I recently started reading atheist Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion. There are various points where he misrepresents the Christian position on some of the most fundamental beliefs about God. One of the things he seems to have false notions about is prayer. The following are two misconceptions Dawkins (who I have as representing plenty of other skeptics) seems to have about prayer that I have attempted to briefly respond to.
1. Prayer is just asking a Divine Magician for stuff.
Whenever Dawkins brings up the concept of prayer he tends to only focus on the petitionary aspect of it. For those unfamiliar with the distinction, “petitionary prayer” is the name given for prayers that focus on making a request of God: “God, please help me ace this exam”, “Heavenly Father, please help me find my car keys”, “Jesus, please let this blog post get a million views”.
Dawkins spends a few pages of his book analyzing a ridiculous experiment conducted by Russell Stannard in which the power of intercessory prayer was tested on 1,802 hospital patients (Dawkins, 86). The experiment set out to observe whether praying for a patient could actually bring about healing compared to a patient who was not prayed for. The results of the study concluded that there was no difference between those patients who were prayed for and those who were not. Dawkins uses this experiment to try to show that even if God does exist, He’s not worth attempting to pray to.
If prayer is just about asking God for stuff, which Dawkins seems to falsely presume, then I probably wouldn’t pray that often since I know from experience that God does not always grant my requests. When I was in fourth grade I asked God to make my crush say yes when I asked her out. It didn’t work. When I was in 10th grade and a friend of mine was dying I fervently prayed a rosary that he would hang on just a little longer. It didn’t work.
This way of thinking about God and prayer leads one to believe that God is just some Divine Magician who waves his magic wand and helps us only if we pray long enough, hard enough, and with just the right words. If our request isn’t granted then we must not have done it right or had enough people praying or, as Dawkins facetiously suggests, we weren’t precise enough in identifying exactly who we were praying for (we prayed for “John” and God got confused, not knowing which John we were referring to). While petitionary prayer is an important and legitimate dimension of prayer, it is not the sole purpose of prayer. Prayer is not just about asking a Divine Magician for stuff, it’s ultimately about having an encounter with the living God (referred to, in some contexts, as “contemplative prayer”). In the words of St. Teresa of Avila, “Prayer is the intimate sharing between two friends…to be alone with Him whom we know loves us.” Though I do spend some time engaged in petitionary prayer every day, knowing full well that He might not say “Yes” to every petition I bring to Him, asking God for things is not the reason why I pray. I pray to attempt to encounter the living God and let Him speak to my heart. Which leads me to the second misconception:
2. Prayer, like any other “religious experience”, is actually either a hallucination or is just caused by chemicals in our brains.
Dawkins also believes that anyone who claims to have had some sort of religious experience such as a vision in prayer can have their experience reduced to either a mistaken hallucination (I thought I had a vision of the Virgin Mary at my door but it was just the shadow from my jacket) or a mere scientific explanation involving the activity of brain chemicals. After spending several pages explaining how the brain often constructs models (or “deceives” us), he states, “When we are asleep it is called dreaming; when we are awake we call it imagination or, when it is exceptionally vivid, hallucination…If we are gullible, we don’t recognize hallucinations or lucid dreaming for what it is and we claim to have seen or heard God” (Dawkins, 116).
I think every religious person has felt at one time or another that prayer is simply talking to thin air. There may be times when we doubt that something we felt in prayer actually came from God: “Perhaps I made up that voice in my head. Maybe I’m just talking to myself.”
This reminds me of a time when I was in prayer and my mind wandered to a scene from The Lion King. At first I tried to fight off what seemed to be a distraction, but eventually I dug deeper into the scene and made it the center of my prayer. I replayed the scene in my mind’s eye where Simba looks into the water and sees his reflection. I heard the voice of Rafiki say “What do you see?” Then I placed myself in Simba’s shoes (paws) and I felt like Rafiki was saying to me “What do you see?” When I pondered on that question I discovered that in the depths of my heart I had a nagging desire to understand my true identity. The experience brought me peace as I reflected on the truth that I am a beloved son of the Father.
Now I highly doubt that God actually has a voice that sounds like Rafiki. I accept that all that was happening on the neurological level was I recalled an visual and auditory stimuli I’d taken in the day before. But in that moment in prayer as I dwelt on the memory, I related to God how the memory was stirring my heart.
We “relate” our interior stirrings all the time even if we aren’t aware of it. When was the last time you saw someone you loved and said “You cause my brain to have high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine and the chemical serotonin”? Unless you’re a real neuroscience nerd, I’m guessing you just stick with “I love you”. When we say we “love” someone we tend to combine the reality of the empirically observable neurological process along with a very real stirring in our hearts that we don’t think science can fully explain.
God can use any means He wants in order to communicate to us, but He seems to do it most often in the tugging at our hearts. This could come about when recalling a scene from The Lion King or in just admiring the beauty of His creation in nature. When we relate to God the stirrings in our hearts, with the help of the neurological processes He gave us, we are able to encounter Him in prayer.