First of all, I'll make it very clear: I don't believe in the literal efficacy of prayer. I don't believe that there is some Being listening in on my prayers, and that, if I pray well, I am more likely to receive something from that Being.
I don't believe that for at least two reasons. First of all, it doesn't seem to comport very well with the reality which I see. Lots of people pray for things; many don't get them. There is, as near as I can tell, no correlation between a person's sincerity/piety/worthiness and their likelihood of having their prayer “answered.” And, at the risk of offending some, I'm very unmoved by some of the standard responses to this such as, “God works in mysterious ways” or “sometimes God answers, but the answer is, 'no.'” if there is a God who is capable of, say, curing an infant of cancer, but that God chooses not to, for some “larger” reason… well, as I've said before, I need a new career, because I'm not working for that God.
I also don't believe in that kind of prayer because it doesn't make logical sense to me. If there is a God who is capable of listening to prayer, then that God is already aware of everything that I want and need. What possible purpose could there be of conditioning the fulfillment of those needs on the proper execution of a ritual? In other words, why would God wait for me to pray for something, especially through a formal act of prayer, before deciding whether to grant it?
My responder asked a very important follow-up question—if I don't believe in the literal efficacy of prayer, then what purpose does prayer have? Well, I may not believe that our prayers are “answered” in the way that a parent can decide to grant, or to not grant, a child's request. But, clearly, prayer can be effective in other ways.
I hate to again fall back on "it's too much to go into here," but I have to, at least for now. The purpose of prayer, if you don't believe in simple, literal efficacy, is an incredibly complex topic. In fact, it's really the impetus behind our new monthly session on personal prayer called “Making Prayer Real.” Those workshops are based around the book of the same name, and it says a great deal of what I think/believe.
In fact, one of the reasons for this blog post is that I wanted an excuse to share a paragraph from it:
It's very surprising for people to learn that very few rabbis, Jewish philosophers, or theologians really have a conventional view of prayer, namely, that we ask for something and God gives it to us, or doesn't. It's really striking. The Kabbalists [ed: Jewish mystics] have all kinds of ways in which prayer can have an effect, but not the standard “you speak and God listens” model. Likewise in the philosophical tradition, and even in the rabbinic tradition. In the last two thousand years, reflective Jewish religious thought actually does not give a lot of space to what 99 percent of us would immediately assume is the point of prayer.
I'm realizing that for myself, and for anyone who actually reads this blog regularly, I really do have to start explaining what I do believe about God, prayer and all that. And, I'm thinking about how, exactly, to approach that. So, I promise that, in the near future, you'll hear plenty about what I do believe, along with what I don't.
But, while respecting the fact that there are a great number of sincere, devout, intelligent people who do take a much more “standard” view of prayer than I do, I want to make sure that anyone who's reading this, who either questions or rejects that kind of prayer/God, knows that they aren't alone. There are many of us who value religion, but not religion the way most people mean.
Thank God, there's room for all of us.