One of the single greatest causes of Atheism is unanswered prayer. I have interviewed many Atheists over the decades and nearly all of them can tell me of a time in their life when they were more Agnostic than Atheistic. During this “not-knowing” stage they decided to try God and see if prayer actually works. Perhaps the prayer is for a sick loved one. Perhaps it’s a prayer for one’s own suffering to subside. Sometimes it’s a prayer for success or prosperity or an object, possession, or specific circumstance. When such prayers go unanswered, the transition from Agnostic to Atheist takes place. This reduces God to pragmatism. Nonetheless, as one reflects on the act of prayer, they begin to diminish themselves for believing in such superstition, as if such things were real. Prayer, God and religion are relegated to the spheres of personal preference or myth and fable, never to be trusted again.
A consideration that is often missed in this conversation is that only a portion of Agnostics become Atheists over the issue of prayer. This is because so many prayers are actually answered, and in such cases, the Agnostic becomes a believer. This too reduces God to pragmatism which gets us no further. While both anecdotes are used to justify ones faith assumption (Atheism is a system of faith), both seem to be functioning on the lowest end of the spectrum of pragmatic understanding, and both seem to miss the fundamental problem in their shared presupposition: namely, that God operates like a vending machine.
Deeper, more problematic questions emerge on the backs of these kinds of prayer tests. As religion and faith systems have have endeavored to provide answers to such questions, the result hasn’t been spiritual maturity so much as it has been religious performance as the basis to please God and get what you want. Religion creates a system where the obedient believe God owes them some measure of favor, and the Atheist creates a system that insists there can be nothing beyond this present life and its circumstances.
The Bible has a lot to say about prayer, some of which addresses why so many prayers go unanswered:
“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” James 4:3
“The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” James 5:16
“The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous.” Proverbs 15:29
For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer. But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” 1 Peter 3:12
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” Matthew 7:11
“And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” Hebrews 11:6
I think most of us can understand that if prayer is real and it is going to work, then some sort of relationship or at least some agreement must exist between ourselves and God. Prayer can’t actually be done as a precursor to faith, or as some sort of a test, but this is often the case. Think about it, if a person doesn’t really believe that God exists, then how is that prayer different than sending one’s Christmas list to the North Pole? Even in such an example, we could extract how the belief of the child changes what may otherwise be a fruitless effort.
I say all of this because this is the quagmire into which many of us go when considering this topic, and that isn’t the actual point of this post. We must mature beyond this. We must gain eyes to see what prayer really is, and sadly, far too many religious systems are not able to lead us beyond this low level experience.
Prayer is the ability to see beyond everything. Prayer is the soul, the truest version of our self, that has always existed within the perfect mind and wisdom of God before the foundations of the earth, realigning with, communing with, and relearning how to BE authentic (“You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48), or how to BE real (reality or ultimate reality), or how to BE in Truth.
Prayer is an exercise in humility and shedding of our false self, or our surface level self, our ego, our personas, the removal of our masks, our pretenses, our front, and it is the end of any game. Monks and priests who live cloistered or solitary lives have given themselves entirely to this life-long, self-emptying process. While easy to relegate to the sidelines as irrelevant, these people have opened portals through which we can get a glimpse of the depths non-contemplatives have skimmed over. Prayer isn’t about getting stuff from God, prayer is about divesting of self in hopes of getting God, if even for a moment. As Thomas Merton wrote:
“…beyond all this, he possesses his solitude, the riches of his emptiness, his interior poverty but of course, it is not a possession. It is simply an established fact. It is there. It is assured. In fact, it is inescapable. It is everything. It contains God, surrounds him in God, plunges him in God. So great are his riches that he is lost in God and lost to himself. he is never far enough away from God to see Him in perspective, or as an object. he is swallowed up in Him, and therefore so to speak, never sees Him at all.”
From here I can make my point for your edification and consideration. What we call prayer, as most of us experience it, is religious formula, ritual, and a culturally conditioned behavior of the religious false self or a test of the false self and as such is not prayer at all. In such a case, the bowing of our head, closing of our eyes, and petition making is ultimately for ourselves because if God is there, we only want what is in his hand, and not to seek the face of God and see ourselves reflected. We don’t like what the light of truth reflects to us. We become offended and so we dance, and dodge with our shadow puppetry as if God is impressed.
Behind the unanswered prayer is the illusion of who we think ourselves to be. We are an isolated, distant ego, whose prayer is a parade of words which protect us from hearing, sitting still, or truly being seen. A loving God could never answer a petition from such fiction, as not only the source but the very epitome of Truth itself, such a God cannot answer these pathetic, self-soothing, requests, because the love of God is that which invites us out of such a Hell. Merton also said that the false self is the only thing God can know nothing about and I think he’s right.
This doesn’t mean our efforts are hopeless. There is always one thing we can do which will put us on the right path. Silence. Sitting still. Say nothing. Speak nothing. Then watch all the noise and distractions of life outside and within our minds do all it can do to keep you from true being. In our silence, we are first met with the tremendous reality of just how lost and powerless we are because we can’t sit still for very long before the false self becomes as Henry Scudder says is “a court jester blowing feather in the presence of a king.” In our distracted failed attempts, when the sobriety of just how far we are sets in, we have our first experience with authenticity. The true frame of our humble powerlessness comes into view and we accept it. We sit with it. Instead of pretending, posturing, or strategizing, we recieve our weakness and ineptitude. Then something amazing takes place. In our weakness, He is made strong. As Paul discovered in his moment of humility, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
The hope of the world is for each of us to return as often as possible to that little taste of divine union and humiliation which makes us strong. Each aspect of the descent builds us up and begins to transform us and ultimately sets our agendas.
“Be still, and know that I am God. ” Pslams 46:10