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Is Prayer Selfish?

Asking God to stack the odds in our favor is asking him to stack them against someone else.

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So why (oh, dear God, why) must we be subjected to another season of Tebow-type posturing, and legal battles over  invocations, and  imprecatory spectacles in which Great Men of Faith  publically exhort God to rain down sterility, death and suffering –in that order-- on the families of Barack Obama and  Mikey Weinstein?

Why, in other words, is the human prayer habit so intractable? After millennia in which the natural order has rolled along meting out windfalls and hurricanes, life and death in precise keeping with the laws of biology and barometric pressure, why do people still pray?

The answer for starters is that there is more than one kind of prayer. Not all prayer is an attempt to manipulate whatever Power-that-be on behalf of some baldish bipedal primate or group thereof. Some prayers have another substance and purpose. I’ll come back to that.

But the prayers that  are about us getting what we want, the kind of prayers I’ve been talking about, are simply irresistible. The favor-asking kind of prayer, also known as “intercessory prayer” is unlikely to go away anytime soon because it expresses some very fundamental aspects of the human psyche.

Hierarchy: We humans are hierarchical social animals. Anyone who’s been subjected to junior high knows that attaching yourself to popular and powerful people has its rewards. Our responses to people up the ladder are to some extent biologically scripted: we are acutely aware of what they want from us and we feel a strong pull to do it. Christians, even those who claim to have highly abstract God concepts, usually relate to God  as if he were an alpha male with a human mind and preferences (only bigger and better). Like other  underlings, believers draw nigh unto the powerful one, ingratiate themselves, and, in return, expect an increase in their own standing by proximity. They also expect something more concrete. Favors.

Reciprocity: Do you ever get unsolicited stickers or cheap cards in the mail from, say, the Environmental Defense Fund? My parents got free investment advice from Focus on the Family, and years or maybe even decades passed before my mother managed to get them out of her will. One of the core social instincts that keeps human society functioning is the impulse to reciprocate: If you smile at me, it’s hard not to smile back. If you are mean; watch out. If I give you the things you want, anything from investment advice to a burnt bull, I instinctively expect you’ll give back -- not exactly in kind, but in proportion as you are able.

EgocentrismEach of us lives in a universe with one being at the center, a me. Everything spirals out from there. Other beings are more valuable if they are of my species, my gender, my color, my nationality and my religion. They are especially valuable if they are close enough to have become, in some small way, a part of me, as in my brother or son or wife. Dick Cheney  broke with other Republicans on gay rights after his daughter came out. Nancy Brinkman, founder of Komen, committed to fight breast cancer when the disease struck her sister. What we care about radiates out from each of us like ripples from a pebble in a pond, getting weaker as it gets bigger, until it fades away altogether.  26,000 children will die today of starvation, says the bumper sticker.  Why should God answer your prayers? The answer is quite simple: Because the world is about me, and those 26,000 children are so far away and so numerous that I can’t wrap my brain around...who were we just talking about?

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