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The Atheist’s Prayer

March 1, 2015

Atheism, Prayer, Stoicism

The Atheist's Prayer

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!”

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About Malcolm Greenhill

Malcolm Greenhill is President of Sterling Futures, a fee-based financial advisory firm, based in San Francisco. I write about wealth related issues in the broadest sense of the word. When I am not writing, reading, working and spending time with family, I try to spend as much time as possible backpacking in the wilderness.

View all posts by Malcolm Greenhill

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98 Comments on “The Atheist’s Prayer”

  1. Mikels Skele Says:

    Not to forget, however, the naiveté and ignorance on the other side as well. Many theists *do* pray in order to influence the divine.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Of course they do, that is the reason most people pray. The point of the post was to show the other side to prayer, a tradition that has been long overlooked, especially by non-believers.

      Reply

  2. Cindy Bruchman Says:

    Great post, Malcolm. Thanks for the history lesson on Stoicism. I haven’t thought about their influence through time. I especially love the purpose for prayer. For thanksgiving, yes, but a tool to learn about ourselves and ground ourselves when the world is chaotic and biting.
    “A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Cindy, thank you for the great quotation. When he wrote this Taleb was talking about Seneca, one of the richest men in the world, who used to regularly practice what it would feel like to lose all his wealth overnight. Then, he would wake up with his fortune intact and enjoy it all the more. He also practiced not becoming dependent on his wealth, knowing that he could live happily without it, although feeling no obligation to renounce it. This was not easy and Seneca worked on himself daily just as cognitive therapists today ask patients to write out daily exercises to change their thinking.

      Reply

      • Cindy Bruchman Says:

        Hi Malcolm. Without sharing TMI, I recently enjoyed a splendorous lifestyle because I had taken a part time job which afforded me disposable cash. I should have saved it, but instead, enjoyed the fruits of my labor and shared much of it with my children, etcetera. Well, the part-time opportunity vanished and I had to adjust to the slap of a depreciated income. OUCH. I had to remember those days of frugality as a single parent for years and years trying to make ends meet. I adopted the tricks taught to me by my mother at a younger age, but I having grown arrogant, forgot to be frugal. Now I have learned from the pain. I hope at my age never to forget. Stoicism, teaches you. The pain enlightens.

        Reply

  3. matt Says:

    Well said, Malcolm.

    Reply

  4. cattalespress Says:

    Reblogged this on WTF? (Where's the faith?) and commented:
    Most people know the first part of the Serenity Prayer, “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,” but do you know the second part?
    “Living one day at a time,
    Enjoying one moment at a time,
    Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
    Taking, as Jesus did,
    This sinful world as it is,
    Not as I would have it,
    Trusting that You will make all things right,
    If I surrender to Your will,
    So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
    And supremely happy with You forever in the next.

    Amen.”

    Reply

  5. cattalespress Says:

    Malcolm! Another deep, thought-provoking blog; I just had to reblog. Thank you. Also, please note, A.A. did not “amend” the original Serenity Prayer. In fact, many groups in the early days recited the “long version” of the Serenity Prayer, but many fellow A.A. members felt it was too “religious” for a program based on spirituality and on a higher power of “one’s understanding.” Again, thank you for another job well done…bet you have a lot of philosophy courses under your belt.

    Reply

  6. Dalo 2013 Says:

    Fantastic writing, and as humans we tend to weave ourselves around a thread of truth ~ a thread that is found in every religion, philosophy and psychology. Man is always on a quest to understand what is around them, and to do so they first need to master themselves and “prayer” is an example. Perhaps it is a mantra, thoughts for the day or a prayer to another ~ where the motivation is as you describe: ‘grounding ourselves when the world is chaotic and biting.’

    You touch upon a subject sure to bring some lively debate among atheists, as many of them do have this knee-jerk reaction to disregard all tenants of religion…often mocking ideas such as prayer without understanding the similarities to those they mock.

    The stoic nature of man give us an outline of how we grow and how we evolve, and it is a bit irrelevant of what vehicle is used to transform the mind & soul (be it religion, meditation, exercise, etc). Of course, if one can “grab” control of such a vehicle as politicians have historically tried to do (often with religion), then it is easy to lose the history and understanding of how and why. Wonderful philosophical post for a Sunday. Cheers to you Malcolm and have a great week.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Dalo. You raise an excellent and cautionary point that politicians can also attempt to manipulate a population through religion, civic or otherwise. Spiritual exercises can just as easily be used to brainwash individuals as they can to transform them positively.

      Reply

  7. aFrankAngle Says:

    Wonderfully written with plenty of food for thought. I must say that the contrast in your comment compared to the first comment did make me laugh. Well done, sir!

    Reply

  8. NicoLite Великий Says:

    Singing has the effect on me that you ascribe to prayer. But I guess that’s also a form of meditation. Also, I consider atheism an attribute of many modern religions, as a contrast to theistic for most traditional religions. Noteworthy in this matter is that religio in its original sense meant to observe the law and pay the tax of the Emperor – and he was human

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Nico, now I want to hear you sing! Atheism as “an attribute of many modern religions”. I wonder what you have in mind, maybe something like the environmentalist movement worshiping the goddess Gaia? Thank you for commenting.

      Reply

      • NicoLite Великий Says:

        Worshiping the goddess Gaia would be a neopaganistic religion, and very much theistic. I was thinking of self-actualization cults as an extreme example. Epicurism is a more moderate example of modern atheistic religion. Stoicism, which we both highly value, can also be formulated as an atheistic religion, as can science. Modern religion doesn’t necessarily involve worship, but the element of faith is alive.

        Reply

  9. Middlemay Farm Says:

    I’ve tried shooing fear and pain away with words (not as beautifully written as Seneca’s). I’ve tried various meditative techniques. Everything falls short. I find that relying on myself and my limited abilities at mind over body leaves me feeling responsible for my pain (as if with better words I may have avoided sickness or depression). Knowing the sorry state of humanity, I find it hard to believe we can ever write the words necessary to heal ourselves completely. Maybe we can fool ourselves for short bursts of time and that’s about it.

    As always, you give us much to consider.
    Thanks!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      You raise the all-important issue of how the differences between Stoicism and Christianity are reflected in your confidence about healing. The Stoics also believed in one Logos or prime mover. However, the Stoic idea of our relationship to the Logos is rather like the relationship between an aristocratic father and his son – distant, intellectual, and based on cold ideas of duty and virtue. However, Christ according to St. John is the Logos made flesh and our relationship with him is much more close and emotional. Could this be the reason you feel Christianity can heal while Stoicism cannot?

      Christians also believe in grace, in external assistance from God, whereas Stoics think help must come from reason alone. Maybe this belief in grace, the moments when God reaches out to put us back on our feet is what makes all the difference for you and so many others. Finally, Christians believe in original sin i.e. that human nature is predisposed to screwing up while Stoicism holds that human nature is perfectible through reason. Maybe you feel more comfortable with the Christian concept of humans as fallible creatures rather than the Stoic’s ostensibly unrealistic vision of perfectible humanity? Certainly the fact that there are so many Christians compared to Stoics, says something about the relative appeal of each belief system.

      Reply

      • Middlemay Farm Says:

        Since the ability to reason is so variable among humans and so obviously far from perfection I do prefer a God who sent himself to save people despite their flawed reasoning 🙂

        So far in history I find no evidence to convince me in human self perfectibility. As a perfectionist I’ve suffered the enslavement of trying to perfect things–there’s always something new just around the corner isn’t there? Christianity promises rest from that futility. I know that before I was a Christian I hated evangelists so I’ll stop here!

        All the best~
        A

        Reply

    • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

      Adrienne, I really appreciated your response on this thread. =)

      Xx
      Diana

      Reply

  10. Aquileana Says:

    Hi Malcolm//// Congratulations on this post… I like the way you dig into the past sources of religions and I second your statement when you highlight the importance of Stoic philosophers and ancient similar approaches…
    Kierkegaard was so clever when he spoke about the importance of and the function of prayer, saying that its aim was “not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays”… I think that it is eloquent that nowadays when atheism seems to proliferate alternative ways of “inner religions and spirituality” have showed up.
    And you have mentioned this point too! ⭐
    I am now thinking of a quote I came across (featuring Hegel and Schopenhauer):

    Thanks for sharing!… i hope you have a great day ahead… Best wishes. Aquileana 😀

    Reply

  11. rung2diotimasladder Says:

    Excellent post! I’ve never thought about the Serenity prayer and it’s connection to Stoicism…that’s an interesting insight. Same too with the Kierkegaard quote. I think insofar as prayer is not treated as “Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz” it can have significant benefits.

    Also, I think you’re right about the way some atheists throw the baby out with the bath water. In fact, I put it in exactly that way in an email to someone recently.

    Reply

  12. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    Malcolm,

    Magnificent exploration of some of the benefits of religion. An additional one written about by Rodney Stark: the early development of free markets and capitalism.

    BTW, REBT and CBT are not two separate therapeutic approaches. Rather, REBT spawned CBT and related cognitive therapies. For further info, see my book (with co-authors David Ramsay Steele and Richard Kujoth) Therapy Breakthrough.

    Michael
    http://www.ThreeMinuteTherapy.com

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Michael. Interesting that Wikipedia holds that Albert Ellis (REBT) and Aaron Beck (CT) both came to similar conclusions at around the same time:

      “Around the same time that rational emotive therapy, as it was known then, was being developed, Aaron T. Beck was conducting free association sessions in his psychoanalytic practice. During these sessions, Beck noticed that thoughts were not as unconscious as Freud had previously theorized, and that certain types of thinking were the culprits of emotional distress. It was from this discovery that Beck developed cognitive therapy and called these thoughts “automatic thoughts”. It was these two therapies, rational emotive therapy and cognitive therapy, that started the “second wave” of CBT, which was the emphasis on cognitive factors.”

      However, in your book ‘Therapy Breakthrough’ you claim that Albert Ellis originated Cognitive-Behavioral therapy and Aaron Beck and Martin Seligman “developed Ellis’s insights and took them in different directions”. Maybe you could elaborate on the different viewpoints presented here?

      Reply

  13. Hanne T. Fisker Says:

    Malcolm, your post, not surprisingly I would think, resonates much with me. You’ve related many of my reflections to stoicism before, although I tend not to put any isms on my life it’s does at times put words to things I hadn’t found yet myself. It is a great and interesting read, as your posts always are.
    And now a correction, Kierkegaard wasn’t Dutch. He was Danish 🙂
    Somehow many English speaking people confuse Dutch with Denmark or Danish. I’ve always wondered why that is…

    Reply

  14. Kate Loveton Says:

    Malcolm! I love what you had to share about the benefits of prayer. I have always been a big believer in the power of prayer. I do believe that prayer changes situations and circumstances. I also believe it changes me by giving me perspective and peace. One other thing I have always believed: prayers are eternal. There have been a few situations in my life that, looking back in time, were dangerous for me, physically and emotionally. I can see there must have been a hedge of protection around me that I was protected and spared from harm. I attribute that protection to the prayers of family members who are no longer alive, like my grandmother. I think God hears, remembers and honors the prayers of generations.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Kate, I have known people, like yourself, who believed they were being looked after and protected by God or prayers. It is a very powerful feeling and enabled one of these people to do great and courageous things while living in a totalitarian regime.

      Reply

  15. Kate Loveton Says:

    Reblogged this on Odyssey of a Novice Writer and commented:
    Another thought-provoking blog post from Malcolm Greenhill. I am not a Stoic. I am, however, a believer in the power of prayer. When I pray, I believe it changes not only situations and circumstances; I believe it changes me. What a wonderful gift – to take your concerns to the Creator of the universe.

    Reply

  16. Charlotte Cyprus Says:

    As an atheist, this post has no merit. Most of religion is terrible, which is why we tend to disregard it. What you’re talking about is meditating, not praying, and praying only helps people feel good because they think some magical being is going to make all their problems go away. You act like that study proves something, but we all know how placebo pills work, and this is the same thing. Prayer is a crutch that religious people use to avoid dealing with their own problems. Atheists are well aware that we’re alone in the universe, so we are used to taking care of our problems ourselves, not expecting someone else to do it.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Charlotte, welcome to Malcolm’s Corner and thank you for your comment. There are two elements to prayer. The first element is petitioning God for something and the second is using prayer as a form of spiritual exercise, which can certainly include meditation. Today, most people immediately associate prayer with the first element but are not aware that historically the second has been just as important. In one of your posts you write that you are twenty years old so it is unlikely (possible but unlikely) that you have already experienced many of the curve balls that life eventually throws at us, such as disease, accident, the death of a loved one, divorce etc. Some people are good at playing the game of life and find no need for help but others frequently feel the need to talk through their problems with a friend, pastor, family member or therapist. Many of the best solutions to life’s problems involve changing the way we think about the problem, whether it be a person, an issue or an event. This is not easy and often involves working on oneself, perhaps formally challenging one’s thinking in writing, reminding oneself how much worse it could have been, that life does not come with guarantees, practicing mindfulness, essentially trying to erase the old tapes and create new, more positive ones. That may not sound much like prayer to you but, historically, this was the approach of the Stoic philosophers and I am arguing that the idea of prayer as a spiritual exercise to help affect personal change entered Christianity through Stoicism.

      Reply

      • Charlotte Cyprus Says:

        “you are twenty years old so it is unlikely (possible but unlikely) that you have already experienced many of the curve balls that life eventually throws at us, such as disease, accident, the death of a loved one, divorce etc”

        You’re right, I have not been divorced. However, I have suffered deep depression and been suicidal, I’ve been sexually assaulted, my mother has been in and out of the hospital my whole life (multiple ICU trips), I once totaled a car and thought I was going to die, and I’ve had neighbors and family members die. In each of these times, I did not pray. I did not meditate. I’m still saying that, as an atheist, this post has no merit. I do not care about this history of prayer. I’m protesting you calling it the “atheist’s” prayer and saying we’re too quick to dismiss the so-called “benefits” of praying. There are no benefits. Wishing for something to happen will not make it so.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “There are no benefits.”

          Then how do you explain all the evidence to the contrary, for example here, here and here?

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) Outcome Studies
          Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) Outcome Studies

        • Charlotte Cyprus Says:

          I’m not going to download any of your shady links. Unless I see peer reviewed evidence that was repeated with no major methodological flaws, then it’s not evidence. You’re just throwing studies at me of the same caliber as the “vaccines cause autism” evidence. Stop before you get too worked up. Unless you’re an atheist yourself you cannot see how wrong you are because you’re too wrapped up in your own beliefs.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Charlotte, interesting that you ask for peer reviewed evidence and I provide lists of dozens of peer reviewed outcome studies but you refuse to open the links on the grounds that they are “shady”. Although you have not opened the links you claim to ‘know’ that the studies referred to are of a poor caliber. You then make the illogical claim that only an atheist can see the truth. Well, I am an atheist as is obvious from numerous posts on this blog. I suggest that you re-read the post carefully and consider whether you have overreacted in a knee-jerk fashion to what you thought, wrongly, was a traditional religious defense of prayer.

        • Charlotte Cyprus Says:

          I clicked on the links and they asked me to download things, which I am unwilling to do. If they were legitimate studies, you could tell me the title and the author and I could look up the journal articles myself, but I’m not going to take the time because if you claim that you’re an atheist but you still thinking that “praying” of any kind helps anything, then you’re not really an atheist, you’re “spiritual”. I’ll tell you when I see a sale on spirit crystals.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          “you’re not really an atheist, you’re ‘spiritual'”

          Charlotte, you really are determined to find something that is not there. I have written 114 other posts on this blog covering much of the spectrum of human experience. I challenge you to find another post indicating that I am spiritual in the derogatory sense you mean.

        • Charlotte Cyprus Says:

          If you pray, you’re not an atheist. I don’t care how many posts you’ve made. I can call myself a black person all I want but that won’t make my skin any darker. The world just doesn’t work that way.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          If praying meant just petitioning a divinity I would agree with you, but the point of the post was to show that historically praying also meant working on oneself to change one’s attitudes and behavior. The fact that much of this aspect of prayer is now called meditation, therapy, mindfulness or practical philosophy (Stoicism) is irrelevant.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Obtaining evidence for changing what is happening in the human brain is tricky but I found this article helpful.

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          Charlotte, as an atheist who refuses to pray, how do you know, how can you know, the full-blown experience of prayer to judge it? Or really understand how it is many Christians handle suffering deep in the trenches? Christians of all people can and do enter the bowels of suffering and meet their nemesis of pain head-on because they can name it. We go under unanesthetized. Just as Jesus refused the wine vinegar mixed with the gall that would dull his senses and alleviate the pain on the Cross. Yes, we go through it leaning on a supernatural power, which is your very point of contention, but I just wanted to bring in that atheists who lean on family, friends, a great book, an escape into the wilderness, a day at the spa are too garnering the help of resources outside themselves. If you don’t do these things to get through tribulation, that doesn’t not make you an atheist. I don’t see why we have to paint people of a certain order in one stripe. Interesting also that you had not picked up that MG is not a Christian or someone “religious” by common understanding. His blog is a glaring testimony that he’d be the last one to stand in line for crystals.

          There is no shortage of scientific evidence of our obvious social nature and how people seek their own tribe. To be human is to play in the orchestra of living things whether we like it or not. S/he who insists on being and making it alone or somehow finds him-, herself so, I truly pity. Christianity makes a compelling case as to why lone rangers are an anomaly in the social design but it happens to make sense evolutionarily as well: we are not meant to go at (and survive) this alone. This thing we call life that often meets us with the face of suffering. My point is simply that few, if any, of the things we draw upon to get through difficulties are things we can congratulate our singular resourcefulness for. Even at the most elemental level (to diverge a bit because it’s relevant), we are dependent if not on another, on nature. We couldn’t live without taking in air and if you don’t subscribe to the understanding that from dust we come and dust to return, it is remarkable that minerals – even more than vitamins – are what keep our body systems humming. Minerals from our water and plants, among other sources. Funny thing is, the type or aspect of prayer that our host was talking about – which you seemed to collapse into the traditional understanding of spiritual supplication – might just be the one kind of resource man can marshall from within himself. And there has been ample scientific research, esp from the labs of Ivy Leagues, that testify to the power of thought upon the body and our situation.

          HW

        • Charlotte Cyprus Says:

          Wow, you like using a lot of words to say basically nothing. If you haven’t tried being eaten alive by a lion, how do you know you won’t like it? The “if you haven’t tried X thing from Christianity how do you know you’re really an atheist” is an old, worn-out, useless argument. Also, this is about praying, not about being a hermit in complete solitude. If I need help I will ask for it, but I will ask a physical person or entity, not the air. That isn’t praying. It’s talking. You went to great lengths to lecture me about something completely irrelevant and off topic.

          “We go under unanesthetized. Just as Jesus refused the wine vinegar mixed with the gall that would dull his senses and alleviate the pain on the Cross. ”

          Also, this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Have fun being like Christ and waiting for God to heal you as you turn the doctors away whenever you or your loved ones get cancer.

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          You’d charged MG with getting worked up.

          He’s not the one I – and everyone else – can see got worked up on this thread.

          “whenever you or your loved ones get cancer.”

          My turn with the Wow. HOW do you live like that? Portending (logically, wishing) cancer on people? Impressive. And there are different kinds of doctors. Staying away from the ones you have in mind is exactly what I plan to do.

        • Charlotte Cyprus Says:

          I didn’t say I wish you got cancer. I’m saying that, if you or your loved ones ever get a terrible disease, good luck saying “god heal me” instead of letter doctors and science do their work, since prayer is ever-so-helpful. But thanks for vilifying atheists because you can’t read.

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          “instead of letter doctors and science do their work”. I wouldn’t be so quick to tell a writer she can’t read if I wrote like that. I won’t even dignify that last sentence with a response, as it’s clear I’m not the one vilifying anyone here. I simply took up my right – esp as a regular here – to share the experience of prayer from a perspective you weren’t personally and empirically familiar with. All you had to do was take it or leave it. And no one here thought you’d take it, believe me. But you didn’t have to spit on it.

        • Charlotte Cyprus Says:

          You interpreted “if you get cancer good luck with that” to “I hope you get cancer because I’m a terrible person”. Yes, that is vilifying me. I’m so terribly sorry I made a typo. Because that’s what we should focus on. I don’t understand why you think I’m just supposed to accept your opinion or leave it alone but you’re allowed to criticize my opinion? Have a nice life.

        • Holistic Wayfarer Says:

          I’m not the one who’s been criticizing anyone on this post. As to the interpretation on your initial…benediction on the cancer, there is more to communication than the text, isn’t there? I’m not sure why disagreement has to be an attack for you. None of the regular readers here comes expecting verbal snipers. Believe it or not, I have far more important demands in my life than this unreasonable dialogue. I am hopping off this thread out of respect for the blog author (not to mention myself) in the interest of the wholeness, wellness, and peace he’d intended his blog for – on this post of all things. My sense of self is sure enough that I hand you a pass for the last word if you feel you really must take it. Go and call me whatever you need to, rant and shake your fist. I will not be opening the comment because the purpose of my initial comment, which I’ve explained, has been served.

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Charlotte, I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you didn’t mean to wish a terrible disease on HW. However, you did say “whenever you or your loved ones get cancer”, rather than ‘if’. This careless use of language together with belittling statements like the following indicates both rudeness and insensitivity:

          “this is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.”
          “you like using a lot of words to say basically nothing”
          “Have fun being like Christ”
          “your shady links.”
          “Stop before you get too worked up”
          “you’re too wrapped up in your own beliefs.”

          HW used “a lot of words” because she not only wanted to show why you were wrong (“…doesn’t not make you an atheist”), but also wanted to share with you a valuable insight that you would have done well to have reflected on before reaching for ridicule. Most traditional religions practice communal worship unlike practical philosophies such as stoicism. The collective nature of worship has survived and flourished over time, perhaps revealing one of religion’s main strengths. You are missing the point when you say that you “will ask a physical person or entity, not the air.” As a fellow atheist, I am arguing that what is valuable about this activity is not the petitioning of a divinity but the feeling of community, of sharing, of facing life’s problems together.

          HW was gracious enough to give you the opportunity to have the last word and I will do the same. I am not holding my breath but I think you owe HW an apology for your language, however it was intended.

    • Michael R. Edelstein Says:

      Hi Charlotte,

      Atheists are well aware that we’re alone in the universe, so we are used to taking care of our problems ourselves, not expecting someone else to do it.

      I’m a fellow atheist, yet I disagree with your contention. Many atheists expect the State to protect them against discrimination. (This is not surprising, since most people depend on the State in similar ways.) In addition, atheists frequently expect the State to tax religious organizations, exhibiting more dependence on the State to assist them in their war on religion.

      Reply

  17. JunkChuck Says:

    I don’t attack religion, but I certainly don’t attack it, or it’s followers, and that often takes a great deal of effort. If you don’t believe in a particular superstition, it is remarkable how absurd all the “traditions” around it seem to be. As for “prayer,” I agree with Ms. Cyprus above: it’s a waste of time, except perhaps as a distracting or pep-building mantra, like athletes chanting before a game, or that little engine going “I think I can, I think I can….”

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you, I believe that most serious athletes would not be so dismissive of the mental focus and mantras required to succeed in competitive sports. If you read the accounts of world class athletes and indeed most people at the top of their field, whatever it might be, you will see the importance they attach to attitude, discipline, concentration, the feeling of ‘flow’, managing fear and nervousness etc. Is it really so absurd to believe that praying, whatever form it takes, can help bring about a personal transformation and if so, is it really fair to describe it as “a waste of time”?

      Reply

  18. Let's CUT the Crap! Says:

    This is a wonderful post. I do believe prayer is calming and good for body and soul. Just as meditation is relaxing, so is prayer a form of introspection and serenity.

    Reply

  19. Michele Seminara Says:

    Thanks so much for this, Malcolm. I hadn’t realised studies such as those you wrote of had been done on the effects of prayer. Really fascinating, although I suppose it makes a lot of sense!

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Thank you Michele. I know you practice Buddhist meditation so please correct me if I’m wrong, but when Buddhists repeat phrases such as “May all beings be well; May all beings be happy,” they’re not invoking any kind of outside agency but simply strengthening their own desire to see beings flourish and be free from suffering, a form of prayer in the personal transformative sense that I have described in the post.

      Reply

      • Michele Seminara Says:

        Exactly! It’s just creating that positive intention, which has a transformative effect on the person generating it. However, practitioners do sometimes pray to Buddhas, as omniscient beings with a power to help them, but on questioning a teacher about how this actually works, I was told it works via karma – that is, the positive mental quality of faith activates positive karmic seeds lying latent in the mental continuum of the practitioner, allowing positive results to occur. So what looks like divine intervention is actually just the result of a complex system of cause and effect. (This of course presupposes a belief in karma and perhaps also previous lives!) So once again, the Stoics and the Buddhists not too far apart in their beliefs!

        Reply

  20. Mike Says:

    I like this very much. Thank you for writing it.

    Reply

  21. Tahira Says:

    Not all Atheists operate in ignorance and aggressiveness. Just like not all Theists are religious extremists wackoos. I enjoyed reading your post, Malcolm as I normally do. But what I really enjoyed this time was reading the comments. Does it really matter whether one calls it prayer or meditation or mantras or whatever? If it gets you through the day, if it gets you through the hour, if it makes it easier to sleep through the night and wake up in the morning, I don’t really care what one calls it. And the fact that some believe their human knowledge is absolute makes me want to go pray and meditate right now….. 😀

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      “Does it really matter whether one calls it prayer or meditation or mantras or whatever?”

      Exactly right. The phenomenological experience is consistent whatever label we attach to it.

      Reply

  22. heatherbcosta Says:

    An excellent, thought-provoking post.

    Reply

  23. John Howard Says:

    Malcolm, I have not read the full thread of comments above. So I apologize if I repeat anything already mentioned. I notice that it is not the tenets of religion that you praise in your article but specifically the reality-based psychological aspects, and of course I agree with you. But praising religion for having this one reality-based trait is almost like praising a broken watch for showing the correct time twice a day. With so much history and experience behind religions they were bound to get some things right, such as meditation and centering oneself over what one can control, just as you described. Religion was the best “science” they had in those days. But you seem to go out of your way to praise religion in general, if only to highlight the benefit of one small element that happens to be consistent with reality. That strikes me as unnecessary. Do you mean to do that, and if so, why do you believe that religion in general deserves such approval?

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      John, thank you for this perceptive comment as it does give me a chance to make some positive comments about religion which many atheists will not want to hear. Both Karen Armstrong and Nicholas Nassim Taleb have described religion as less a set of scientific, objective claims about the universe and more a set of practices and rituals such as going to church, fasting, celebrating holidays, adhering to dietary restrictions and praying collectively.

      If religion has endured for so long, it is probable, according to Taleb in his book on antifragility, that these practices are likely to be beneficial in some way, even if we can’t see the point of them now. For example, Taleb points out that recent medical studies confirming the health and longevity effects of caloric restriction and fasting, are validating ancient religious fasting practices.

      In her recent book ‘Fields of Blood’, Karen Armstrong argues sagely that “We are meaning-seeking creatures, and, unlike other animals, fall very easily into despair if we fail to make sense of our lives.” Where have attempts to eradicate religion got us? A war on religion was an integral part of some of the 20th century’s worst regimes, which succeeded in replacing religion by rationalism and communism. However, the harm caused by the Spanish Inquisition pales in comparison to the secular frenzies of the French Revolutionary Terror, Russian communism, Maoism and Nazism. In other words, it is not that religion is good but rather that the absence of religion leads to absurd and crazy beliefs.

      I will stop here in the interests of brevity but would be happy to continue the discussion if you wanted to argue, as many atheists do, that religious faith should be replaced by scientific faith.

      Reply

      • John Howard Says:

        Thanks, Malcolm. Your reply is again informative and well said. But now I have 2 more points, purely for the sake of conversation, not to argue:

        (1) Perhaps religious beliefs are likely to be beneficial in some way. But shouldn’t we assume that beliefs based on observable reality are likely to be even more beneficial? Religion was the best science anyone had for a very long time. Surely we can improve on those conclusions. Moreover, if we observe that most of religion consists of absurd and crazy beliefs, then your conclusion could be restated as: “It is not that absurd and crazy beliefs are good, but rather that the absence of absurd and crazy beliefs lead to other absurd and crazy beliefs.” (referring to secular frenzies and so on) But can’t we strive instead to replace an older set of absurd and crazy beliefs with an improved set of fewer absurd and crazy beliefs that are based more closely on observable reality? I am not so quick to accept the old when I know we can work to spread something new and more logically consistent.

        (2) You ended your post with the term “scientific faith” and you asked if I believe it should replace “religious faith”. I would like to point out an important distinction within the term “scientific faith”, between having faith in the scientific community and having faith in the scientific method. The scientific community, necessarily populated by flawed human beings, as we all are, will tend to be self-serving and political, no different from a religious community or any other human community. The scientific method, on the other hand, is a man-made invention for helping us to learn about reality, which arguably achieves its goal better than revelation or any other means devised by mankind. I would not want to replace a religious faith with a faith in the opinions of the scientific community of flawed human beings. But I would prefer to replace a religious perception of reality with a reliance on the scientific method for understanding reality. (I am not implying that you disagree with that.)

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          John, these are good points, however I’m not willing to concede that religious beliefs are “absurd and crazy”. Religious traditions provide an aggregation of filtered collective knowledge which has withstood the test of time, while scientific theories come and go. In the Progressive Era eugenics was the latest scientific theory “based more closely on observable reality” and look where that got us. In many ways modern conceptions of human rights were more inhuman than medieval religion. John Locke, one of the founders of liberalism found it intolerable that the “wild woods and uncultivated waste of America be left to nature, without any tillage and husbandry” and so he argued that native Americans had no legal jurisdiction or right of ownership of their land. Renaissance humanists were actually less sympathetic to the plight of indigenous peoples, such as the Mesoamericans who had been violently subjugated, than churchmen such as the Dominicans, who condemned the predatory behavior of the conquistadors. Consequently, I suggest that one of the purposes of religion is to protect us from scientism, the view that empirical science constitutes the most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of all other viewpoints.

          While the scientific method is a useful tool for learning about reality it cannot help us answer the question of how human beings should live because there is no one standard with which we can compare different forms of life. Consider the drama of Sophocles and of Shakespeare. In what sense are the plays of Shakespeare better or worse than those of Sophocles? Just as it seems absurd to try to rank them on any single scale of excellence it is equally absurd to try and rank the ways of life enshrined in the Bushido Warrior Code and the Sermon on the Mount.

  24. Michael R. Edelstein Says:

    Individuals and groups have acted destructively and cruelly from the beginning of history. They’ve used religion, scientism, atheism, statism, and other doctrines to justify their actions. The point I wish to emphasize involves my claim (and I believe John Howard’s) is that the practice of the scientific method–not scientism–is based on empirics and improves our understanding of the real world, whereas religion is based on faith and myth.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Michael, thank you, but, as I stated in my reply to John, I’m not willing to concede that religion tradition is based mainly on “faith and myth” rather than on “an aggregation of filtered collective knowledge which has withstood the test of time.” I agree that the scientific method improves our understanding of the real world but it’s not the only way we learn as I discussed in my post ‘Against Theory’. I repeat that I also believe religious traditions can help protect us from the hubris of scientists.

      Reply

      • John Howard Says:

        Malcolm, this is turning out to be an unexpectedly interesting discussion. I enjoy your perspective because I never heard it before, and I respect your view. Nevertheless, in your last sentence above — “I believe religious traditions can help protect us from the hubris of scientists” — you are comparing the long term outcome of religious practice (“religious tradition”) to the corruptibility of members of the scientific community (“hubris of scientists”), which is probably a misleading comparison. A more appropriate comparison would be between the hubris of religious leaders and the hubris of scientists (comparing human weakness), and likewise, between the outcome of religious practices and the outcome of the scientific method (comparing outcomes). You are claiming that religious practices of revelation-based trial and error have been refined to perfection over centuries whereas modern scientific outcomes vary widely in quality over a much shorter time period. I concede it is possible for a revelation-based process over sufficient centuries to produce better outcomes than a scientific process over a very short time period. But that is like racing a tortoise against a Ferrari and giving the tortoise 100 years but the Ferrari only 3 seconds. Do we agree that the scientific process is vastly more accurate than the revelation-based process if we keep the time period the same for both? If so, this has implications for the best method we should use going forward from today.

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          John, thank you. As my argument about religion relies on a winnowing process in which the less valuable traditions are dropped and the more valuable traditions are retained, it makes sense that the scientific method is more accurate over a shorter time frame. However, this may not be saying much for a number of reasons. Firstly, scientific ‘mistakes’ have the potential to be devastating, which cannot be said of errors in religious tradition. Secondly, religious traditions primarily (but not exclusively) address moral issues, while science still adheres quite strictly to the fact value dichotomy. As a result, overreliance on science without input from religious traditions is likely to lead to scientism, an unsatisfactory outcome. Lastly, scientific progress cannot be interrupted in quite the same way that moral progress can. For example, scientists are unlikely to forget how the internal combustion engine works but moral progress can be completely reversed, as illustrated by the relatively recent defense of torture by a U.S. President. It follows that if scientific progress continues to outpace moral progress, there is an increasing chance that we will destroy ourselves.

  25. Fred C. Moulton Says:

    In my experience there are terms such as prayer, faith or sin which have differnt usages sometimes leading to confused communication. That is why I often avoid using such terms. For example does prayer mean worship or supplication to a supernatural being? Or does prayer mean a reflective contemplation of the natural non-supernatural universe? Note that the two usages are not compatible since one includes a supernatural being and the other explicity does not. Of course there are other variants; my point is that when I see someone using a term like prayer or like faith I want to know the usage and if that usage is consistent.

    Consider the word faith; one usage of the term faith is an absolute acceptance of a doctrine which can not be questioned and another usage is that faith is a synonym for confidence in a position while certainly open to change.

    When I hear or read something with the terms prayer or faith I sometimes to the mental exercise of reading the passage removing the term and substituting first one usage and then the other. This is particularly useful to see if the usage is if the passage is internally coherent with both usages or just one usage or with neither usage.

    As for the question of religious tradition and scientific tradition it is important to remember that both are part of the broader human tradition. Based on our current knowledge of the universe we conclude that religion and science are both things which humans created. And just because humans created something does not necessarily mean that it is good; for example humans invented slavery. And various human activities have manifested themselves in different human institutions at various points in history. Aid for the poor has at some points in history been done by religious organizations and at some points by political organizations and at some ponts by organization which are neither religious nor political. And just because a religious group does provide aid to the poor does not mean that the rest of their activities are valuable. Similarly with a political organization.

    As an analogy consider the person about to die from thirst and someone appears with water in a lead cup. If that is the only source of water the person will drink it even if they know that lead is not generally a good material for containing substances meant for the human body. And after they are rehydrated then they can look for more appropriate materials with which to produce water cups. The important point is that looking for a better material than lead does not mean that a person is rejecting water just because at one point they were given it in a lead cup. And drinking water does not mean that one is endorsing lead cups. Although the purveyours of lead cups might be tempted to make arguments about the benefits of the lead cup tradition.

    There are other obvious extensions to this point. My main point is that rejecting a particular institution does not mean rejecting every activity in which the instituion ever engaged. And as a final mental exercise try to think of any beneficial activity that logically could only come from a political organization. Now try to think of any beneficial activity that logically could only come from a political organization. As far as I can tell any benefical activity can logically come from a non-religious, non-political organization. And note that I used the phrase “logically come from” to deal with the situation where the situation is distorted for example when a political organization prohibits groups such as Food Not Bombs from feeding the hungry.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      Fred, I apologize for taking a few days to reply to your comment but this was one of the longest comments I’ve ever received 🙂 Please see my answers embedded in your comment below:

      In my experience there are terms such as prayer, faith or sin which have different usages sometimes leading to confused communication. That is why I often avoid using such terms. For example does prayer mean worship or supplication to a supernatural being? Or does prayer mean a reflective contemplation of the natural non-supernatural universe? Note that the two usages are not compatible since one includes a supernatural being and the other explicity does not.

      Fred, they are certainly compatible. In addition to the two usages you mention someone might combine in one prayer both worship of a supernatural being and the contemplation of their own non-supernatural behavior and brain processes.

      Of course there are other variants; my point is that when I see someone using a term like prayer or like faith I want to know the usage and if that usage is consistent.

      The point of the post was exactly to clarify the two usages you refer to.

      Consider the word faith; one usage of the term faith is an absolute acceptance of a doctrine which cannot be questioned and another usage is that faith is a synonym for confidence in a position while certainly open to change.

      When I hear or read something with the terms prayer or faith I sometimes do the mental exercise of reading the passage removing the term and substituting first one usage and then the other. This is particularly useful to see if the usage is if the passage is internally coherent with both usages or just one usage or with neither usage.

      Makes sense.

      As for the question of religious tradition and scientific tradition it is important to remember that both are part of the broader human tradition. Based on our current knowledge of the universe we conclude that religion and science are both things which humans created. And just because humans created something does not necessarily mean that it is good; for example humans invented slavery.

      Taleb’s point is not that we should value traditions just because they were created by humans, but that we should have a presumption in favor of traditions that have lasted a very long time on the basis that if they were not valuable traditions they would have been dropped long ago.

      And various human activities have manifested themselves in different human institutions at various points in history. Aid for the poor has at some points in history been done by religious organizations and at some points by political organizations and at some points by organization which are neither religious nor political. And just because a religious group does provide aid to the poor does not mean that the rest of their activities are valuable. Similarly with a political organization.

      Nothing to argue with here.

      As an analogy consider the person about to die from thirst and someone appears with water in a lead cup. If that is the only source of water the person will drink it even if they know that lead is not generally a good material for containing substances meant for the human body. And after they are rehydrated then they can look for more appropriate materials with which to produce water cups. The important point is that looking for a better material than lead does not mean that a person is rejecting water just because at one point they were given it in a lead cup. And drinking water does not mean that one is endorsing lead cups. Although the purveyors of lead cups might be tempted to make arguments about the benefits of the lead cup tradition.

      Presumably, drinking water from lead cups is just the kind of tradition that would have disappeared over the millennia as a result of the followers of the tradition falling ill and dying out.

      There are other obvious extensions to this point. My main point is that rejecting a particular institution does not mean rejecting every activity in which the institution ever engaged. And as a final mental exercise try to think of any beneficial activity that logically could only come from a political organization. Now try to think of any beneficial activity that logically could only come from a political organization. As far as I can tell any benefical activity can logically come from a non-religious, non-political organization. And note that I used the phrase “logically come from” to deal with the situation where the situation is distorted for example when a political organization prohibits groups such as Food Not Bombs from feeding the hungry.

      OK, but just because an activity could logically come from a political organization does not mean that it would be provided by that organization. There may be good reasons why religion and charitable activities are often closely connected.

      Reply

      • Fred C. Moulton Says:

        No need to apologize, we are all busy. I have not fully digested all of your reply but I did notice a couple of things.

        In my original I used the phrase “natural non-supernatural universe” yet when you wrote your reply you used the phrase “their own non-supernatural behavior and brain processes” which is different. My original reference was to a world view about the universe and you replied with a reference to a individual. I thought I had been clear in my original that I was really setting up an example with two incompatible usages. If you still think that the two usages are compatible then maybe I have a different understanding of the term compatible than you do.

        It also struck me that although it is not necessarily a position I hold myself I can easily imagine that someone in a country with low religiosity and a large welfare state may write your last two sentences as:
        OK, but just because an activity could logically come from a religious organization does not mean that it would be provided by that organization. There may be good reasons why political and charitable activities are often closely connected..

        Reply

        • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

          Fred, no, we both understand the meaning of compatible. I agree with you about the two different usages of the word ‘prayer’ but was just pointing out that when praying someone could be doing so in both of the ways you mention. As to rewriting the last two sentences to associate charity with political rather than religious organizations I think you are conflating charity with welfare. Charity is the voluntary giving of money to those in need. As you know this is not how political organizations work.

  26. Fred C. Moulton Says:

    If you think that we have the same understanding of the compatible then all I can say is that you totally missing the point I was making.

    And I am not conflating charity with welfare. Did you even read what I wrote? I borrowed your phrase and changed it to read “There may be good reasons why political and charitable activities are often closely connected”; this is obviously correct. You of all people should realize how government regulations are often connected with whether a person makes a charitable contribution or not; and if so often the timing, amount and recipient.

    Since my attempt to communicate with you in this thread appears to be a great failure on my part I will not waste any more of your time so this will be my last comment in this thread.

    Reply

  27. Holistic Wayfarer Says:

    Always a lot to learn here. In fact, with higher education as overrated as it is, my son can just read MC for his history, among other gems. =) I wasn’t aware that much of the prayers of Christianity draws from roots in stoicism. The tricky thing is how we define Christianity. As you note, there’s Eastern Orthodox for one – among the many sects and branches, each with its unique history and practices under the broader canopy. The Christian faith I hold to is the one Luther sought to rescue from the (Catholic) Church (which in common understanding even today stands for Christianity but which to people like me does not). And so my Bible includes the OT which I’d imagine predates stoicism. My holistic perspective and appreciation for the design of the whole person (body, mind, spirit) enable me to acknowledge the utility and power of prayer from the angle you present us (as potentially effective self-help). But prayer as it plays out in both the testaments of the Protestant Church is something altogether different in its own right. A sacred relationship with a living Father not too unlike (functional) relationships we have with our parents (in some ways). I don’t think Christians need to get nervous about or dismiss your point on the human/physiological effect of prayer because prayer is meant to be one of our greatest blessings. “This, then, is how you should pray…” said Jesus. “Our Father, Who art in heaven…” The commandments are surprisingly beneficent; we have everything to gain from them.

    Just hit me that I may have hijacked your thread with the other comment, or at least threatened to for the length. I apologize if I took up more room than I should have. And I must say I never thought I’d be defending an atheist. Not that you need any help.

    Reply

    • Malcolm Greenhill Says:

      No apologies necessary HW, you know you are always welcome here. I’m just so sorry you got a rough ride today while I was out of the office, but I shouldn’t have worried as it’s clear you know how to take care of yourself 🙂

      “my Bible includes the OT which I’d imagine predates stoicism.”

      Yes it does. Not by long but a few centuries at least. Thank you for being open to appreciating this interpretation of prayer while retaining your own.

      Reply

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