Archives for posts with tag: prayer

I will let you into a little secret of mine. Every night, when I lie in bed, tucked under the duvet, I imagine myself flying a spacecraft to the stars. The craft is accelerating at relativistic speeds, often surpassing the speed of light as it heads out into the wider universe. It’s automatic, it’s comforting and it helps me fall asleep.

I’m sure many of us have similar mental rituals. Indeed, when I think about it, life is dominated by rituals that give us pleasure. What is our devotion to football, music and any of a million other pastimes and activities, but a kind of strange ritual? There is nothing life changing or cataclysmic about any of them – indeed from the outside they might seem a bit pointless and crazy – but without them life would be colourless. We need these regular indulgences.

Our brains seem to relish the familiar. Neural pathways, once laid down, are nourished by repeated use. Psychologists talk about “confirmation bias” – our tendency to absorb only that which appeals to us. But it’s much more than that. This comfort with the safe, the known and the well understood: it’s an essential part of our being.

Prayer is no different. For many, there is a comfort to be found in repeated recitations of the Our Father and the Rosary, or for others, the Islamic, Buddhist and Hindu chants. But there is something else about prayers that make them so compelling.

“To thee do we send forth our sighs,

Mourning and weeping in this valley of tears”.

The Salve Regina (aka “Hail Holy Queen”) is a thousand year old Catholic prayer. It speaks of a time when hardship was everywhere. Disease, brutality, avarice and accident could take everything away in seconds. If reality was so miserable, then why not accept a glorious fantasy? With a readymade industry of clerics and theologians willing to hone and interpret the myth (and punish non-belief), compliance would have been irresistible.

Reality is not so terrifying for many people nowadays. Medicine, law, technology and political reforms have made life vastly more tolerable. Religion has become optional, if not thoroughly second-rate. It’s not the only source of comfort anymore – instead we can indulge our passions, listen to music, play video games or surf the Internet. We are less dependent on heavenly promises to help us get through life.

I’m an atheist. For me, these old stories are no more realistic than Harry Potter. But nevertheless, I wonder how my worldview would have been shaped had I been born to a life of oppression and drudgery, where the pleasures I take for granted were not easily available?

There are plenty of people living lives devoid of freedom, security or hope. All they have are their prayers. We atheists need to understand this. It’s not enough to tell such people they are living a delusion if we cannot demonstrate alternative – and realistic – routes to fulfilment and mental health. Indeed, if prayer is the only comfort they have, who are we to deprive them even of this? We need to address the underlying causes.

Until then? Religion is here to stay.

Ryan Tubridy outdid himself on the Late Late Show last Friday with an interview with a so-called “visionary” from Medjugorje, Vicka Ivanković-Mijatović, who claims to be in daily contact with the Virgin Mary. Mijatović is in Ireland all this week. Earlier on Friday, she spoke to a capacity crowd in the RDS Concert Hall.

The interview was mostly a monologue. Tubridy allowed her to speak freely (and was gently chastised for interrupting her flow at one stage) while she whittled on about how Mary’s dress sense and the occasional cameos of Jesus during her regular encounters. It was mad, delusional, contradictory stuff. If not for the prevalence of Roman Catholicism in Ireland, would Tubridy have been so patient and understanding? Say a woman came on the show to talk about her frequent meetings with polka dotted llamas dressed in bowler hats beseeching people to jump on one leg for a few hours each day, would the reception have been the same? Don’t answer that.

Within her ecstatic rantings, she talked about suffering being a gift. It was here that I lost my composure. The idea that suffering is a “gift” must be one of the most pernicious and cruel canards ever invented by mankind. Suffering is bad enough without someone suggesting that there is some sort of supernatural reason for it.  It implies that somehow, you deserve it. You have done something in your past, or you have thought things that call you out for special treatment at the hands of the Gods. Or perhaps God has some special mission in mind for you, so that you will continually torment yourself to understand what exactly it is you should be doing in your life at a time when you can least afford such vexations. Perhaps if you consider suffering to be a gift, you will therefore be reluctant to lose this gift by seeking medical help or other forms of assistance. Perhaps you will see suffering in loved ones as a “gift”, thereby prolonging their agonies too?

As anyone who has been around suffering long enough will attest, there is nothing at all glorious about it. Far from enriching lives, it wrecks it. It sucks the colour out of existence, leaving people in a perpetually vulnerable, negative, fearful and disordered state. In far too many cases it is capricious. It hits one person, leaving others unaffected. It’s roots may be genetic, age related, accidental or based on factors totally outside your control. It is plain to see that the most deserving of suffering in this life often never get their just desserts while the least deserving may sometimes receive it in spades. Even when suffering is deserved, the resulting effect may be out of all proportion to the severity of the cause. Suffering is not a gift. It’s a crap shoot.

Those who suffer do not need our prayers. They don’t need us to tell us that it happened for a reason. They don’t need to believe that somebody, somewhere singled them out for special treatment. They don’t need the mental torture that comes along with the statement that suffering is a gift. Any god who loved us would not send us such gifts, period. Any reasonable definition of love would never, repeat, NEVER, include torture, but some strains of religious thought have no problem accepting this.

There is no easy solution to suffering in the world. People get sick and die every day. Shit happens to us all, and for some it would fill a Boeing 747 with knobs on. There are reliefs in some situations and in those cases they should be embraced wholeheartedly. People can help and medicine can help and treatments can help and time can help, but there will always be unfortunate exceptions.

What sufferers do not need are the trite, malign rationalisations telling them how lucky they are.

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