Saturday, February 6, 2021

Musing about Prayer, the Exacting Scientific Study, and Reality

Does prayer change things as the famous aphorism claims?

Does God literally answer petitionary prayer—everything from requests for a parking place to the healing of severe disease to defeating the enemy in war?
Fifteen years ago, an exhaustive scientific study was done on praying for heart surgery patients with a grant from the religious Templeton Foundation.

Sadly, from a religious point of view, unfavorable results of study occurred in 52 percent of those who received prayer, 51 percent of those who did not receive it, and the worst results for 59 percent of patients who knew they would receive prayers.

“There were no statistically significant differences in major complications or thirty-day mortality.” Wikipedia and Harvard Gazette, "Prayers don't help heart surgery patients; Some fare worse when prayed for"

But some raise the important question is prayer meant to be an action looking for literal results?

Most theists would say so including famous philosopher and science writer Michael Gardner, a theistic skeptic, cofounder of the modern Skeptic Movement. When it comes to miracles, Gardner disdains belief in those supernatural events, what he calls the superstitious “finger of God,” but Gardner argues for the reality of prayer!

In his book The Why’s of a Philosophical Scrivener Gardner states that petitionary prayer is real and true. He agrees with fundamentalists, creedal Christians, Muslim, Orthodox Jews that humans can literally petition God for help.

Most Atheists emphasize the exact opposite, that all prayer is a severe delusion.

This is in contrast to a third view of prayer best expressed in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Huck Finn is told by the Fundamentalist Ms.Watson that prayer works, so he sets about praying for fish hooks.

But none come. He waits longer, still none come. Huck is keenly disappointed—down right angry--and tells the Widow Douglas so. She gently corrects his confusion, telling him he has misunderstood the true nature of prayer.

Widow Douglas emphasizes that prayer isn’t for getting what we want, even if we are asking for something good.

Then what in heck is the nature of prayer? According to the Widow Douglas, prayer is for moral and spiritual uplift!

But is that so?

Maybe the Widow Douglas was right—that the true nature of religion is spiritual, not literal at all. Consider even the simple prayer of grace, that form of prayer that many religious humans say before eating supper where they thank God for their food. Or goodnight prayers with little children.

If we look at the actual situation of prayer at the dinner table, we see that God has had literally nothing to do with the getting of the food on the family’s plates. The parents at the table have gone to Wal-Mart and purchased salmon, green beans, and wheat bread from money they earned working 50 or 60 hours a week as engineers, clerks, or mechanics; the store owners have bought the seafood from ocean boats and produce from farmers; the farmers have planted and harvested the crops, and the fishers have gone out into the wild Pacific and caught the salmon, etc.

So where does God fit into the equation?

The answer is a spiritual one as Widow Douglas said. For example, the famous German thinker Fredrich Schleiermacher wrote that religion is a transcendent experience, a total abandonment to, and reliance on the Infinite.

God is the ultimate, infinite source of the meal, even though he doesn’t literally do a single action to bring it to the evening table. No, God isn’t literally in the business of growing corn, finding parking places or supplying fish hooks, healing diseases, etc. unlike what most humans think.

Rather, prayer is transcendent communion with the Ultimate, a sense of union with the Source of all, the Ground of all Being.

How many times have we humans said grace at meals, prayed for loved ones, etc. and felt uplifted and united!

The number is probably almost endless; and there are the countless prayers for individuals living in tragic circumstances, world crises, and prayers for our own spiritual growth.

PRAYER CHANGES US, not bad situations or terrible circumstances.

We humans in prayer can become more humanistic beings given to loving others as ourselves, even our enemies as Jesus, Martin Luther King, and othe wise leaders have stated.

But Huck and most people aren’t impressed with such an view. What they want are fish hooks, healing from diseases, success in their careers, and so forth.
Becoming more loving, kind, generous, and patient is, granted, nice but a real let down.

Literalism has its hooks in most of us, either believers or disbelievers.

To be continued

Dan Wilcox

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