Posts Tagged ‘prayer’

Sunday Sermon: The (Placebo) Power of Prayer

Did you know that  a rain dance is 100% effective? It’s true! You can try it for yourself:

In the evening as the sun’s going down, find an outdoor spot facing the setting sun. As soon as the bottom of the sun touches the horizon, start dancing, and keep it up until the top of the sun vanishes completely. Do the same thing every evening at sunset, and I guarantee you’ll get rain.

It may take a few days, or weeks, or even months (sometimes the rain gods like to test your faith), but if you keep doing it every day, you’ll eventually make it rain.

Likewise, 100% of all prayers get answered — but as many devout believers will tell you, sometimes the answer is “no.”  But if you pray for enough things, enough times, eventually you’ll get some situations where the thing you prayed for actually happens.

It’s the same principle explored in this Neatorama post, Why Do People Push Placebo Buttons? It’s also the same reason it’s hard to teach a dog not to bark at the mailman. After all, barking at the mailman always works — the mailman always goes away.

(image via Boing Boing)

Super Bowl Sunday Sermon: Is God taking the points?

Instead of playing one of the usual TV drinking games, may I humbly suggest that as you watch the big game today, particularly the post-game interviews, you decide that every time a player or coach invokes God as a factor behind their victorious* performance (as if God were somehow interested at all in the outcome of a game, and further was helping one team cheat), instead of taking a drink you’ll text “Haiti” to 90999 to send a $10 donation to the Red Cross (a secular group, despite the name).

After all, if there is a God, there’s no real way to undo the damage caused by people praising him as if he’s one of the good guys, but there is a way to help provide concrete relief for the damage he’s caused.

* Ever notice that the losers never chalk up their defeat to the almighty?

(pic — of the Indianapolis Colts, one of the teams playing today — via The Scrooge Report)

“I’ll pray for you”

prayerWhen someone says, “I’ll pray for you,” what’s the polite response?

I’d say it depends on the intent, and the situation.

We all know that “I’ll pray for  you” can be a Christian’s passive-aggressive way (or a passive-aggressive Christian’s way) of putting you down. It can mean, “You’re such a wretched specimen of humanity that you need divine intervention in order to avoid your just punishment of eternal torment by fire.” True, many Christians believe (or say they believe) that the same is true of themselves. That’s not unusual — lots of people put other people down because of their own deep-seated sense of insecurity or lack of self-worth.

If someone’s clearly being passive-aggressive about it, you might have a hard time responding politely (or even civilly). But passive-aggressiveness is a two-edged sword. There are lots of ways to say “thanks,” and you can say it in a way that implies sarcasm (“Yeah, great, thanks.”), bemusement (“Um, thanks?”) or dismissal (a simple “Thanks” that’s delivered in a way that implies, “Whatever, Bubba”).

But lots of times, “I’ll pray for you” is a perfectly well-meaning gesture of goodwill. If a Christian hears that you’re going through some tough times, and says they’ll pray for you, they’re not only expressing sympathy, but even promising to do more than just keep you in their feelings.

Face it — if a friend of yours had connections in the real world, and offered to use them to make your life better, wouldn’t you be grateful? I sure would. Even if my friend’s connection turned out to be unable to help, I’d still be grateful to my friend for making the effort, even though it turned out to be useless. Likewise, just because there’s not one shred of evidence that praying for you will have any effect whatsoever on reality doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be grateful to someone for making the effort.

P.S. I’ve been unemployed for 6 months, and I have my very first in-person interview tomorrow, for a job with a TV program, a morning news broadcast you’ve almost certainly heard of (no, not that one). If any religious believers are reading this, I won’t mind at all if you pray for me to do well in the interview. Then again, if you hate this blog and pray for me to fart loudly in the middle of the interview, or walk into the room with toilet paper on my shoe, or otherwise fail spectaculary, I won’t mind that either.

(Prayer cartoon via The Bronze Blog)

To bow or not to bow, redux

I covered my view on group prayers (saying grace, etc.) in an earlier post, but there’s one aspect I left out — what if they want you to join hands? Does that change the equation? To me, it doesn’t. If you’ve already decided that being polite is more important than standing on principle (which is, of course, a whole other issue), then joining hands isn’t any more insincere than just bowing your head.

A Christian prayer uttered in a group holding hands is just like any other prayer — it’s not a frickin’ seance. Nobody’s pretending that there’s some magical “circle of faith”-type power operating and that you’re somehow violating their pseudo-magic if  you’re a non-believer. It’s just a gesture of fellowship.

The other people don’t believe their prayer won’t “work” if someone in the circle isn’t a believer — or if they do, and they find out, and they give you a hard time about it (i.e. if they’ve stopped being polite and started being rude, thus ruining any chance of maintaining a polite atmosphere at the gathering), just tell them that if it was so all-fired  important to them, they should have taken steps to determine that everyone was a believer, rather than arrogantly assuming it.

You’re not being any more insincere by holding hands than you’re already being by bowing your head and not making trouble. So don’t sweat it.

To bow or not to bow?

atheist_prayerOne of the most common situations where atheists feel awkward is a gathering where someone initiates a public prayer, and asks people to join in (usually silently, with heads bowed and/or hands folded). Here’s my take on why, in most cases, the polite thing to do is to bow your head and play along:

Taking part in a ritual doesn’t imply buying into all the cultural/social/religious baggage associated with it. There are lots and lots of cases where people engage in gestures or traditions that carry meanings they don’t remotely intend.

We shake hands with people in lots of situations where neither of us are armed and there’s no need to demonstrate that our sword hand is empty. Some of us knock on wood (or say “knock on wood”) even if we’re not pagans who believe trees hold spirits who can watch over our needs. And likewise, bowing your head while someone utters a memorized, ritualistic speech doesn’t mean you wholeheartedly endorse the underlying concepts.

You could argue, of course, that it’s rude of the person initiating the prayer to do so in a situation where there are (or may be) atheists or other non-believers present. That may well be true (although there are situations where prayer is an accepted part of the deal, like a Christian wedding — see below).

But one of the big rules of etiquette is that it’s rude to point out that someone else is being rude. At least, it’s rude to point it out directly. There are some passive-aggressive moves that some etiquette experts recommend for people who simply must say something, but if you’re trying to maintain good social relationships (which is, after all, what etiquette is for), you don’t help to accomplish that by pointing out that someone else is being an idiot or an asshole.

And you could also argue that silently going along with a prayer makes it harder for atheists to stand up and be counted, and creates a deceptive picture of just how few atheists there are out there. If you think there’s a moral imperative that’s more important than being polite, then do what you think is right — but don’t be surprised if people think you’re rude. Because basically, you are. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — as someone said, polite people rarely make history. But it’s still a thing.

And if you’re at a Christian wedding, and the minister calls for a moment of silent prayer, it’s perfectly appropriate for you to bow your head. Just as it’s perfectly appropriate for a Christian at a Buddhist wedding to bow her head, or stand, or kneel, if that’s what everyone else is doing. A wedding is about the happy couple, not about you. And if you didn’t want to be exposed to Christian religion, the time to make that decision was before you walked through the Christian church doors and took your seat at the Christian church pew.

There are some other prayer-related etiquette issues (What about holding hands to say grace? What if someone asks you to offer a prayer? What if a prayer you’re going along with turns nasty?), but I think this will do for now.