An opinion piece published in The Lily, a publication for women put out by the Washington Post, has attempted to defend prayer in light of all the attacks on “thoughts and prayers” on social media in recent memory.
The article, written by Joy Gabriel and published on Wednesday, is a pretty weak defense of prayer. Gabriel’s overall point in the article is that “prayer makes my family take action on things, so prayer is great.” If you really read into it though, the benefits that Gabriel and her family have enjoyed because of prayer are completely attainable without engaging in magical thinking or the petitioning of invisible Iron Age gods like Yahweh.
So what are Gabriel’s points? Well, after an upbringing in a conservative Mormon household that had her praying multiple times per day, she became disenchanted and left the faith. Then she found a liberal congregation in New York City full of such diverse members as atheists, Jews, Hindus, and Christians. They were all praying together!
This experience inspired Gabriel to start praying together with her husband and children. They all pray in a group so they can hear each others’ prayers and do what they can to help make things happen.
And there’s the rub. Gabriel’s examples are things like her son giving his sister his favorite toy and a drawing so she could take them to school and feel less alone. Gabriel herself then went and got herself elected to the PTA. All this was because they overheard the prayers of Gabriel’s daughter.
But that is not really prayer doing the work. That is a family that just decided to openly and honestly communicate with one another about their concerns, fears and problems, and they are all doing what they can to help each other. They just happen to be communicating through the form of group prayers. The praying is unnecessary though. Family counseling sessions or conversations during family dinners could both achieve the same thing. You could have everyone in the family keep a diary and then read aloud from it after dinner each night. The prayer part is irrelevant.
What Gabriel tries to acknowledge briefly, but ultimately fails to truly address, is the fact that prayer for its own sake really is a form of magical, wishful thinking. And while she points out its failings when invoked by politicians, she fails to acknowledge its failings for everyone, everywhere.
Gabriel and her family could start doing some mindfulness meditation, and do a nightly round-up at dinner, and they would see the same benefits. This reminds me of what Sam Harris discussed in Waking Up when he spoke about divorcing certain human needs from the religious mumbo-jumbo that it has been entangled with, like prayer.
What do you think: is Gabriel's defense of prayer valid? Or do you think, like me, that she and her family are wasting their time with prayer?