by James Wallace Harris, Friday, December 14, 2018
For almost a year, I’ve had an item “Define my health goals in a daily prayer” left undone on my ToDoist list. I believe my original intent was to write a statement I’d recite every morning in meditation. I pictured it helping me stick to the habits that would make me healthier.
The trouble is atheists don’t believe in prayers, although, I try not to be a typical atheist. I want to keep an open mind about recycling concepts from religion that might have some scientific validity. Plus, I admire a handful of religious words like prayer, soul, grace, redemption, spiritual, that I want to refashion for atheists.
Praying does provide several problems for atheists. First, prayers generally appeal to a superior being for help. We don’t believe in such beings. Second, praying assumes there’s a telepathic phone system networking all beings in the universe. Well, we don’t believe in telepathy either. Finally, people who pray often want miracles, and atheists reject them too.
So, I’ve got to assume atheist prayers are thoughts directed at my unconscious mind or verbal affirmations I want my subconscious to overhear. That assumes my unconscious mind has the ability to hear my prayers, understand English, and could influence my behavior, but probably just in tiny ways.
Most people who pray attempt to change reality. They are rejecting what is. When my friends tell me about their health problems, they want me to help initiate a cure. Basically, I’m wishing them to get well. Does that really do any good? There’s no reason to believe thoughts from one person can affect another. What I’m wondering if our own wishes can change our behavior?
Physically being with another person when they’re sick and talking has been shown to help people, and even believing people are praying for you might help, but there’s no evidence that thoughts travel beyond our physical self.
The thing about atheists is we want to believe in things that exist and work. The whole point of skepticism is to get away from delusional thinking. That means I must find a real reason for praying if I’m going to embrace the concept.
I need a working hypothesis to test. There’s growing scientific evidence that meditation does affect us. To what degree is not known. What if praying is like meditation, in that it has a subtle effect on our health and psychology? What if it’s like the power of positive thinking? Of course, the power of prayer will be limited. No miracles. People with cancer pray like crazy, but does it affect cancer cells? What works with cancer is modern medicine.
There are prayers of acceptance, where we wish we can cope with what’s given to us. I’ve always considered the Serenity Prayer to be one of the wisest of all prayers:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
If we removed the word “God” from this prayer, it would be suitable for atheists. But what could we substitute for the word “God” in this prayer? Aren’t we just talking to ourselves? But which part? Isn’t the conscious mind hoping for cooperation from the rest of our being for disciplined? Aren’t we really trying to reinforce a mental habit so we can change our lives?
I could say, “Jim, grant me the serenity …” because I am talking to myself. But, I think Jim is just a label for my conscious self. I’m really addressing my whole self. I’m seeking to integrate my conscious mind with my unconscious mind to discipline my biological urges. But what’s a good name for my whole self? For now, I shall open my prayer with, “To my whole self, grant me the serenity …”
When people pray the serenity prayer they must know they aren’t accepting the things they cannot change, and lack the courage to change the things they can, and don’t know the difference between the two. If they had those abilities, would they even be praying? So, what are they really praying for? The discipline to be different.
Most people can’t make decisions and stick with them. Look at New Year’s Resolutions. Aren’t we praying to our unconscious minds to stick with the decisions the conscious mind is making? Aren’t we begging our body to adapt to what we’ve learned at a conscious level? Aren’t we praying to our reptilian and mammalian brains to follow the learning of the neocortex?
I need to edit and add a few lines to the serenity prayer. But I also need to think about other people too. To me, The Golden Rule is about the best guideline for that. I need to work in, “Do unto others what you would have them do to you.” But I want to update it some to include all life and the environment.
Here’s my working prayer for now. I suppose it will evolve over time, but I think it’s enough to finally close out my ToDoist item.
To my whole self,
grant me the ability to accept what I can’t change,
the discipline to change what I can,
the wisdom to know the difference,
the scientific knowledge to know what’s real,
the skepticism to know what’s not,
the empathy to respect all life,
and the generosity to help others.