Perception Theory (Perception Is Everything, [Jan., 2016]), after being applied to, among other things (Perception Theory (Perception is Everything) — Three Applications, [Feb., 2016]), the existence of God (Perception Theory: Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016]), was taken to the subjects of belief (I Believe!, [Oct., 2016]), hope, and faith (Hope and Faith, [Jan., 2017]). Could prayer be far behind? Of course not.
Rev. Paul M. Burns, son of my good friends Dr. Jim Burns (Ph.D in physics and retired Presbyterian minister) and Judy Burns (award-winning retired public school teacher), has written the book prayer encounters (ISBN 978-1-4497-5194-4, WestBow Press, 2012), whose subtitle is “Changing the World One Prayer at a Time.” The importance of prayer in the life of so many believers seems obvious; a prayer life is vital to an individual’s faith. Prayer not only is found in some form in most major religions and in our common exchanges of concern (“I’ll pray for you,” “Pray that will not happen,” “We need to pray together as God’s people,” “I pray, God, You will lead me to understand,” “I pray You will lead me to someone who..”, etc.), it is, as the book’s subtitle suggests, a teleological tool in nature — one means to change the world. I have prayed with a congregation, lead small groups in prayer, said grace at the dinner table, and had a secret place near where my grandparents lived where I regularly prayed in private. I have encouraged others to pray for my son Dan when he was hospitalized for a closed head injury years ago responsible for, I think, PTSD effects in his brain today (We All Can Have PTSD, [Jan., 2017]). Prayer is something with which I am not unfamiliar.
Paul’s book is a series of individual cases in his ministry where prayer was applied toward making someone’s life better, as would be expected. The days when we pray for our enemies and adversaries to be “smitten” I trust are few, far between, or non-existent. Each case in the book is engaging, heart-breaking, heart-warming, and inspiring; the book is a good read. What struck me was that in each case the prayer was not always answered, but in all cases the answer or non-answer is seen, in hindsight, as understandable by faith. Those emotionally involved in the case praise God if the prayer is answered and explain no answer to the prayer by referring to God’s will. The spectrum of prayer results in the book triggered my own recollection of personal prayer results — results of praying to which I referred in the previous paragraph. Ambiguous and sometimes inconsistent outcomes of prayer had triggered my curiosity for years, but I never focused on the question of prayer ontologically until now. So I ask, what is prayer? What are we doing in our heads when we pray? It seems to me Perception Theory can be of help.
I will try to avoid two extremes concerning prayer. On one hand, prayer is skeptically and/or atheistically dismissed as nonsense, and on the other hand, prayer is communication with God, with gods, or with saints as if you are talking to a deity or a holy one across the breakfast table. Neither extreme makes sense to me.
From the introduction of Perception Theory to its application to faith (Perception Is Everything, [Jan., 2016]), Perception Theory (Perception is Everything) — Three Applications, [Feb., 2016], Perception Theory: Adventures in Ontology — Rock, Dog, Freedom, & God, [March, 2016], I Believe!, [Oct., 2016], and (Hope and Faith, [Jan., 2017]), prayer can be inferred as a non-veridical activity relegated or looped inside the mind. It might have reference to parts of the real, veridical world outside our heads, but like all ideas and concepts, these references are not the actual real world, but, rather, are processed perceptions of empirical data from that world created by the blending of the data and the non-veridical proactive mental processes of the mind confined to the brain. In the end, prayer is part of the epiphenominal menagerie of creations of our evolved, “big” brain. Since the existence of God in Perception Theory strongly suggests God is like an “imaginary friend,” then prayer might be as simple as talking to the imaginary friend we carry around in our head as the concept of God. We confide in real friends out in the veridical world around us as well as idly chit-chat with them; so it is with children who create imaginary friends in their heads. Communicating with real friends can not only be fun and helpful, it can be downright therapeutic. Prayer, communicating with our concept of God (or of gods or of saints) in our heads, can also be fun and helpful, but since prayer is seen as “serious” business, then prayer is usually therapeutic. Hence, along with our capacity to make up gods and god stories, to be religious, came the capacity to make those gods our imaginary, surrogate friends to whom we take our thoughts, mental conflicts, and struggles with the veridical world outside our heads for a “help session.” We take our burdens, our wishes, our hopes, and our need for answers to the “feet of the Lord,” to the “listener” inside our head, our imaginary friend. Prayer, therefore, functions as a self-induced psycho-therapy with a modus operandi of confiding in our imaginary God in our head. As the old Christian hymn to prayer says, “What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and grief to bear; What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.”
Prayer has survived as a coping tool in our heads, a part of the evolved epiphenominal “baggage” around the concepts of friends, gods, and god stories. Its survival value is proportional to the importance for the species of individual self-introspection and self-analysis (self-induced psycho-therapy) within our heads.
In Julian Jaynes book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (ISBN 0-395-20729-0, Houghton Mifflin, 1976) a fascinating hypothesis was put forth: Before about 500 BCE, we had evolved a brain with two copies, the left and the right hemispheres, which could communicate (or “talk”) with each other; we had a spare brain, in other words, in case something went wrong (brain damage) with one of them. This “talk” between hemispheres was like the gods within us — the origin of gods, god stories, theology, and religion; the gods talked to us all the time. Around 500 BCE human culture had become so complicated and demanding, division of labor had to be relegated out to the different hemispheres of the brain, ceasing the talk of the brain to itself; the gods stopped talking to us in our heads, explaining why so many great religions in which we had to find the gods’ voices outside us (or try and re-find them inside us) arose around this time — Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Taoism, great Prophets of Israel, and Confucianism. I am not saying I subscribe to this hypothesis, but its similarity with the idea of “talking with God” when we pray seems to me very compelling. Prayer is, like the gods very ancient — an epiphenominal, non-veridical means by which we furnish ourselves with “bootstrap” sessions of psycho-therapy, or an evolved tool to keep ourselves sane, perhaps because, as Jaynes suggests, the gods stopped talking to us long ago.
Like religious belief, hope, and faith, prayer is confined within the individual’s “subjective trap” (Perception Is Everything, [Jan., 2016]). Praying together assumes others’ minds are like our own, something we can never know with any degree of certainty. Making that assumption, our group prayer sessions (at least two persons) are like mutually agreed-upon group psycho-therapy. It is understandable how a group prayer can be answered differently in the minds of the group, given the differences of expectations among the individuals’ heads within the group. If a group explodes in agreement that the prayer is answered, such as when my son came out of his week’s coma that followed his closed head injury, it can be assumed the expectations, hopes, and supplications across the minds in the group during the prayer were very similar, though, of course, that can never be objectively demonstrated (at least not yet). In this sense, prayer for something explicit to occur is like making a bet, like predicting the future, whether as an individual or as a prayer group.
Let’s say a drought-stricken individual or group prays to God (or to a saint) for rain. In the “old days” sacrifices of the fruits of the harvest, of animals, or of humans would be offered to induce the deity or deities to answer the prayer for rain. Today, we’ve pretty much gotten past those requirements, to the “relief” of our fellow plants and animals, I’m sure. The psycho-analysis model of prayer predicted by Perception Theory would say the prayer for rain serves as a self-induced assurance not to worry so much about the drought, as religious belief and hope transforms into faith the prayer will be answered. That assurance is not nothing to the supplicant, though any effect of the prayer out in the real veridical world cannot be demonstrated; the assurance is the value and justification of prayer; without it we would worry ourselves silly asking questions for which we cannot possibly find an answer. Whether it rains or not is really incidental, and simply a matter of chance involving local meteorological conditions, conditions presumed to “play out” whether rain is prayed for or not. The epistemological/ontological mistake of the supplicant or supplicants is to attribute rain or no rain, attribute the outcome of prayer, to the god or gods inside the brain(s) of the supplicant(s). The non-veridical concepts of the human mind had nothing to do with what transpired in the veridical world, except to be the non-veridical processed perceptions produced partly by empirical data bombarding the body’s senses for each individual. It was going to rain or not rain, prayed for or not. Yet, the religious believer says rain was the answer to prayer, or says no rain is the “will of God” beyond human understanding (or due to some flaw in the prayer and/or in the “hearts” of the supplicant(s)). No wonder many thinkers are of the opinion religious belief is like a mental illness! I say that prayer is its own reward, providing therapeutic assurance and lowering stress, regardless if the prayer is “answered” or not. Seen this way, prayer is neither the hollow nothingness of the atheist, nor is it communication with anything outside the heads of the believer. It is something in between.
To suggest, as Paul Burn’s book does, that prayer changes things is, therefore, correct in one sense, in my opinion. It can bring on therapeutic healing inside the mind(s) of the supplicant(s). My experience is that when I pray, I feel better afterwards. And though I cannot ever know for sure what is inside the heads of my fellow supplicants because of the subjective trap, the behavior of my fellow supplicants after prayer is consistent with their feeling better also. In other words, prayer can create “good vibes” in the social collective minds of the supplicants, as it did when family and friends near and far prayed for the recovery of my son. No wonder back in 1986 when my friend Rev. John Armstrong of Canada asked if I would welcome a Muslim friend to join in the widening circle of prayers for Dan, I said something like, “Absolutely!” I wanted Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists — anyone of any faith — to join in praying for Dan. I know two things about the outcome of Dan’s ordeal in 1986: a) the more prayer, the better all of us felt, and b) in the end, Dan made a full physical recovery.
We now know (National Geographic, Dec. 2016) that having faith that healing will come (often fueled by prayer) will trigger the “natural pharmaceutical shelf” in our bodies toward healing with the biochemistry we all inherently have, even if no real medicines (placebos) are only employed. This could be the key to understanding how the tendency to become religious, along with its attendant prayer, had evolutionary survival value in our deep past. It therefore is possible that the non-veridical healing inside the minds of prayer supplicants can, if the “good prayer vibes” resonant in the minds of those deemed in need of prayer, has a veridical, real world link (Part of medicine is “bed-side manner.”). Perhaps prayer can in this way positively change things outside our heads as well as inside, at least to the boundary between our body and the world surrounding it. Ironically, however, credit for the healing is usually given to the god(s) in our heads thought to be outside our heads, not to the non-veridical tool of prayer in our heads correlating with our biochemistry, or to the attendant physicians plying their skill with modern medicine.
If what is prayed for has to do with something outside the body in the veridical world, like the rain example above, obviously triggering natural pharmaceuticals is not directly germane to the answer or no answer to the prayer (e.g. rain or no rain). But these biochemicals, like endorphins, could be germane to the therapeutic lowering of stress in the supplicant(s) brain(s); they could be connected to the “real” reward of prayer (self-induced psycho-therapy), which has nothing to do with the prayer’s outcome.
In summary, then, prayer is not nothing, according to Perception Theory. But it also is not contact with anything outside our bodies; ultimately, it is contact with ourselves within the subjective trap. That it has value to our well-being has a strong case; psycho-therapy is as important as physical therapy (the two possibly linked by our own body’s physiology), as we’ve known from the days of Freud. Perception Theory would say that the psycho-therapy of prayer demonstrates this importance back to the dawn of our species.