The Problem Of Prayer

by Dezi Hall

Prayer has become so ingrained in our society that it settles into the background of our minds like an ever present buzzing, so constant that the sound itself seems like no sound at all. Even if we count ourselves as atheists or non-committal agnostics, we are programmed to accept that prayer will be involved in our every day lives, regardless of whether or not we'd prefer it that way.

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There is prayer in our schools, there is prayer at our football games, there are micro-prayers for our sneezes, and there is prayer for our national tragedies dolled out like emotional lollipops from our political talking heads and our late night comedians.

Prayer is everywhere, blowing in and out of every day life like a breeze indistinguishable from the air we breathe. It's everywhere, and yet we don't even really know what prayer is. Does prayer mean actually getting down on your knees and having a quiet moment with a God? Does it mean self-reflection? Does it mean you actually hear another voice in your mind? Does it mean nothing at all- an empty word for a façade of action where none exists?

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"The people of Yet Another Pointless Tragedy are in my 'thoughts and prayers.'" This is a common refrain in this country where wishing and hoping things will change is seen as sufficient action in the wake of what is unusually preventable violence. Thoughts and prayers always go together here. But what, exactly, is the difference between these two mental exercises? Do believers fall to their knees and beg God for something, hands tightly clasped together? And what would they be asking God for in this instance? Asking that the families find peace? Or are they asking that God find it in his so-far-invisible heart to nudge senators towards gun reform? Is actual prayer involved here, or is this word a stand in simply trying to say you feel sad that something occurred?

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On a recent episode of the cultural juggernaut (like it or not), Keeping Up With The Kardashians, Kourtney could not decide if she wanted to accompany Kim to New York fashion week. She'd have to pray on it, she told her sister. After much praying, it turned out that God was telling her she needed to stay behind with her children and forgo the private jet to the city. This is the type of prayer you hear a lot about when it comes to decision-making. It is extremely hard to discern the difference between regular thought and prayer here. Is this not the same thing as saying, "I wasn't sure whether or not I wanted to go, but after I thought about it for awhile, I felt like it was the right choice to stay behind"? Is the difference here a misplacing of the locus of control? Where a non-prayer might take ownership of decision-making, the prayer puts the onus on God.Unless, someone actually is hearing the voice of God the process seems much the same aside from the addition of the word "God" before thinking the phrase, "What should I do?"

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This is important to think through. How Kourtney Kardashian views her internal monologue (or dialogue) doesn't really affect the every day life of Americans. But, when we have people in power employing the same type of descriptors with their thought processes, things become dangerous. No longer is it a random mortal congressman from Texas saying this is what should be done, it is the Almighty Himself casting down his vote from the unseen heavens above.

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The problem with prayer isn't prayer itself, it is the acceptance of all types of prayer as the same and all equally worthy of our deference. It is easy to argue with the thought process of a senator, much less so to argue with a decree from God. Prayer at a sick child's beside is more of an insulated action- the consequences do not spider out of the hospital room casting a web over other people. "Thoughts and prayers" lands somewhere in the middle. Its inability to affect anything is its actual consequence. When someone feels they have completed their moral duty by thumbing out a few words on social media, then actual change never arrives. Not only is blind trust placed in God, but a sort of religious laissez faire mentality is also employed in which a being (which has never in modern history shown themselves to be of any help) is put in charge of the order of things, while us mortals simultaneously tie our hands behind our back and clasp them in front of us. This is the problem with prayer.