Redefining prayer

I’m not sure why it’s been eight months since I posted on this blog, with the exception of last weeks post on pornography and masturbation. Such savory topics, those. But undeniably human and relevant.

As to the reason for my absence, the only thing I can come up with is that I was busy shifting paradigms. Moving from a staunch genuine faith-based existence to questioning the very basis of those beliefs require some heavy lifting. Especially when it’s a move you never intended to make, but one that sort of happened to you.

The heaviest thing I have dealt with – and am dealing with – is the concept of prayer. Also undeniably human and relevant. At least to the majority of the population.

Even though the definition and application cover a wide, wide field, prayer is a pretty basic and universal human construct. In most definitions, it’s talking to a deity, talking to one of many deities, talking to your ancestors, etc – there are probably many variations than I am aware of.

Sometimes in these talks you’re asking for something, e.g., health, wealth, favor.

Sometimes you’re showing gratitude, e.g., a meal, a child, a job, a sunset.

Sometimes it’s a conversation of obligation, a ticket to heaven or a get-out-of-Hell-free card.

Many times – and these are the times that drive most of us to pray –  it’s a cry of desperation or despair, a last-ditch effort in hopes that someone out there can put words to what you’re feeling, identify for you the thing you need, help carry your awful burden, show you an answer, provide you with peace, or at least love you through the mess and pain.

But what do you do about these things when you no longer believe in a deity?

In my case, I have been having a visceral reaction every time anyone even mentions prayer.

Prayer has been pissing me off.

I think one reason it pisses me off because it’s so easy to claim you’re doing it. Doesn’t really require anything. Someone shares a calamity, there are 10,000 responses offering prayers. Don’t thank the nurses and doctors. Don’t go visit them. Don’t take a meal. Don’t make a donation or show up on site with a hammer and a bucket and a load of lumber. Just say “I’m praying for you” and you can feel like you’ve done something, even when you really haven’t. I mean sure, maybe you and they get a warm fuzzy of connection, but what else is it really?

When I see “Praying!” in response to some Facebook post, it gets under my skin because it’s like this magical phrase that absolves people of ever having to really say or do anything meaningful.  It’s like automatically replying “Fine” when someone says “How are you?” You’re really feeling like shit, your dog just died, you can’t pay your mortgage, your kid flunked out of 3rd grade, you’re dealing with depression, but you still say “Fine” because being bluntly honest is not what is done.

I think it also pisses me off because people throw it around so flippantly. They say they’ll do it but they either don’t do it or they don’t do it with conviction. When I believed, I believed in it fiercely and practiced it sincerely, genuinely believing I had the equivalent of a fiber optic connection to the Supreme Being and he was always just waiting for my call. I know, it sounds kind of ridiculous. But many people also have that belief. And sometimes we were often praying for opposite things to happen. Let my team win – No, my team. Let the storm pass our area into another – No, let it strike them so it doesn’t reach us. Let him love me instead of her. Let me get the job instead of him. Etc, etc, etc. So how does god decide who to listen to? Does it matter if you’re flippant and I’m sincere? Anyone? Bueller?

Maybe it also pisses me off because I can’t do it anymore. Which means many times, more often than not, I feel completely helpless. As a closeted atheist, I can’t even make the people I care about feel better by saying the words that will make them know I love them: “I am praying for you.”

Or can I?

I might not believe in “God” anymore – the god of Christian theology as I was taught, as well as any other gods or goddesses of countless other religious systems – but I can’t deny that there is something that connects us, some unseen and inexplicable network of emotions and experiences, some mysterious force that pulls and pushes at us while we walk or stumble or rocket through life. To deny this would be to deny love. And while I can live without god (I have learned), I never want to live without love and connection.


So if I experience love and connection as very real and life-changing things, is it possible to experience something like “prayer” without god, to redefine it?

I’m not talking about stigmata or gold dust or raising the dead or getting a prime parking spot. But can “prayer” refer to a way for an individual or a group to tap into that mysterious force? To think in a positive and unified way, with love, maybe even to affect the outcome mentally while we also put our thoughts into practical action?

Some may say, why use the word “prayer” at all? To some people the word is unnecessary, a hindrance, inextricably tethered to the concept of a supreme being. It’s a baby easily thrown out with the religious bath water. But should it be?

To me, it is a word I understand, a word easily understood by others, a word that means more than just “sending energy” or thoughts or wishes. I haven’t been using it for the past two years since my de-conversion inexplicably began. But it’s a word I am toying with rediscovering. If I can.

Has anyone else struggled with this? Found a solution? Come to terms?  Have any wise words or sources or thoughts? Or, am I just being naive…?

7 thoughts on “Redefining prayer

  1. This was a very well thought out post Skirt…wait I am starting to feel not very feminist just calling your Skirt…so SOV. 🙂 I think you’ve done a good job delineating the different ways that people use prayer, and I think therefore different situations call upon different solution.

    First let me say that I do think you hit the nail on the head with just using prayers as sort of way of feeling like you are concerned and have done something. It’s very much like the feeling you get by hitting like on someone’s Facebook post about condemning racism. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but unless there are active ways in which you are trying to reduce racism in the world then the like itself doesn’t do very much.

    I’ve heard people talk about prayer as being akin to meditation, or quiet moments of introspection. They find those conversations with God to be helpful in sorting things out. I think in a very real way these dialogues, whether we imagine we are talking to someone or having an inner dialogue with ourselves is actually helpful. Much like talking it over with a friend or therapist…sometimes just communicating those thoughts helps organize them in our head. While I was still in my theist phase and not really into any particular religion, I would have conversations with God before going to bed. I found them therapeutic and helpful.

    A big part of the reason why I initially moved away from Christianity was how strongly they tried to sell that prayer worked if you really believed. So when I was 12 I gave my heart to Jesus Christ because I believed he could help stop my dad from being an alcoholic. I believed in the power of it all as much as any 12 year old could but of course nothing changed. There was that desperation there that you spoke of. I think that again, there was nothing I was doing to actively try to stop my dad from drinking…I mean most 12 year old don’t think of confronting their father about their drinking anyway, but it’s clear that prayer alone doesn’t help in an active way the way Christianity would like to sell it. If you pray to get a job, you might get it, but the reason is most likely because you are qualified, or maybe the boss prefers to hire Christians! But there is a reason that has nothing to do with prayer.

    Another part of that desperation is when you’ve reached your wits end. Later in my life when I was about 25 and had been quite active in trying to get my dad to quit drinking nothing still was working and I was getting very stressed playing the dutiful son trying to save his father. In therapy a break through came when the the therapist asked me if I believed in God. At that time I was in my theist phase and I responded, “Well yes, but I don’t think He can do anything?” The therapist said “Ok, but you know you can’t so why not leave it to God. Maybe He can.” Surrendering to a higher power is part of 12 step programs, and it made so much sense to me when he put it like that, then I immediately started feeling better, and my stress became much less. Later on though I came to realize that what it is really telling you is to not waste your energy on fights you can’t win. Sometimes when you’ve tried everything, you simply have to walk away. I think it’s natural that we would have such a hard time walking away in situations that involve people we love, but sometimes we do have to. By leaving God in our place, we feel therefore that some entity is doing something because we can no longer carry the load. I get it. But in the end it’s just a psychological tool. Of course God didn’t do anything and my dad is one more stroke away from death at this point. Had I not walked away I just would have gone through many years of pointless stress. You can’t help someone who doesn’t want it.

    You of course don’t have to believe in the Christian God to have a conversation with a creator who might be out there. If you’re wrong…well you’re only talking to yourself…I can think of crazier things. 🙂 I guess find out the reasons why prayer was most healthy to you, and take the comforting part of it and reshape into something that makes sense to you now. Good luck my friend!

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  2. Since I don’t believe in god or any kind of supernatural entity … and because I prefer to avoid anything connected with my former Christian experience … I avoid using the word “prayer.”

    However, there are times when I look up at the night sky before falling asleep and feel a sense of “connection” with what I call a “Universal Presence.” Often during these moments, I will utter words of gratitude for all that I have, but to ask for something (anything) … somehow just doesn’t “feel right.”

    But this is me. I think each of us has to come to terms with what makes us comfortable. If using the word prayer works for you, then that’s all that counts. If you wish to send “energy” out to the universe, that’s OK too. I mean, really. Who are any of us to judge what works for anyone else?

    P.S. I think Swarn offered some great thoughts on the subject.

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  3. Thank you both! I get so wrapped up in my own brain sometimes. Writing helps, then getting meaningful feedback helps more. (And Swarn, I’m good with “Skirt” or “SOV” – I wear that article of clothing A LOT, hence the name 😉

    Swarn, the comparison you made between the affirmation of prayer and the affirmation of hitting the “Like” button on FB – brilliant! I laughed out loud at the simplicity of it. It isn’t meaningLESS per se, but without action it isn’t meaningFUL either. And you’re right, prayer is often an inner dialogue that helps me work through things and come to some calm resolve.

    I know what you mean about being “sold” on prayer as a magic panacea for the world’s ills. I believed it and through confirmation bias found patterns that supported that belief, but even then I couldn’t turn off my skepticism. There have been a lot of prayers over the centuries, yet horrible things still occur, both natural and man-driven, global and local. That was impossible to ignore.

    I am so sorry to hear about your father. I come from a family of alcoholics on my mother’s side. I was protected from that by my parents, but like you my mother grew up praying that her parents and brothers would be rescued from the addiction and she would be freed from the painful fallout. Her parents did stop drinking eventually (after they were divorced and all their kids were grown) but her brothers did not. She is a strong believer in prayer, yet nothing she prayed or did could fix them. She felt such a sense of responsibility that it was killing her. Like you, it finally took counseling (which she fought against, thinking God should fix her, too) to convince her that it was not her job or even within her abilities to fix them, just to love them as people despite their destructive ways. Frankly, she is such a devout woman that if her prayers couldn’t change them, then no one’s could.

    Nan, thanks for sharing and confirming the sense of awe that drives an expression of gratitude. The night sky moves me, too – makes me feel so small yet an integral part of a universal network. If anything, loss of my belief in god has made me feel more connected to other people, to the world, to the universe as a whole. Before it was all insignificant – going to be replaced with a new one, you know, and “the world” was something evil to do battle with, not something to be appreciated, respected and embraced – and I hated that! And you’re right – the words don’t matter so much. Reading back over my post, I cringed at the hints of self-righteousness (I was a “real” prayer) and judgment (prayer is better than “sending energy”) that leaked through. Damn, thought I was done with that!

    Yesterday I put this to the test. Last year my niece and nephew’s second child, a daughter, was stillborn. All of my family are Christians. They had prayed for the baby to survive and be healthy. I had lost my faith months before this occurred, so I did not pray; I wanted to, but I couldn’t. Despite all the prayers, the baby was still dead. When my niece got pregnant again, we worried this child might not survive (genetic issues at play). She went into labor yesterday. Many of my family were at the hospital. I live far away, so was not. I wanted to “do” something. I even thought about praying, like “hey, I don’t know if You’re out there, but if you are will you help out with this situation, and BTW make yourself clear to me so we can be done with this once and for all?” I couldn’t do it. Instead I sent encouraging messages to my niece and nephew that I loved them and was thinking of them. Then I drove around (I do my best self-talk in the car) and talked to the baby, calling her by name, encouraging her, asking her to survive and fight and thrive, because we were all waiting for her. I didn’t really think she “heard” me, but I didn’t have any doubt that she was Real. And it made me feel better.

    Thankfully the baby was born last night, healthy and alive, and everyone is well. Now, do I think my talking session made things turn out well? No, not any more than I think my lack of faith caused the second child to die. But it smoothed my worried feathers and gave me a sense of calm and peace. It made me feel connected to my family and the situation far away. And even though I haven’t met the baby yet, I feel a kinship with her. Not through a deity. Directly, human to human, like we’re both a part of the “universal presence”. And really, when you subtract the “magic” from the concept of prayer, that’s what you get – connection between people. Regardless of what we call it.

    Liked by 2 people

    • OMG! I got cold chills reading about your “conversation” with the unborn baby. That was soooo touching and in my soul, I just know that baby heard you. And the best part? It brought peace to your worried mind. So glad to hear all turned out well.

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  4. Thank you for your words Skirt (I do try to avoid acronyms as well lol, I’m complicated! So this had me torn. So I shall default to your permission. lol).

    It sounds to me like you are moving in the right direction. I also like the fact that you had a conversation with your niece. That was nice. I do think prayer is more for us in the end than for anybody else even if we believe it to be so. Now if two people believe in the power of prayer and the one person tells the other person that they are praying for them because of some issue that they have, then the prayer I think can genuinely make them feel better as well. But the prayer is really just a disguise for “I love you, I care about what’s happening to you, I want things to turn out well for you”. All of those phrases would work just as well. When we feel others care for us it gives us a sense of well being so of course it might help things improve. That doesn’t mean there is divine intervention. I know you realize this, just saying. As I said it sounds like you are journeying from a position of strength and understanding as you leave the world you once knew. Thinking about it and talking about it is a good thing. 🙂

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  5. Skirty, I just resubbed to your blog…I had indeed accidently unsubbed. Glad we connected again!

    I have many thoughts on this topic but will come back when I have time to properly address it. Prayer was the main reason I lost my faith, and I still have some struggles with how to view it, even now.


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