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On Prayer, Purpose, and Prosperity

Even back when I was still a very spiritual person I already had some reservations regarding prayer. Well I did sometimes pray to ask God for things, but deep inside I somehow figured that if God is good and he already knows what’s good – what’s best – for me, I’d rather tell him, “Your will be done” and use prayer as an expression of my overflowing gratitude for all the blessings.

I remember this episode in House, MD where Dr. Cameron was explaining to Dr. House the purpose of prayer:

Cameron: “Do you know why people pray to God?”
House: “I thought you didn’t believe in God.”
Cameron: “I don’t.”
House: “Well, then you better be making a very good point.”
Cameron: “Do you think they pray to Him and praise Him because they want Him to know how great He is? God already knows that.”
House: “Are you comparing me to God? I mean, that’s great, but just so you know, I’ve never made a tree.”
Cameron: “I thank you because it means something to me. To be grateful for what I receive.”
House: “You are the most naive atheist I’ve ever met…. People pray so that God won’t crush them like bugs. I’m not gonna crush you.”

Much as I am generally able to relate more with House’s cynicism than Cameron’s naiveté, as far as prayer goes I’m with Cameron. I guess gratitude comes naturally to some people, and the English poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti even remarked that “the worst moment for the atheist is when he is really thankful and has nobody to thank”. It just doesn’t seem very satisfying to thank Blind Luck or Pure Chance for a desirable turn of events; people need to thank someone who willed these events into happening.

This sense of prayerful gratitude is often harmless and nothing more than foolish at worst, but the problem is that the same people who have a strong desire to give thanks to a sentient Being also tend to believe that they can actually influence the will of this Being. And this attitude reeks of arrogance, as explained by fellow freethinker Garrick Bercero in his comments on another post:

I do not deny that most Christians believe that they are being humble in passively accepting the will of a higher power…What I am talking about is that the belief that some people have access to this will is arrogant.

Prayer is inherently arrogant because this is what it says: God built every single galaxy among trillions in the universe… and Christians have a hotline to this God and he cares about what they think and he wants to know their thoughts on what else he can do for them.

Now this arrogance is sometimes compounded with self-absorption when one is being showered with trivial “blessings” while conveniently turning a blind eye to the great miseries existing elsewhere. But what is even more arrogant is the propensity of these grateful believers to assert that all these sufferings are just part of God’s grand design. And if they are divinely justified, that leaves less reason for humans to be dissatisfied with the undesirable states of affairs happening all around the world and somehow eases the pressure to try do something about them.

On a personal level, one of the salient differences between those who believe in an intervening god and those who don’t has something to do with purpose. For the believer, everything that happens – including the unpleasant things – has a purpose set by God. This brings about a cozy sense of security because our lives are in God’s hands and in the end everything will fall into its rightful place. But for the nonbeliever, purpose comes after the fact; we make a purpose for whatever happens to us so that whenever we lose, we do not lose the lesson. More importantly, we take it as our responsibility to fulfill that purpose.

I remember Poch Suzara‘s rants about how the Philippines, being the only Christian nation in Asia, has become the Sick Man of Asia because its people, instead of taking responsibility for the betterment of their lives, keep waiting for a Sky Daddy to do it for them. And I couldn’t agree more. According to Gallup, “a population’s religiosity level is strongly related to its average standard of living”. Let us take a look at the list of the most religious and least religious countries in the world:

The poll indicates that 8 of the 11 countries in which almost all residents (at least 98%) say religion is important in their daily lives are poorer nations in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.

“On the opposite end of the spectrum, the 10 least religious countries studied include several with the world’s highest living standards, including Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Hong Kong, and Japan. (Several other countries on this list are former Soviet republics, places where the state suppressed religious expression for decades.)”

In fairness, religion never really promised earthly wealth (or did it?); it assures one, rather, of an afterlife where everything will be all right – forever. Such concept of eternity easily renders insignificant a couple of decades of life on earth. And for such, many people live on prayer, expecting everything to happen according to God’s plan.

I admire the theists who live by the words “Nasa tao ang gawa, nasa Diyos ang awa” (roughly “God helps those who help themselves”). At least they do not look onto God as a sky daddy or fairy godmother. Up to this point they are no different from the nonbelievers. However, they still expect God to be a protector. And this often leads to a certain level of carelessness because one may get overconfident in the “knowledge” that God will always protect him.

When driving, for instance, a devout Catholic may tend to focus more on the prayer he is reciting for protection while his right hand releases the wheel and reaches out to touch the rosary hanging from the rearview mirror and his eyes leaves the road for a few seconds to glance reverently at the crucifix. But the most convenient part of this “divine protection” is the insurance that if he gets into an accident and dies, it is still part of God’s plan, and he will go to heaven.

Now compare that to the nonbeliever who takes his safety as his own responsibility and keeps both eyes on the road and both hands on the wheel and sets precautions for mechanical failure and reckless drivers. When one lives on the assumption that this life is all there is, he tends to take a little more care of it. After all, it seems the sensible thing to do when one doesn’t have much of a prayer for protection.

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