Saturday, November 03, 2012

Is praying "doing something"?

On Twitter and Facebook, I've been seeing many requests for prayers and returned promises to pray for loved ones or really anyone caught in Superstorm Sandy's path. One of my fellow non-believing friends, however, took strong issue with her town's First Selectman asking people to pray that another Nor'easter forecast for next week will fizzle or turn out to sea. My friend said, "People tried that for Sandy." I think her point was that public officials should be preparing in the real world if a storm does come, and encouraging their citizens to do the same, rather than seeking divine intervention, which was clearly not forthcoming for Sandy.

As usually happens on Twitter, other comments followed, including this one from me: "Praying is something you do to make yourself feel good without actually having to do anything real." This elicited a short exchange of tweets with others about whether prayer was actually "doing something". One believer friend said, "Understand your points of view, but consider myself religious & praying to me doesn't mean no action."

I wanted to clarify my opinion and some facts here and hope that my believing friends will understand more precisely what I'm trying to say. I think it has to do with what people mean when they say, "doing something." Are they referring to the simple act of engaging in an activity, as in "are you doing something tonight"? Or, do they mean having an effect on a real world situation, as in "doing something about childhood obesity"?

In the first sense of simply engaging in an activity, praying is clearly doing something. You're thinking, you may be uttering words, kneeling, using Rosary beads, or whatever. But in the sense of having an effect on the real world, an objective, honest look at the facts reveals there's absolutely no evidence or reason to think that that prayer works. If it did, the world would be much, much different place.

Now, my believer friend might ask, "If I tell my friend that I'm praying for him and that makes him feel better, haven't I had an effect on the real world?" Well, yes and no. I can tell someone I'm going to pray or did pray for him and make him feel better, but it's the real world act of telling him that made him feel better. He'd feel better regardless of whether I prayed for him or not.

To understand my view on this, I would ask my believer friend to engage in the following thought experiment. Imagine yourself in a strange foreign land where mowing one's lawn is regarded as a supplication to a divine being. A member of this society, upon hearing you'll be flying on soon, says, "I shall dedicate tomorrow's mowing to your safe travels." How would you feel about that statement and that person? Clearly, his mowing of the lawn can't have any possible effect on your airplane, its flight crew, or the weather through which you're traveling. It's quite ridiculous, but what do you do? He considers this a sincere gesture and would probably take offense if you laughed or pointed out its patent foolishness. Being a guest in this society, you'd probably be diplomatic and politely thank him. After all, what's the harm if he believes that?

If it were only him or if all he did was wish you well while cutting the lawn, I'd agree that there wouldn't be any harm. But suppose that in that odd society a majority believe to varying degrees in the efficacy of lawn  mowing to cure cancer, end teen-age pregnancy and ensure spousal fidelity, not to mention winning this week's football game. The less fervent vocalize the belief pretty mechanically without really thinking much about it, more or less just to fit in. The more radical among them sponsor legislation to divert funds from science research toward promotion of lawn mowing and claim that only True Lawn Mowers should be allowed to hold public office. And therein lies the problem. Moderation gives cover to extremism. Believing, even half-heartedly, that the "doing something" of praying actually has an effect, always risks diverting us from "doing something" that actually does have an effect.