WHY DO PEOPLE PRAY?
By Peter Fredson
A young person asked me yesterday, “Why do people pray?” The answer, to me, is obvious. People pray because priests and True Believer followers have told them, and taught them when they were young, to pray. Their livelihood depends upon them being able to talk you into using their services which, frankly, are useless. Priests are parasites on other people. They perform no useful function. Nothing that a priest does cannot be done equally well by anyone else. Chanting, swinging incense burners, wearing funny robes, waving crossed sticks, folding the hands, sacrificing goats, burying or marrying people, or listening to other people’s troubles need no professional mumbo-jumbler.
Prayer and other religious beliefs and practices are artifacts of priests, developed in imagination with language fantasy in full flight. It may be recreation, amusement, meditative, contemplative, or simple brooding but there are other ways to accomplish that which are not founded on falsehood. Although priests are fond of stating that “prayer can move mountains.” don’t even think of climbing Mount Everest without oxygen tanks or to move Mount Etna from the vicinity of Herculaneum. Foolishness can only be tolerated in very small doses.
Humans are plagued with misfortune, accidents, illness, predators, hunger, flood, earthquake, vagaries of weather, and with mental unease concerning future actions. Humans prefer certainty to uncertain developments. When conditions and circumstances arise with doubtful or unpleasant outcomes, human wishing (or wheel-spinning) occurs.
Prayer is a priestly device, a species of language diarrhea, (or wheel-spinning), often accompanied by other ritualized sounds, gestures, and paraphernalia to alleviate anxiety, uncertainty, pain and unpleasant outcomes.
Another “function” would be to praise some invisible intangible omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, omnibenevolent mysterious, unknowable grumpy entity (another priestly invention) that people are told must be constantly flattered, propitiated and acknowledged lest he/it become angry and destroy the entire world again.
People are told that this supernatural entity can be contacted if you behave in proper fashion, following instructions by its/his “authorized go-betweens”, and it/he will intervene in your behalf to give you whatever you pray for, unless it/he thinks it unnecessary to move a mountain.
Prayer affirms that there is a supernatural entity with which/whom people can communicate. People are told by priests that they always have a “hot line’ direct to a god, as it/he notices everything, so that they can supplicate it/him, beseech it/him or propitiate it/he at any time, day or night, rain or shine, or they can reach it/him through a middle-person hot-line, like a dervish, rabbi, preacher, shaman, minister, mullah, ayatollah, priest, deacon, bishop or Pope. That is fiction, perhaps poetic license for con-men.
Prayer is presumably establishing communication with a supernatural dimension or entity, by aid of gestures, contortions, bells, whistles, dancing, guitar playing, chanting, singing, using rattles, drums, beads, mats, books, icons or other devices. It also involves certain rituals: such as folding hands in stereotyped positions, kneeling, lighting of candles and incense, self-castigation, fasting, talking gibberish, handling serpents, drinking poison, washing feet, putting oil or ashes on oneself, chanting, going into a trance, doing penance, or behaving in other stereotypical ways to demonstrate (to whom?) that you are being “religious.”
Killing a goat, bringing edible offerings, which priests would actually consume, as an offering to this entity, was once considered quite proper. Nowadays any kind of currency or media of exchange, given to the priests, is presumably held in deposit for the mysterious entity as a kind of religious insurance against eternal punishment.
Priests use fear and terror of the unknown to make their living by useless actions, which they nevertheless insist are crucial to eternal happiness in the future in some unknown place with some unknown entity. That’s how the priesthood makes a comfortable living, without having to serve in an army or do physical labor such as carrying stones for a pyramid. Non-existent entities need no goods or services, nor intermediaries, but priests will rarely inform anyone of that option.
People are told they can try to win approval of some request by giving a God something. Sacrificing a goat, drawing blood from a finger or penis, giving a priest a bundle of cash, voicing elaborate praise, fasting, making vows, doing penance, whipping oneself, washing the floor of a church, decorating a church with flowers, burning incense and candles, bringing food to the priests, and a thousand other devices. But people must show utter subservience and devotion to some intangible, invisible and unintelligible entity that is capable of granting any wish, if the whim strikes it/him. In this fashion people put themselves into the clutches of the priesthood, which will be parasitic upon them forever.
If any casual reader is curious as to my own views, I do not hold any beliefs regarding a supernatural dimension, nor concerning supernatural entities. (No gods, goddesses, angels, demons, cherubim, Santa Claus, Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny, souls, spirits.) I regard all actions, practices, customs and beliefs involved with getting the attention of a supernatural being, as useless, though self-entertaining and ego-serving..
I regard prayers as futile, as they lack an object, referent, or direction. Praying might, or might not, be psychologically helpful as introspective self-evaluation.
But it is laughable, or arrogance, that any one of 7 billion humans can presume to tell an omniscient omnipresent deity that it has made a mistake, or should reconsider some past action. All events are linked, and to change any event requires changing all of the processes and objects in the universe in order to make a pimple disappear, cure cancer, or make Tammy Faye Baker’s mascara stay in place.
However, I have no objection to anyone praying for their own welfare, providing that they do not attempt to involve me in their lucubrations or disturb my own meditations or amusements. If they wish to flagellate their backs until bleeding occurs, carry crosses, manipulate beads, thump sacred books, tap gongs, turn prayer wheels, mumble or chant, gesticulate, genuflect, kneel, burn incense, eat wafers or drink wine saying it is the body of their god, or any other action presumably directed toward some invisible intangible entity, then I pity their disregard of reality but will go my way without further ado. Certainly, at present, our Constitution allows people to believe anything, at least until the Fascist Corporate Theocrats have all unbelievers flogged, hanged or guillotined.
However, I do object to the kind of prayer that is intended to call attention of bystanders to the fact that someone is praying. I consider this as a type of proselytizing, and an intrusion into other people’s lives. It is an assertion that the person praying has superior beliefs, demanding recognition and approval.
“And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father, which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” (Reportedly said by Jesus, in Matthew 6:5-6.)
Someone who wants to demonstrate public piety needs psychological help. Public demonstrations by public officials to a perceived benefit of prayer is to me a wanton waste of taxpayer time, an offense against all other religious beliefs, anti-American, and an imposition on credulity. It is cultural arrogance.
“Pray: To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.”
Ambrose Gwinnet Bierce – The Devil’s Dictionary
“It is a matter of history that this very practice of establishing governmentally composed prayers for religious services was one of the reasons which caused many of our early colonists to leave England and seek religious freedom in America. … By the time of the adoption of the Constitution, our history shows that there was widespread awareness among many Americans of the dangers of a union of Church and State. These people knew, some of them from bitter personal experience, that one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the Government’s placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious service…. The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say—that the people’s religions must not be subjected to the pressures of government for change each time a new political administration is elected to office.”
(Justice Hugo Black, U. S. Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale, 1962 decision on school prayer, as quoted by Alan Barth, “The Roots of Limited Government,” The Rights of Free Men: An Essential Guide to Civil Liberties, ed. James Clayton, New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1984, p. 123.)