, I am putting forward a hypothesis about them. If science ever explains one or all of them, then we’ll have a new hypothesis. Why call my approach “God of the gaps” but not call science “science of the gaps”?

    We have two choices. (1) Make a decision on the best information we have at present, and be prepared to change if new information is found, or (2) make no decision and wait in expectation (faith?) that one day perhaps some new information is found that changes things. I am firmly of the view that I go with what I have, and adjust (that isn’t just a view I hold in religion, but also in the environmental management work I used to do, where it is called “adaptive management”) – and I suggest to you that most people work the same way, except when they argue “God of the gaps”.

    I use this same approach in assessing cosmology, neuroscience, history, etc. I accept what the experts have determined as accepted facts and then ask “Why is that so?”. When the experts determine something new (e.g. as happened in my lifetime in cosmology with the change from the steady state theory to the big bang), I re-ask the same question. It’s not “God of the gaps” but “God of all the knowledge we have”. To not do so would mean I would effectively say I can never answer the God question. I can understand an atheist may wish to defer the question, but I would expect you as an agnostic to want to consider it.

    Best wishes.

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Once again, your abuse of Bayes astounds me – “Heads I win, tails you lose”.

      God of the Gaps is, I’m afraid, a terribly weak position, and one that lacks any understanding of how much our knowledge has changed in a short period. It takes a huge leap of faith to post God into a few small cracks where particular events have caused surprise, and to expect those cracks to remain for any significant period of time. Science is about investigating the way the world works and finding explanations for things we don’t understand. Your belief in healing, on the other hand, positively relies on a lack of knowledge.

      And no, I’m not obliged to give any serious weight to claims (made without hard evidence, so they might more accurately be called hunches) of miraculous healing. They’re no more convincing than claims of telepathy, homeopathy, alien abduction, or any other unscientific, supernatural stuff. I consider them, and I reject them for lack of evidence. Now, if you could point to a regrown leg…

  4. unklee says :

    “It takes a huge leap of faith to post God into a few small cracks where particular events have caused surprise”
    How can you say this when I specifically said: “I accept what the experts have determined as accepted facts and then ask “Why is that so?” …. It’s not “God of the gaps” but “God of all the knowledge we have”.?

    “Your belief in healing, on the other hand, positively relies on a lack of knowledge.”
    Actually, I don’t have a strong belief in healing, nor would I base much on what I do accept. You raised the subject and I just commented. But, when I see a number of healings which happened after prayer, and science has no explanation, then I see the correlation and I draw a reasonable conclusion. It would appear on this matter I am more agnostic (I think some healings happen but I don’t necessarily believe most stories) whereas you are more committed to miracles not happening.

    “if you could point to a regrown leg…”
    I wonder if you would think any differently if I could find a report that had credibility?

    Look RA, I think it is time I called a halt. I have enjoyed reading your blog and commenting, but I think our discussion has become counter productive. I enjoy friendly discussion, but now it has an edge to it that isn’t so good. I’m not suggesting this is your fault, or my fault for that matter, it’s just the way things work out, unfortunately. So I think I’ll cease commenting after I read any response you make to this one, and wish you well. It was fun for a while. Best wishes.

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