What is Prayer for?
Alice’s remark “curiouser & couriouser” came to mind as two recent snippets one on CNN news and one on BBC America caught my attention since one seemed to interpret the other. The first was a scene at a gas station, in the mid West I think.
Gathered round the gas pump was an earnest looking group of Christians; their Pastor was leading them in prayer for the price of oil to be brought down (by God?). The newsperson spoke to the Pastor who said that nothing else had worked and so only prayer was left. It struck me as somewhat odd that having got ourselves into this mess by our reckless over-use of energy resources we now, as a last resort, turn to God/god/gods.
It is pellucidly clear that we have created the situation: driving vehicles that get 15 m.p.g., when for the last several decades we could have been driving around using one gallon for 42 miles. (I cannot manage the mathematics, but that must amount to trillions of gallons); leaving on unnecessary lights & appliances that consume untold megawatts a year; in the case of the present administration, refusing to accept the increasingly unanimous scientific conclusions that action this day (as Winston C. used to say) is essential; and, by no means finally, by the reckless unilateral foreign policy of the last seven and a half years.
What an odd view of prayer this seems to be. This is a topic I touched on in an entry on this Blog about a year ago (July 28, 2007) where I gave a quotation from Neville Ward’s The Use of Praying, “If prayer is regarded simply, without qualification, as a request to God to do certain things he would not do if we did not ask him and will do simply because we ask him, we are wasting our time” (p.85). Ward goes on to point out the absurdity of treating prayer as an opportunity to ask God to do for us things that we could well do for ourselves.
God, god, gods
The second item was a report on a report on BBC News from the Pew Research Center on religious attitudes in the U.S.A. I have not yet managed to find a copy on line, but the main statistic that struck me was that around 92% of US citizens believe in “God”. In the light of the first report, one is bound to wonder what precisely this statistic means. What percentage of those polled believe in a God delineated in the Athanasian Creed, which, by the way, is neither Athanasian nor a Creed? I am not inventing the following quotation from that document, “So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts”.
A God who re-arranges the Molecules
How many of the 92% believe in a God of the Gas Pumps? How many are willing to believe that God from time to time imprints an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a pancake at a breakfast take-out or on the shimmering glass wall of a skyscraper? Perhaps a significant number believes in the classical concept of ‘fate’, originally a word from the gods (thesfaton), but later an inexorable, universal force determining all things.
Other sections of the report apparently showed significant tolerance for a whole spectrum of religious belief, though no issues of intra faith conflict (e.g. the meeting of angry Anglican bishops and people in Jerusalem this week) seemed to have been raised.
So one is left with the question, “Which God, god or gods” do the 92% believe in”? It may be that it is better to have almost everyone believing in some “other power” rather than in nothing at all, though it is a common fault of fierce religious adherents to insist that atheists do not believe in anything at all, an attitude that was very powerful in first century C.E. Rome.
On the other hand, if too many believe in a god who typically “meddles with the molecules” (in David Jenkins’ phrase) and who listens to prayers from favoured groups to do for them what they could well have done for themselves, this must surely reduce our overall contact with the real situation. And, at the moment, it appears that there is a distinct gap between reality and perception of it, both in those who govern and those who elect their governors.
Perhaps, after all, we should not be comforted by the 92% statistic.