Many atheists, in their ignorance of history and philosophy and their often naïve and aggressive attacks on traditional religions, particularly Christianity, have thrown out the baby with the bath water, dismissing all religious traditions out of hand. However, many of these traditions predate Christianity, have their origin in Greek humanist philosophy, and do not require a belief in a supreme being. Prayer is one such tradition. The well-known Serenity Prayer is attributed to the greatest American theologian of the twentieth century, Ronald Niebuhr, but Niebuhr was steeped in both ancient philosophy as well as Christian theology, and so was well aware that his Serenity Prayer contained the core tenets of Stoicism:
“Give me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”
The discourses of the former Greek slave and Stoic philosopher, Epictetus begins by explaining the Stoic view that our judgments and opinions are preeminently within our power to control, whereas external events, especially sources of wealth and reputation, are ultimately in the hands of Fortune. Hence, the Stoic should always strive to cope with adversity by having ready at hand precepts that remind him, “what is mine, and what is not mine, what is within my power, and what is not”. Indeed, Epictetus goes so far as to define Stoicism itself as the study of this distinction: “And to become educated [in Stoic philosophy] means just this, to learn what things are our own and what are not.” Furthermore, the goal of the good life in Stoic philosophy was always described as the attainment of “serenity”, which meant freedom from overwhelming emotional storms.
In the 19th century, practical philosophy i.e. the use of philosophical methods and insights to explore how people can lead wiser, more reflective lives, cut away from the philosophical mainstream to join forces with psychology. Thus it is not surprising that the Stoic principles mentioned above have become the foundational principles for Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), two of the fastest growing therapeutic orientations, while an amended Serenity Prayer has been adapted for use by members of Alcoholics Anonymous and other self-help approaches.
Early Christianity developed in a milieu dominated by Stoic and Platonic philosophy, so inevitably Christianity absorbed many Stoic ideas. In the eastern end of the Mediterranean most early Christian theologians taught that serenity in the Stoic sense was the goal of the Christian life, and Eastern Orthodox Christianity still teaches that to this day. Another of the Stoic ideas Christianity adopted was askesis, the idea of the spiritual life involving training of the mind, the passions, and the body. The desert fathers developed the idea of askesis into asceticism, a rigorous program of mental and physical self-discipline, and much later Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus or Jesuits, would create his Spiritual Exercises, which are currently undergoing a popular revival.
The idea that prayer is a spiritual exercise and is not so much about trying to influence God but rather about changing the person that prays was clearly articulated by the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard who said: “the function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays. It is the same with the substance of what is spoken. Not God, but you, the maker of the confession, get to know something by your act of confession.” The Hebrew word for prayer, tefilah, also captures this meaning as it comes from the word pellel which means “to judge”. Tefilah is a time of self-evaluation, self-judgment, introspection, when a person takes the time to focus on self.
Several studies have been conducted to test the effectiveness of praying for others. The most comprehensive and rigorous of these was the Study of the Therapeutic Effects of Intercessory Prayer (STEP) project which tested the idea that praying for sick patients improved their health. STEP was a double-blind study that involved 1,800 patients who had received coronary bypass surgery. According to the findings of this study, reported in the April 2006 American Heart Journal, there was no difference between patients who were prayed for and those who were not. However, while praying for others seems to have no positive effect, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that prayer and meditation have beneficial effects on the persons engaged in these practices. It doesn’t matter if you pray for yourself or for others, pray to heal an illness or for peace in the world, or simply sit in silence and quiet the mind; the effects appear to be the same. A wide variety of spiritual practices have been shown to help alleviate stress levels, reduce blood pressure, boost the immune system, help maintain a positive outlook, and even deactivate genes that trigger inflammation and prompt cell death.
I would like to conclude with another of my favorite Stoic prayers, written by Seneca as a defense against fear, and certainly worth a few minutes reflection each day:
“Why do you bother to show me swords and fire, and the raging, murderous throng that accompanies you? Take away that ostentation, behind which you lurk and frighten fools. You are merely Death, whom recently even my servant and maidservant despised. Why do you again spread out before me, with extravagant pomp, the whip and the rack? Why are those engines of torture made ready for each member of the body, and all the thousands of instruments designed to tear a man apart piece by piece? Away with these things that terrify us! Silence the groans, cries, and anguished voice forced out between lashes. You are but Pain, scorned by the gout-ridden man, endured by the dyspeptic in the midst of fine foods, and borne bravely even by a girl in childbirth. You are a slight thing, if I can bear you; you are a brief thing, if I cannot!”