Sunday, November 1, 2015
My Analog of Prayer
Let me preface this by saying it's not my intent to disparage agnostics and atheists. Agnostics and atheists are my people. I'm neither an apologist for the religious, nor a detractor of the areligious. I'm just musing on relative strengths and weaknesses, is all.
The greatest mistake agnostics and atheists make is to disparage notions such as prayer. To many folks, prayer is the most risible, easiest target in the world, and that strikes me as not merely mean-spirited, but myopic. In its purest form, prayer is an expression of gratitude. And boy, do we need that. We are animals who absolutely must have checks and balances for our innate sense of self-righteousness. We need periodically to see ourselves as we relate to our universe so that we understand that we are not the center of it. We need to see the gifts the universe bequeaths. We need to count our blessings.
To see what I mean, consider one common political disagreement. Conservatives tend to think that poor people choose to be poor: that anyone can claw their way up from the worst circumstances, so social cushions merely coddle and encourage laziness. Liberals tend to take the opposing view: that luck and circumstance play such a large part in success or failure that our public policy should reflect this.
And then atheists and agnostics--who are, oddly, much more likely to identify as liberal--turn around and do the exact thing they criticize conservatives for. They sneer and titter at the notion of prayer, not just dismissing the possibility that it has any value, but proudly proclaiming their own Randian superman self-sufficiency. "I'm not going to thank any forces outside myself," they say. "I got where I am through hard work, and I'll be damned if I'll give up any of the credit!" Doesn't that sound bafflingly familiar?
I'm not religious. Not only don't I believe in God in any conventional sense, I see no reason to suspect that the universe has any intent. Of course I think I'm right. We all think we're right. I'm utterly uninterested in conversations of rightness. I'm interested in conversations of efficacy. I need what they need. Whatever forces compel religious people to pray are also present in me, and whatever benefits they derive from prayer would likewise benefit me. So why in hell shouldn't I pray? Yeah, sure, I have no face in the clouds to pray to, and that's the whole damn problem. Prayer is orders of magnitude harder for me and for my people. We don't have a focal point for the prayer. But damn it, even if we don't pray in any conventional sense, we need an analog for prayer!
Don't buy it? All right. Do you buy this?
Sex is pleasurable because environmental factors during our evolution selected for a strong sex drive. Now that we are exceeding the carrying capacity of every biome on earth, that strong sex drive is obsolete: the behavioral equivalent of a vestigial organ. As rational, civilized beings, we should recognize that non-procreative sex is not only a silly remnant of primitive cultures, but actively harmful. Sex leads to abuse, violence and overpopulation. We should discourage sex. Sex is bad. Every scientist should be a militant asexual.
I'll bet you wouldn't get behind that. Yet I know folks who get behind this.
Religion comforts people because environmental factors during our evolution selected for social cohesion. Now that we have science, religion is obsolete: the cultural equivalent of a vestigial organ. As rational, civilized beings, we should recognize that religion is not only a silly remnant of primitive cultures, but actively harmful. Religion leads to abuse, violence and genocide. We should discourage religion. Religion is bad. Every scientist should be a militant atheist.
Now I agree with some of that, just like I agree with some of the paragraph about sex. But I ain't willing to throw out the baby with the bathwater in either case. I will make no apologies about continuing to enjoy sex, because I'm a member of a species which evolved to draw nourishment from sex. And I will make no apologies for seeking an analog for prayer, because I'm a member of a species which evolved to draw nourishment from questing after the numinous.
Again, I'm not an apologist for the religious. I'm a devout agnostic. I have no use for religion. I ain't never gonna do what they do. Don't mean I don't need what they need.
So here is my prayer for today.
Thank you, sun. Thank you, sky and clouds and lambent foliage. Thank you, universe, for the gift of my mere existence. Thank you for bones and muscles and blood and nerves, and for my capacity to appreciate them. Thank you for the circumstances that led me to develop a healthy relationship with my body, and then sneak past my own defenses so that I slowly came to believe I could run a marathon. Thank you for the opportunity to follow through on the necessary training. Thank you for this day, when that training led me to run fifteen glorious miles. I see no reason to think I deserve any of these blessings any more than billions of others who aren't afforded them, and I'm grateful.