Vestigial Prayer

In religions whose gods are less than perfect, the purpose of petitionary prayer is simple and clear: People ask their gods for something because otherwise they might not grant it to them. If the gods are not omniscient or even forgetful, people need to inform them or remind them of what they need. If the gods are not omnibenevolent, people need to beg the gods repeatedly so they will grant them favors. If the gods are not omnipotent, maybe they can’t do anything unless enough people ask long enough and sincerely enough to grant them power. In this context, asking makes sense.

In religions whose gods are perfect, such as the Abrahamic traditions, however, the purpose of petitionary prayer is totally unclear. An omnimax deity knows exactly what his creatures need, cannot forget it, has the ability to give it to them, and loves them perfectly such that he always wants to give it to them. Furthermore, as infinitely perfect, such a god’s will cannot be changed. In this context, asking makes no sense. Of course, the Abrahamic tradition hasn’t always been monotheistic, much less believed their god was omnimax, so it appears that petitionary prayer may be a vestige from this earlier time since it’s completely incompatible with its theology over the past couple of millennia.

It baffles me to understand how billions of Jews, Christians and Muslims have spent their entire lives engaging in, thinking, preaching and writing about petitionary prayer without realizing its absurdity in light of their beliefs. The logic involved is extraordinarily simple. I suppose at least some have recognized the problem, but it’s a tiny minority, and most of them probably still use the actual form of petitionary prayer with a different purpose in mind. If one believes his gods are perfect, it’s irrational to ask them for anything, ever. It also baffles me to realize that this issue didn’t cause me more trouble than it did before my deconversion. The truth is that I was probably too afraid of being sent to hell for doubting and tried not to question it, even though I could never understand it. At least I now understand why I couldn’t: it just doesn’t make sense.



Anonymous said...

Prayer literally means 'to tune into'. Prayer is a conversation and a relationship. You can't have a relationship without going through the process of having a relationship.

As a young child i thought "hey God if you know everything, i don't need to say anything". I didn't realise at the time that prayer was forming a relationship, a time of introspection and learning.

I think it is a secular idea of prayer that is causing the confusion. That is, treating prayer like sitting on Santa's lap. That's not what prayer is supposed to be. Regards.

Secular Planet said...

Prayer literally means 'to tune into'.

No, it doesn't. Why don't you actually check the etymology of the word (http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=pray) instead of just making stuff up?

Prayer is a conversation and a relationship.

Conversation? OK. Relationship? No. There's a distinction between the two.

I think it is a secular idea of prayer that is causing the confusion. That is, treating prayer like sitting on Santa's lap. That's not what prayer is supposed to be.

I've addressed this and pointed out that the actual words used are still exactly like you're sitting on Santa's lap. You've completely ignored it. It must have been a good point then.

Anonymous said...

Hello Secular Planet,


Prayer - "An act of communion with God, a god, or another object of worship, such as in devotion, confession, praise, or thanksgiving".

"......Ultimately, however, divine will takes priority over the mundane desires of petitioners, and even in mystical Hinduism the highest wisdom is said to be transcendental awareness, which is beyond desires and fears in the mundane world and which accepts favorable or unfavorable destiny with equanimity, much as the petitioner in the Christian tradition concludes, "Thy will be done."

Petitional prayer as seen from the believer is to put before God and oneself what is desired, to examine that desire, to hope for it and orientate yourself towards it, but to see this petition in the light of God's will.

As i said before, i was about ten when i thought what you have expressed in the article. That is, if God is perfect and knows everything, knows even more than i do about what i really want, why on Earth would i need to ask for anything, He should already know. Hence the 'makes no sense' that you posted.

I've spent most of my adult life as an atheist, but i misunderstood what prayer is really supposed to be about, as i believe you have.

Yes, the words ask for certain things but if prayer (or petitional prayer) is simply about receiving stuff from God, then from an all powerful God why not ask for a million dollars or a date with Jessica Alba? Surely He could do that.

As alluded to above, petitional prayer is really about having a relationship with God (and your fellow pray-ers), stating what you would want and then examining that againt the background of an ultimate goodness - Thy will be done. In this way the petitioners grow in awareness, perspective and community.

The receiving of material freebies from a Santa/God is a childs way of looking at prayer. Most adult Christians etc don't have a problem with petititional prayer because they are no longer lookling at petitional prayer as children.


Secular Planet said...

(1) You've again ignored my point that if people aren't asking for things, then there's no reason to use the exact same words as if they were. This is what I'm saying makes no sense. Other types of prayer actually make some sense.

(2) Most believers do think they're asking for things. How many times to do people talk about their prayers being answering and their actually receiving what they wanted? If someone has trouble finding a job, then people tell them to pray, because they think the prayer will actually change the course of events outside of that person's control.

Anonymous said...

Yes Secular Planet, i see your point when you say that you hear people say 'God has answered my prayers'. That's fair enough. It sounds very much like the receiving of material things is the main focus for those cases.

Of course the problem for the believer (leaving aside flashes of lightning etc) is that if he receives what he is asking for he can never be sure that God had a hand in it, unless he has the philosophy that everything is from God. This of course needs its own rational framework to be accepted in the first place.

Thankyou for taking the time to reply to my posts.