The Placebo Prayer

As a kid, I prayed every night before going to bed. Sometimes I prayed when I really desperately wanted something or was feeling unhappy. Praying made me feel like I was doing something when I didn’t know what to do.

I pretty much stopped praying at the same time that I stopped believing in God. Well, I did pray before I took my driving exam when I was eighteen. To maximize my chances I prayed to every god that I could think of. It was a close call, but I passed the exam.
Very recently I’ve run into the phenomenon of non-religious praying. It isn’t a new thing, but I’d never heard of it before. It means that people who don’t believe in God pray anyway. Some actually pray to God and others to some less well defined force such as the Universe. But why would you do that? Wouldn’t it be the same as if you tried to make a phone call using a banana? To someone that you don’t even think exists? In other words, wouldn’t it be madness?

Well, not necessarily. There is no doubt that prayer has many benefits. Saying grace before eating might increase our appreciation for food by reminding us of how lucky we are to receive it. Praying before bed might help us settle down. Some people recommend writing all your worries down before bed, and praying sounds like a similar process.

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Prayer is obviously not like ordering take-out where you just place your order and fifteen minutes later walk out with your meal in the bag and ready to go. It’s more complicated than that. All religious systems make it obvious that praying merely increases the chances of your wishes coming true. God does what he wants, but if you pray, he might consider helping out. From an atheist’s perspective this is of course only supplying a convenient plan B to uphold faith in case the person is disappointed. It makes it impossible to establish the veracity of whether prayers are actually heard or not, and forces people to lean on blind faith alone. Any eventual prayers that were “heard” are used to strengthen the system.

For reasons above and others, I don’t believe in God but I do believe that the act of believing is somehow beneficial. There is plenty of evidence for the effect that belief can have on healing from disease. Positive thinking and belief that things are going to get better might be the very phenomena behind the placebo effect. Could prayer be just another manifestation of the placebo effect? Could it intensify our ability to change by strengthening our volition and instilling a positive mood?

Believe and it shall be granted to you. Without belief few difficult things are possible. Praying can increase your belief in success, which is what you need to keep on working towards your goals. It can help you keep your eyes on the prize since concentrating on what you need helps focus your thoughts on the thing that you are hoping to happen. Praying can help you overcome obstacles by keeping you strong. Praying can increase and help uphold positive mood, which is conducive to success.

The prayers that I’ve been talking about here are selfish prayers. The way I see it, prayer might have some effect if the person is praying for something that that person can influence. I don’t believe that praying for others, unless it somehow leads to you taking action on their behalf, could help them. The study behind this link has come to the same conclusion. On the other hand, there are other studies that show that prayer and religious practices in general are healthy and have a positive effect on longevity. There are probably many methodical shortcomings with these studies, but I’ll leave them alone for now.

I don’t think I’ll be starting praying, at least not regularly. It does feel silly when I don’t believe there is anyone at the receiving end. But if I try it and it feels good, why not? Think of it as a form of meditation.

What do you think? Should even atheists engage in some kind of prayer? Do you pray and has it helped you somehow?

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14 thoughts on “The Placebo Prayer

  1. Julia Cameron, writing teacher, author, and just about everything else you can think of, has a discipline she calls Morning Pages. First thing in the morning she has you sit down and write in longhand three pages of whatever comes to mind. It’s a way of clearing all the fog out of your brain before you start your day. It makes space, as it were, for what’s really important. I’ve done them for years and it makes me feel so much better.

    From a non-believer’s pov I would think praying would be something like that. From a believer’s pov, which I am (though somewhat non-traditionally), I don’t believe prayer is for “God’s” or “the universe’s” benefit. It’s my way of recognizing the things in my life I have no control over and releasing them as much as I can. Sometimes for days or weeks on end! That process of externalizing what’s on my mind so often brings clarity to me. As to praying for someone else, I just figure this world is a complicated place and who am I to think my prayers have no benefit for the person I’m praying for. They certainly can’t hurt.

    In the end I think prayer truly is the act of releasing what we have no control over. Why struggle with something that’s going to tie you up in knots? Kind of a weird take on it, isn’t it…

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    1. Great comment, and interesting too. I appreciate a religious person’s views on this subject. I’ve probably got a fairly weak grasp on what prayer exactly means for religious people. And obviously they can’t be just slumped into one group either. I think it’s a really interesting subject. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. This is such an interesting perspective on the act of prayer. I find the concept of praying without believing in religion really beautiful. It isn’t madness, instead it means shifting your belief in a God to belief in yourself. It’s a practice of reflection and self-affirmation that would surely do many people much good. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Yes, exactly! I believe that spirituality is good for you even if you don’t believe in God or anything supernatural. A little bit of humbleness and quiet reflection never hurt anyone.

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      1. Yes, prayer helps you be a better person. I was lucky never believed in God but i still pray.

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  3. I believe prayer is pretty universal, despite religion. Some religions make it seem so ritualistic & have rules about who you pray to, how you must pray, & steps you must take for it to work, while others consider it your daily conversation with the other side. The bottom line is, it is keeping communication open, showing (& reaffirming to yourself) your own beliefs & it is pretty universal in many forms. Wiccans/Pagans to Catholics, Islamists, and everyone in between pray. I am not sure but I would venture a guess that atheists do the same in the sense that we all hope, put our minds to something, keep thinking about it & living as though it is going to happen & even if not out loud, we brain speak the please please please let this happen, work, or be ok…and isn’t that in essence what prayer is all about? Having faith that if it’s meant to be, and you keep your faith in it & try enough, you can have your prayers answered?

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      1. Well, I consider myself agnostic, which is basically a noncommittal atheist ha. Not really. I think religion (or some) make keeping the faith harder. I never understood how I was supposed to pray to God for things & if they worked out then it was all God & prayer worked etc etc but if things went wrong then it either wasn’t Gods will or it was my fault for not having strong enough faith or the devil intervened…Don’t even get me started tearing that apart.
        But, as an atheist or a nonbeliever in the biblical god, it is the universe, people, spirits, thoughts etc that are all involved & affected by prayer/thoughts & outcomes so perhaps, it is easier to believe in timing being off or that things are slow coming some times. I guess it’s hard to explain but having faith that there is a god granting your wishes is not much different than believing the universe hears you. If that makes sense. It’s no harder to pray or believe, we just do it differently.

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      2. Good points. I don’t think I believe in the Universe hearing me, though. I think the damn thoughts just clutter around in my own head unless I throw them out somehow. 😀

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