Usually when I speak on this topic it is in the context of another of the perennial attempts to alter the constitution to permit mandated school prayer. Oddly enough, given the popularity of the idea, we seem to have come to an uneasy compromise, and no one seems to feel that it is practicable to change it. There are still breaches of the separation of church and state in the schools, such as the distribution of Bibles a couple of years ago, and the occasional zealous administrator who thinks that student volunteers may use the school-wide communication system to pray as long as it’s their own idea. Recently, too, there have been notices of religious events sent home with students in the same fashion as school notices, and I am not sure how or if that has been resolved.
Although the theme is on the back burner (I don’t think it is gone for good) you still occasionally hear someone, bemoaning the horrors of our present-day society, saying that it is against the law for children to pray in school. I suppose it is only to be expected that the rhetoric surrounding religion in the schools should be entirely irrelevant, since it is primarily appeals to the jerked knees that have political power, while calls to reason are completely ignored. I suppose I should learn to accept such things with tolerance. However, the statement that children are not allowed to pray in school never ceases to enrage me. Sometimes I get the feeling that those occasional stories of children being punished for personal praying are set-ups of the school prayer advocates. It would probably be even more unconstitutional to make a law outlawing individual prayer than requiring it. It would also be impossible to enforce. Anybody can pray any time or any place he or she wishes, and nobody can stop it. It is, after all, quite possible to pray without anyone else even being aware of what you are doing, and those private prayers uttered preceding algebra tests have probably always been more profound and sincere than any that were prayed in more formal settings. You can outlaw evangelism in a public place; you can outlaw public prayer; but you can’t ever, possibly, outlaw praying in school or anywhere else.
What does concern me about our compromise is the rise of the incidence of group praying by school teams. There is even, I understand, an organization of Christian Athletes that encourages this. It is student led and theoretically, at least, student initiated, which our compromise allows, but there is still the strong peer pressure to be involved, and I have heard — and though I try not to believe these kinds of horror stories, I find this entirely believable — of the loss of a game or an injury to a player being blamed on a member of the team who didn’t participate. That would sort of keep you from going out for sports if you happened to be Jewish or perhaps atheistic, would it not?
For years it never occurred to anyone that organized school prayer — Christian prayer — was not perfectly legal. I prayed in school every morning that I attended until the 10th grade, when I finally realized that I didn’t actually have to if I didn’t wish to. It took that long, and it was only the happenstance that I had a Catholic homeroom teacher that it ever occurred to me at all. In reciting the Lord’s prayer, she left off the last line, as Catholic’s do, and I realized that if she could leave out some of it, I could leave out the whole thing. So I did. I still stood, bowed my head and closed my eyes, but I didn’t recite. The fact that I had done something all those years that I had not wanted to do, could not be required to do, and still felt impelled to pretend to do, is one of the reasons I am so adamant in my opposition to school prayer.
People assign unlimited power to prayer. Advocates argue that when mandated school prayer was legal and practiced, society was stable, standards of behavior were almost universally accepted, crime was comparatively low, violence was comparatively isolated, families were intact, and the worst discipline problem in school was running in the halls. Since prayer has been outlawed, we have unwed mothers, a soaring murder rate and children packing guns to school. Therefore, outlawing mandated school prayer destroyed our society and reinstituting it will save it. Those who argue thus may have prayed in school, but they were clearly never taught to reason. Things happening at the same time and place do not even indicate, much less prove, cause and effect, and the movie, The Blackboard Jungle, came out years before the Supreme Court decision outlawing state mandated prayers in school.
All these issues are not at the forefront of our consciousness right now, societally speaking, but nevertheless interest in the concept (and issue) of prayer continues. When my colleague, Ron Patterson of the UCC church gently suggested in a letter to the school board that it would be far more inclusive to have a moment of silence before their meetings than a prayer led by a minister and sent a copy of his letter to the paper, he got enough flak both within and outside of his congregation that it kept him awake at night. He used up all the political capital he had with his congregation and more beside. A couple of weeks ago Eddie Filer wrote one of his regular hackles-raising letters to the editor denying the efficacy of petitionary prayer and got passionate refutations from the usual suspects. When the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Church of the Larger Fellowship wrote her column on her own attitude toward prayer it got more responses from people than she had ever seen before. Clearly, though nobody’s trying to change the constitution at the moment, the question of prayer remains lively, even among Unitarian Universalists who many of us assume (I suspect wrongly) don’t do much praying. That being the case, I would like to look seriously at the thing that they desire so much and pin their hopes on so deeply: prayer itself. What is this activity that is so important — that people want and need? What is it for? Does it really have consequences? How, if we decide it is a good thing, should it be done?
Someone asked me once whether I ever prayed, and I said that it depended on what she meant by prayer. I’m always finding survey questions about the amount of time spent praying, and never quite know how to answer them. They never have a choice for always, so if I answer it at all, I say never — but that’s probably not quite true. My inquisitor meant petitionary prayer, when we ask whatever powers that be to help us out in a time of dire need — or even just a little need. I said yes, I often do, but it is quite meaningless in the sense that we were using the word. When things are hanging in the balance and you really need them to go a certain way, I don’t think there’s a human being alive who doesn’t invoke some power, however amorphously understood, to come in on his or her side, even without the slightest belief that such will occur. We say, “Please make this happen,” or “Please let that happen,” without any real sense of God’s being involved in whether or not what we want to happen happens. It is, I think, simply a normal reaction to a sense of helplessness. Surely, we hope, there must be something in the universe that will give us the help we need! We do it even when we know, especially when we know, without the slightest doubt, that the outcome is simply a matter of chance or luck. It is not true prayer because it isn’t really an effort at communication with the transcendent, but merely a reaction to not being in control. It is closer kin, I think, to blaspheming than to praying.
I think we can probably agree that the purpose of prayer is a connection with the transcendent. It is our concept of the transcendent which will shape how or if we pray. Probably the worst difficulty thinking people have with the whole idea is our tendency to confuse the transcendent with the supernatural. I really think all of us have that tendency — even those who don’t believe in the supernatural. For non-believers, the automatic response, then, is to reject the idea of prayer altogether, since in denying the supernatural, they will often also deny any need to connect with what is transcendent; that is with what is meaningful beyond our material needs and drives.
Believing in the supernatural means to believe in some sentient power and will, other than what is in nature and in the self, that in some way affects the natural world. It is natural, then, to attempt to communicate with it, to ingratiate oneself with it, and to try to persuade it to turn its positive attention in one’s own direction. I suppose that it is also natural to expect such efforts to work, and therefore we have people suggesting that the mere activity of prayer, without reference to its sincerity or voluntary nature, will somehow magically solve all the problems of society. I presume they are praying about this themselves, and if so, the efficacy of their prayers is evident to us all.
Few thinking people, even those who believe in the supernaturalism of God, believe that God plays favorites, that the favored ones prosper, and the disliked are those who suffer. Few who pay attention to the evidence of their senses would even begin to argue that God will pay attention to their particular preferences in how their lives are worked out. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, and when we find ourselves asking, “Why me?” in response to suffering, nearly all of us know that the only reasonable response is, “Why not me?” If unmerited suffering is going to occur — and we see it every day — then there is no reason that one should escape it more than another. That some do is simply more evidence for the lack of favoritism shown by the universe. Some are simply luckier, others unluckier, and prayer has no efficacy to change that. The kind of prayer that attempts to manipulate God, or even simply to draw God’s attention to certain matters that we seem to feel may have been overlooked is worse than useless, if we feel that it will make any difference to God. Prayer can only be useful if it makes a difference to us.
I do believe in the value of prayer. I even believe in it enough to say that if everyone were sincerely and truly in an attitude of prayer at all times, it really would produce a heaven on earth. However, it is a very different form of prayer that I am talking about than one that attempts to change a supernatural being’s intentions or actions. It is not even necessarily in the form of words. Indeed words whose intent is only to communicate with or about the holy may be one of its least useful manifestations. That understanding may be why I feel somewhat at a loss when asked to recommend books of prayers or meditations. I can do it, mind you, I’m just never sure that that is what is really needed.