UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

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04/09/2006 - 10:18 a.m.

MAYBE MOM IS RIGHT

The latest scientific study is in and what it points to is that Mom may be right: attracting Godís attention may be a very bad idea. I know my mother is a very smart woman and I agree with her on many things but religion has never been one of them. But I guess I underestimated her. Yes, I know there are other possible explanations for the results of the recent study on the efficacy of prayer. Still, Momís cannot be ruled out.

My mother has said on many occasions that she believes in God. The God she believes in has very good intentions but is a bit flawed. In fact, she would say that he (or she as I am not sure on gender here) is caring but incompetent. What follows from her view of God is that it is a very bad idea t attract Godís attention because neither you (nor God, I suppose) can be sure what the result of such attention would be. Once God focuses on you, you take your chances. Prayer, therefore, in her theology is a risky proposition.

My own view of prayer has been a little different but then my concept of God has been a little different. In a larger sense, I have not been one to believe in praying for specific things that are completely out of my own hands. God, for me, is connections, not events. Viewed that way, prayer has an impact only as it impacts on the connections. If praying for someone makes you more likely to help them, then prayer is answered to the extent that it strengthens you to answer it yourself. Praying for peace becomes meaningful only if it causes you to behave more peacefully or take actions to encourage peace. Praying for the sick matters only if saying you will do so gives comfort or announcing the prayer in the community spreads the word to those who will aid the ill or their families. I suppose anonymous prayer could have a place in this scheme but only if it makes some community far away and unknown more likely to produce doctors, take care of their own sick, or build hospitals.

I rarely pray for things outside of ritual prayer (which has its own place in strengthening connections to the past and to community.) Still, I have said to someone ill that I would pray for them. Sometimes, I do so to comfort them. It is a way of saying that I care. The truth is that I am more likely to pray for meóI pray that I remember them and do right by them during their illness. I look for the strength to turn my own good intentions into good actions.

So, to me, the failure of ritualistic prayers of groups for specific people when the pray-ers and the pray-ees do not know each other is not surprising. I would not expect the pay-off for the prayer to be seen in the health of the pray-ees. The study did not measure what side-effects that prayer may have had on the communities and people doing the praying and therefore did not measure the effects my theory would expect you to see.

But still, I cannot overlook that strange effect in which those for whom there was arranged prayer were more likely to have complications. For someone like me who believes in wrestling with faith, the unexamined faith has no appeal. For someone like me who finds the questions as important as the answers, a hard look is necessary. I have to face the possibilities straight on.

I might just be wrong and Mom might just be right.

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