How Much is Prayer Worth

Photo By: z287marc (Flickr)

The Shame, oh God, the Shame!

For atheists, it’s nothing new. You know the score; some member of your family hears that you are one of “those.” They then tell you what a shame you are on the family, etc. They usually end by telling you that they are deleting your phone number, or unfriending you on Facebook, or you’re no longer invited to the annual family reunion, or that “people always knew you were bad,” or that you are now off the annual Christmas card list, or that they won’t give your son a bar mitzvah gift. None of my close family members ever put me through this, but recently one cousin did.

Ok, at this stage in my life (I am over 50) the phrase “water off a duck’s back” comes to mind to describe the whole episode. Yawn. (I am a bit of an unassuming though opinionated avuncular curmudgeon.)

But one thing that got her very upset I found to be rather original, and I would love to hear from people who have had similar experiences. She was angry. I mean really foot-stomping, eye popping, hair flying, blood pressure spiking, slavering angry at me for…wait for it…“wasting her prayers.”

Well, I am a pretty easygoing person. So I don’t get upset at stuff like this, and I did find it rather amusing (although I didn’t tell her that). At the time, I didn’t say anything at all back to her. Pissing on a fire rarely works (some people will be typing a comment now saying that I just lack a sufficiently large hose…but we will ignore this). I prefer to let fires burn out on their own from lack of fuel. Arguing with an angry self-righteous person is not high on my list of things to do on a Wednesday evening. Sometimes I do revel in a good “take no prisoners” argument, but as a lawyer I usually like to be paid for the effort when I do this.

But in the back of my mind, I thought—why not send her a gift to compensate her for all those wasted prayers? I still love my cousin, and wish her all the best, and I conceived this as a form of sincere peace offering. So this is what I am thinking about: something meaningful, not sarcastic, but demonstrative and thought-provoking. And I need some good ideas. If this works, I will post the results.

Waste Not, Want Not

Now, it’s not like I won the lottery at some stage in my life, so that she could claim that I got that benefit because of her prayers to God for me. I suppose when I was in the hospital with meningitis, she might claim that the doctors (in Taiwan and later Hong Kong, so probably not Christians) were guided by God in answer to her prayers. But she didn’t even know at the time that I was in the hospital, so I am sure she didn’t actually pray for it.

I mean, what could someone possibly believe that their prayers do for you? Is this a case of “your life would have been worse if I hadn’t been praying for you” argument? What do people think their God does in response to prayers? If my mother prays for me (which I am sure she does), does that cancel out any downside from no longer having prayers from my cousin? What if someone is praying for you to meet the “right” girl, because they don’t happen to like your current spouse? Just because you want something for me, it doesn’t mean I want the same thing.

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People talk about the “power of prayer,” but I don’t get it. I never did. As a child, what is the point of asking someone over and over for something and still not getting it? (“Dad! Is there a pony in the garage? Still no?” Another night on my knees wasted.) Ever been to an orphanage run by an organization that believes in prayer? You see these kids, and I am sure they are praying every night for a family that loves them. Some are in need of medical treatment that cannot be supplied by the orphanage. Still, it’s much better than being abused on the street.

With these innocent victims of an all-powerful God in my mind, I then open up my Facebook and see people asking for prayers for victory in sports. I see people posting “thank you” notes to God for the new car, the new job, a good weekend, or whatever seems good to them at the time. And my orphans? They remain alone, ever hopeful. God is too busy giving the local high school football team the homecoming victory, or giving the executive a superior bonus, or continually ignoring the poor, the malnourished, and the sick. The moral of this story? God hates losers, I guess.

Credit for the Good, and no Blame for the Bad

If anything good happens to a believer, they are willing to give God credit for it. But if something bad happens, well, the people harmed must have deserved it. Worse, people shrug their collective shoulders and rationalize it as part of “God’s plan.” Scary to think that God only plans catastrophes. I would love to see a journalist asking tornado victims “do you blame God for this?” I am sure someone would blame it on the local atheist: “God was aiming for the atheist, and got a little carried away…”

If I apply this rationale to my current conundrum, that means my cousin thinks her prayers were at least partly responsible for all the good events in my life, yet none of the bad. Prayers don’t fail, it’s just that sometimes people are unworthy or the request is not part of “God’s plan” for that person. “Yes,” says God, “I want you to be sick, hungry and homeless, but keep praying anyway since I like you on your knees and I do hear all prayers.” Maybe prayers are the equivalent of cocaine to the gods? After all, gods used to like smelling burnt offerings before, so maybe prayers are the methamphetamine equivalent of burnt offerings? Worthless musings at best, but what do believers think their prayers are worth?

I am sure that my cousin was not the only person praying for me (my first mother-in-law probably prayed for me to become a doctor). So she only gets part of the credit. But many Christians also believe that “God helps those who help themselves,” which is a nice way of saying you will not win the lottery through prayer. So at least we can agree that some things that have happened in my life are the result of my own efforts.

My cousin wasn’t the one who actually did anything. She thinks God did it, but she gets credit for the introduction. In my business, we call this a “finder’s fee.” But this is shared with all the other people who have prayed for me over the years.

So, what to get her? An empty box was the first thing that came to mind. Or a copy of the bible with some of the worst bits highlighted. Maybe there is no answer, maybe this is a bad idea. Let me know what you think. I need some ideas.

PS. If you are interested, the orphanage is at the Mercy Center and it’s run by the Catholic Church. For the help they give to children who would otherwise be neglected, I highly recommend them to you. Even though I don’t believe in their religion, I recognize the value of good people and the needs of impoverished children.

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