An atheist’s guide to prayer
Thoughts on parashat Devarim
Prayer is the salient expression of religious emotion and of man’s relationship with God. Presumably every religious person has asked themselves this question: how much prayer do I need in my life and does it make my connection to God stronger? There may be many answers to this question. One analysis may be: I need to make teshuvah, come closer to God and use religion to organize my life because when I let the world rule my life it brought me chaos and suffering and deprived me of meaning. Alternatively one might muse: I need to focus on action, not prayer. I don’t need to spend that much time in the synagogue and I don’t need to pray all the time. I already have learned what I need to know and now it’s time for action!
The Torah portion for this week suggests the latter:
The LORD our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Start out and make your way to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, the hill country, the Shephelah, the Negeb, the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, as far as the Great River, the river Euphrates. See, I place the land at your disposal. Go, take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to assign to them and to their heirs after them. (Deuteronomy 1:6-8)
The revelation on Sinai is complete. The Israelites have their instructions. Now is the time to go and implement the Divine plan. Notwithstanding, are they commanded to drop spirituality, conquer the land and immerse themselves in practical life exclusively? No, not by a long shot. God will accompany them throughout their mission and beyond. The instructions they received in Sinai clearly state their duties to God, such as obeying his laws, the Sabbath, and making sacrifices to him, etc. Forever, they will be His witnesses and He will be their witness.
It is not uncommon today to hear people explain that they are not religious, but they are ‘enlightened’ or ‘spiritual.’ They explain that they don’t need prayer or even God because, they say, it is enough to ‘live in harmony with the universe,’ thus claiming “the God hypothesis” is redundant. Yes, we all know that prayer alone in life is not enough and that to achieve anything in life action is required. But is prayer really unnecessary? Let’s look at this in practice. Imagine I am up for a promotion at work. I pray to God for it but I also know that my promotion won’t happen without my hard work. So in harmony with my prayers, I work hard to impress my boss. What if I get this promotion? Is it because of God’s blessing or simply a result of my hard work? What if I don’t get the promotion? Was it not God’s will? Taking the argument a step further, if we believe things happen because of God’s will anyway then…. what’s the point of praying? Wouldn’t it better to just work in harmony with the universe and simply reap what we earn?
Let's consider first two incorrect assumptions about (petitionary) prayer in the argument above. First, the person is incorrectly understanding prayer as a kind of magic, believing that you can influence reality with just words and thoughts and God is just a mere element in the process. Another incorrect assumption is that since we cannot measure the exact impact of the Divine action it doesn’t play any role in the entire process.
Sometimes we indeed have a feeling that we don’t need a prayer to achieve something. The task is clear and everything seems dependent on us. But there are other times where we feel that prayer is a necessary part of the process. In these situations we usually know that the goal we want to achieve is attainable, but at the same time we are aware there may be some obstacles and complications on the way that we will need to overcome. We often don’t know what these obstacles will be and we do know that not everything is dependent on us. That is when we need prayer to ensure us that despite the obstacles, we will achieve the goal.
Now, what about those who don’t believe in a higher power? Why should they pray? It turns out prayer is kind of magical – its superpower lies in its ability to harness the mind. Prayer is a great source of strength and motivation. It’s helpful in getting the right mindset and prioritizing things. By getting into a right mindset and setting priorities properly we avoid procrastination. Prayer prevents us from going astray, from giving up. Prayer continuously ensures us that the goal we want to achieve is worthy and meaningful and all the obstacles we will face will cease to exist and at the end of our journey we won’t even remember them. Prayer, when supported by reason and experience, makes us more cautious, sensitive and prevents us from making obvious mistakes.
Prayer also, amazingly, stimulates self-reflection: why didn’t I achieve this or that? It is often the case that the reasons for which I haven't achieved something were in fact in me, not in the universe. I thought that the universe conspired against me, but after some time I realized that the main obstacles were in fact in me: in my habits, in my behavior, in my wrong priorities, bad time management, in my hierarchy of values, in the choice of pleasures that I pursued, in my erroneous thinking, in my arrogance, in my lack of faith, in my laziness or ignorance. This life wisdom I achieved was and is facilitated through prayer. Regular prayer helps to eliminate the obstacles within ourselves, obstacles that are often more relevant than the objective challenges that we face. In the context of prayer we also ask ourselves questions about what we have achieved and what we want to achieve. These are important questions at any stage of life and they are questions that should be pondered regularly. Quite simply regular prayer promotes this type of internal analysis.
Prayer also helps tremendously when we experience failure. When this connection is supported by reason and experience it will enlighten the reasons of your failure. You can discover the meaning behind the failure.
Finally, and above all prayer connects you with God and to a moral system around which you orbit. This connection tells you that your life and your goals are not only about you.
By praying we learn to control our internal, spiritual life. Control of our inner life is essential to having true control over our lives in general and the circumstances in which we live. Often things that happen ‘to us’ are, in fact, a combination of both independent objective circumstances and our reactions to them. The more considerable and meaningful are our responses, the more power we gain over the circumstances and their outcome. In this way we expand the borders of our freedom. Through prayer we can come to understand the complexities of the situations we are faced and the positive and negative consequences that ensue.
It was a lack of faith and close contact with God that delayed the Israelites' entry into the Promised Land by 40 years. Thus any call to action should be understood as a call to action with prayer. Sincere prayer improves the quality of our actions and our experience. And every prayer is heard, one way or another.
Menachem Mirski- student rabinacki w Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, American Jewish University, Los Angeles, USA