Replacing Prayer

Religion has a purpose, in many contexts of human psychology, which is why it has persisted for so long and in the face of frequent evidence which contradicts its peripheral and oftentimes core principles. But there is one aspect which, for me, is more difficult to ask people to jettison than all others, and that is prayer.

I’ve written before how prayer is obviously ineffective1, and sometimes outright dangerous2, but there is another aspect to it that is not easy to replace with soaring philosophy, science, logic, or even rugged stoicism. It is the emotional comfort gained when faced with abject desperation.

So, let’s be clear; I am not talking about the fatuous “I’ll pray for you” sort of stuff that is less meaningful than getting a postcard from your Aunt from someplace you can’t find on a map. Nor the community prayer bonding, or the friendly internet “prayers sought” requests that treat prayers like something tradeable but free and inexhaustible. I am talking about the personal, from the bottom of your psyche, longing-for-a-reality-other-than-the-one-you are-facing prayer; the only thing we humans have been able to invent that assuages our logical feeling of abject helplessness – prayer.

I’ve loved in East Asia for most of my adult life, and have spent some time working with disadvantaged people in a number of countries. It’s hard to visit orphanages, or HIV clinics, the sites of recent natural disasters, refugee camps, or just the impoverished. When you read articles or books by people talking about the nobility, integrity, etc. of the people facing adversity … well some of that is true, but it’s like writing a history of the Titanic and omitting to mention that the ship was sunk. What is persuasive, palpable, and omnipresent in all these cases is desperation.

I remember a case, some years ago, in the uplands of Cebu where a poor family was waiting for their teenaged daughter to die of appendicitis. They had a family member at the Church praying for a miracle, as the Church is good at taking donations but not very good at helping out when there is need. We were up in the area, sponsoring some rural development projects, and paid for the girl to have the surgery. The community wasn’t being selfish, and almost every family had lost someone over the generations due to a lack of money for medical services, or even in years of poor harvests crippled by malnutrition, blinded by cataracts, dying of untreated diabetes, cancer, etc. I’ve heard it and seen it all.

In the Cebu case, when I went down to the hospital, every one told me that I’d been sent by God. I am not shy to point out that I am an unbeliever, but that didn’t seem to matter to them, the active force was not me, it was God, softening my hard atheist heart (I heard that the priest even made a sermon out of it; I was sorry to have missed it). Never mind that the hospital and doctors would not consider helping someone in need sans payment; so, obviously, the Christian spirit was somewhat lacking there. People want prayer to work because oftentimes it’s the only thing they have. Marginalized by a society that sees them as expendable labor, they have nothing which can affect the critical moments in life that all of us face at some point.

When a mother is watching her child die and can do nothing but pray, that is what she will be doing, with more ardor and passion and conviction than I have ever mustered for anything in my comfortable life. We humans never want to feel powerless, especially when it comes to family matters. My Thai wife’s family had seven children, but only 4 made it past 5 years old. One could say “obviously, prayer didn’t work there”, but it did, in the mother’s mind, because 4 children lived.

And let’s be clear, in English when we say “pray” we have to include the concept of “wish”, as even atheists at the bedside of a dying child3 will be emotionally engaged in the exact same way “wishing” or “longing” for something that is not going to come, or which is so unlikely as to be beyond reasoned expectation. It’s an emotion linked with empathy, and its powerful in those who feel it, and almost everyone does. Indeed, the lack of empathy is considered a sign of mental illness4. Language (at least the ones I am familiar with5) does not deal justly with the undefinable emotion that is common to all people in these circumstances, regardless of culture. Some people I know who have dedicated their lives to aiding the dying and the sick still find themselves with this intense longing. Perhaps it comes unbidden, perhaps it’s reasoned away, but at other times mayhap it will only be addressed in the stillness of night in private, in sobbing resolution. For the rest of us, we seldom if ever encounter it in our modern sterilized world.

What does an atheist do and feel in those sorts of helpless circumstances? I am lucky; I’ve always had the resources necessary to find help for myself and my family. If I were to be in a situation where that was not the case? I suppose I’d consider crime or some other course, and if it came to acceptance, then I can do that too. But I’ve never had a prayer crutch, even as a kid. I knew it didn’t work because I tried it, and there were no more results than when I tried to touch the guardian angel that my mother swore was there with me in my small bedroom.

But for someone who has lived with prayer as the ultimate recourse to adversity, getting rid of it is sort of like the English, Dutch, Russian or French Revolution - once the King is dead, what do you put in his place? In three out of four of those revolutions they went back to kings, and the Russians went to despotic rulers who were just the same or worse. People don’t want to feel helpless. A few of my atheist friends in youth (for me, that is anything before 30, in case you’re interested), went back to religion later in life specifically because of the need for prayer to mentally support them in times of great emotional adversity. It pulled one friend out of a self-destructive cycle that had resulted in a suicide attempt, and another when dealing with cancer in his immediate family.

We know that objectively, it doesn’t work. But we like to think it does. If we thought it worked, we would go to the local mosque, church or temple when we get sick instead of going to the doctor. But prayer meets a need in us emotionally, and this has been going on for as long as recorded history. Some of the earliest writings are prayers, incantations, and hymns all beseeching for a result in an earthly event that is in doubt. Will they recover? Will my love return? Will my children survive the famine? All elements beyond our control then and, for a great many of us still, now.

Personally, I wonder if animals “pray”. Not to a god, but that they have a desire for something other than the reality with which they are faced. I grew up around a lot of animals. I know that many people still deny that animals mourn, or have empathy, but I hope that this prejudice is starting to change6. Anyone who has spent time around them will have seen instances of a mother trying to revive its dead progeny, or cases where an ill animal is the subject of concern by others (as an example, my elderly cat was protected by the other cat when he became ill, whereas before then they pretty much had ignored each other). The desire to help appears to transcend logical limits. We are not like Mr. Spock from the American Star Trek series, saying “well, the chances of further efforts resulting in a cure are minute, so it’s best to desist.” For people who are elderly or have led a full life, this happens often, and rightly so, although it’s still an emotional trauma for many. But for a child? For a beloved spouse?

How does atheism fill this hole, this primordial need which has been with us as long as recorded time? What is the answer? Can it be simple stoicism, “be strong; everyone dies at some point.” Even if we know this at a certain level of our psyche, can we control the passions that will assail us should we ever be faced with a situation such as the terminal illness of a loved one? Would even Nietzsche’s Ubermensch be able to avoid a call upon the unreal, the unavailable, and the unproductive? Is prayer a way we humans have developed as a mechanism to avoid an even worse fate, the pit of grinding pitiless despair?

What to tell the mother, rocking a feverish child in the flickering light of an oil lamp in a bamboo hut, softly singing a song learned from her mother, to calm the child. An empty package of poor quality, ineffectual medicine lies on the floor, purchased by using the available cash, borrowed funds, or selling property, perhaps even the hut and land itself. Should the child die, it will have been god’s will, as the mother prayed. The mother did everything in her power to save the child. If god is absent, who is to blame? Who will feel guilty?

I don’t have an answer. But I think that if atheism is ever to become a majority perspective, that this issue will have to be addressed in some form. You can tell the mother that the child will die, but nothing you can say will take away her hope that you are wrong. Call it prayer, or wishful thinking, perhaps it’s one of the things that makes us human and keeps us sane when our emotions otherwise would drive us to an implosion of despair. A feeling of power when in reality we are powerless: a dark pit to contemplate, indeed.


  3. If you have never been to a facility that houses the terminally ill, children with AIDS (luckily, few die nowadays, but that was not the case before), a hospital special care center, etc., then I encourage you to do so. As a species, we have removed personal experiences with death from our lives, despite its having been an integral part of our evolutionary development. And if you want to help those in need, you might want to consider this charity in Thailand for disadvantaged children, which has a separate facility for children with AIDS.
  4. A good book on this is “PSYCHOPATHS AMONG US” by Robert Hercz (1993).
  5. If anyone is familiar with how these feeling are expressed in a language which seems to do the emotion justice, I’d appreciate the reference. I am not much of a linguist, but would be interested all the same.
  6. For my take on the relationship between religion and animals, see:

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