Earlier today I was having a distinct flight of fancy, trying to imagine important things to tell people leaving Christianity for the first time. The subject concerns me because of the increasing departure of people from faith in my country. I’m happy that the departure is going on, but I’m wondering what effect this has on the demographics of the secular community as a whole.
That is, there’s going to be a more diverse group of people who aren’t religious. Some of them will be hardcore, going on less murderous versions of Crusades against religion in general. Others are shrugging at the notion, preferring instead to just be non-religious. There are people like me who can still empathize with being stuck in the faith and not having a helping hand out. I have this urge to treat apostasy as something to pay forward to other people. At least, it’s a feeling like there are many more people who would benefit from having real options to dealing with their religious doubts than what their Christian peers try to give them.
Okay, these doubts can be pretty broad, and certainly they could cover a bunch of different topics. I’ve covered many of them previously here, and I’m nowhere near to covering just my own prior doubts that I never wrestled with. But I keep getting people looking for consideration of these subjects here, so I feel compelled to try.
Right now, I want to consider the matter of prayer. Most skeptics don’t refer to prayer in a way that seems helpful to someone that doubts it. From a disbelieving point of view, it’s not sensible to ask nothing for anything. From a believing point of view, it’s hard to articulate it in a way that will get treated seriously.
But really, prayer is asking for help when you feel like you need it.
That’s not entirely unreasonable. The problem only happens when people start talking about specifics. Among Christians, this can occur when talking about the terms and conditions regarding prayer, which is why I’ve shied away from the subject at times. How does one cover every single term and condition while critiquing prayer itself?
The answer, I think, comes in the form of considering what someone thinks of prayer right now, and considering how that person would describe prayer to a child who is 4 or 5 years old. Are the two things the exact same? Probably not. How are they different? Why are they different?
It might be important to write those differences down. For me, I believed prayer was asking the Christian deity for assistance in matters within its control but outside mine. Of course, I couldn’t expect an answer which was inconsistent with this deity’s attributes (so no smiting or free money). I had to make sure that I was open to any answer, even if unexpected. I had to remember to really trust that the prayer would be answered. And, all else failing, I had to make sure that my expectations were grounded in Biblical standards.
This isn’t how I’d explain it to kids.
My former Christian self would have been content with just saying it was asking the Christian deity for help. No terms and conditions applied. The deity would answer, because that’s what this deity promised. It’s pretty simple.
Now notice the difference.
I’m not the first person to detect a theme here. It’s actually quite common among deconverts, especially people leaving the more extreme evangelical strains of the faith. The theme is that all of the complex, little rules in my personal beliefs regarding prayer were excuses for why I wouldn’t get an answer.
What this means is that I was subconsciously making excuses for why my expectations didn’t match my reality. Those excuses get reinforced by other people in the faith. You’re supposed to make excuses. Nobody stops and says, “But this isn’t how we’re selling it to the people who rely on us the most.” Well, not out loud.
Part of this is for a good reason. Prayer is a critical reason to believe. It gives the person the ability to ask an omnipotent being for help, often when no one else can do so. At the time, it gave me the illusion like I could get help for myself no matter what.
But that illusion didn’t do me any favors.
In reality, I was hanging onto the wrong belief while my problem was getting worse.
Think of it this way. Consider a person who prays to stop smoking. Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, that person’s smoking habit continues. While that person relies on an unseen force to help curb a real chemical and psychological addiction, that person is also getting lung cancer, emphysema, and all sorts of other issues. Instead of looking up ways to quit smoking, that person is holding onto pure trust that eventually all will be well.
Prayer didn’t cause lung cancer in this situation, but it certainly didn’t help. People of faith might excuse this for a bunch of different reasons cited above and elsewhere. Maybe lung cancer was this deity’s plan. Or maybe dying horribly was supposed to be an example to other people to keep faith.
Or maybe, just maybe, it’s a sad situation where someone was lied to and misplaced their trust in a thing that doesn’t exist.