Among the infinite variety of things that people do, one of the most puzzling to me is the act of prayer. It’s some sort of a special communication. The message is addressed to some supernatural entity. If spoken, the message is transmitted magically to the realm where the entity resides — usually heaven. You don’t need the postal service, or the telephone, or any material medium. But prayer can be unspoken too: one just has to think in some particular way and once again magically it gets to that special being.
This special being is, among the monotheists, the One True GodTM. Hindus, who don’t go for the monotheist nonsense and believe in a vast multitude of gods (all of whom are radically different from the One True GodTM), usually direct their special communications to specific gods depending on the situation. For example, my favorite god Ganesh — the one with the crooked trunk, immense body, and the brilliance of a billion suns, the remover of obstacles — is the one to address if you want to succeed in your ventures.
The content of the message varies. Much of the message is praise. The OTGTM likes to be praised incessantly — otherwise he smites you. I get the praise part. What I don’t get is the next part which is petitioning. Example: someone is sick. People pray to their god to make the person well. The expectation is that their god “answers” the prayer and makes the person well. And then another bit of prayer takes place where the god is thanked for doing as he was asked to do.
So here’s where I have difficulty with the concept of prayer as petition. If the prayer worked, it means that god did what he wouldn’t have done on his own. This doesn’t quite fit in with the nature of the OTGTM because an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnibenevolent being shouldn’t need to be told what he should do. You can petition powerful people — presidents, popes, pundits — but you cannot petition the lord with prayer.
Jim Morrison got it.
When I was back there in seminary school
There was a person there
Who put forth the proposition
That you can petition the Lord with prayer.
Petition the lord with prayer.
Petition the lord with prayer?
You cannot petition the lord with prayer!
If you believe that prayer works, then you are admitting that your all-knowing god doesn’t quite know what he should do, and needs to be prompted to do the right thing. Prayer as petition is plainly stupid. It’s a very sorry kind of god who needs advice from you on how to do his job, who needs praise for who or what he is. Or needs to be thanked for what he has done — such as curing some random dude’s Chinese-virus caused illness.
What brought on this meditation on prayer? This thing.
I do understand that to get in the good books of powerful politicians, one has to do all sorts of things — including silly things like praying. But it also demeans you and it demotes your god to be some kind of handiman.
(Just by the way, once I asked a good friend of mine who is a Jain why he prays. He said that Jain prayer is not about petitioning a supernational being. It is a meditation on moksha — the path to liberation. Jains don’t have gods to petition.)