By Alan M. Perlman, PhD.
There are dozens of reasons why people engage in prayer and religious ritual, but one of them cannot be that it does them or anyone else any good in the real world.
I don't doubt that prayer works, but not in the ways that the pray-ers think it does. Chanting, toning, meditation -- all of these put people in a relaxed state in which it becomes easier for them to find a solution to their problems. There may be physical benefits as well.
But again, no matter how much you beg God, no matter how assiduously you obey his multitudinous commands, it won't have any effect on the way things turn out. If you don't believe me, try one of these two experiments -- and I put this challenge to every religious believer in the world:
Pick an interval -- any interval of respectable length. A month, six months, a year. And during that interval, simply go cold turkey on all prayer and religious ritual. Just say no.
I am aware that implementing this suggestion could upset a great many people's lives, because prayer and ritual are a source of comfort, for the reasons described above. If you want, they give you something to do every minute of the day. For the orthodox of all faiths, the obsessiveness of religious ritual may be a form of repetition that gives comfort and protection against unpredictability, and, as such, is just as important a source of comfort as psychotherapy, art, lap swimming, or Zoloft.
That's why I propose two alternatives.
Alternative #1: For the prescribed interval, eliminate all prayer/ritual and devote all the time, energy, and resources that you normally invest in these activities...to improving yourself, your relationships, and your environment.
The possibilities are wide open. Take all the time you would have spent praying -- and improve your health and fitness, so that you're not a burden on society. Or improve your marriage or your relationship with your children, through quality time or counseling. Or volunteer for community service. Just don't pray, say a rosary, go to confession, lay tefillin, or any of that stuff.
Those of you who cannot bring yourself to do this...try the second alternative. For the prescribed period of time, ignore your community and environment, your physical and mental health, and your relationships. Take all the time, energy, and resources that you spend on these -- and invest them in prayer and worship.
I think that at the end of the agreed-upon period, we will wind up proving what you knew to be true since the first paragraph of this article: that prayer doesn't do any good in the real world -- and that the way to improve things in the world is to actually do the work that improves them.
We have so little time on this earth. Why do we want to waste it chanting before statues like medieval monks...or bowing before a scroll in a box like Semitic shepherds of the ninth century B.C.E. and talking in a strange language to somebody who isn’t there?
Just think what the world would be like if everyone went cold turkey on religious ritual and dedicated him/herself to improving the world. Don't you think we would have a better world? At least we would stop killing each other over the meaning of ancient texts.
In my fondest dreams, I see Sunnis and Shiites, Catholics and Protestants, putting their holy books in libraries and embracing each other like the brothers and sisters that they are.
This is the essence of a humanistic salvation: to realize that if we are to be saved, it is by ourselves and by each other.
Alan M. Perlman is a secular humanist speaker and author -- most recently, of An Atheist Reads the Torah: Secular Humanistic Perspectives on the Five Books of Moses. For information, go to www.trafford.com/06-0056.