Sunday, February 12, 2012

How to pray without God

I'm still attending services at the Reform congregation where I work. This is partly because The Little Jewess loves it, partly because it's good for my students to see me there, and partly because even without belief, I still enjoy the sense of community, and I think that it is good for me to sing in a group. Physically and emotionally, I enjoy the sensation of hearing the other voices, raising my own voice to join in, and feeling the vibration of the music in my body.

Then it was time for silent prayer. In the past, I have taken this part of the service very seriously. Although I always questioned the existence of God, I felt that it was an opportunity to focus on those things I wanted to improve in myself, and those things I wanted most for others. I tried to use the time to be really humble and thoughtful about what would make things better in my life, so I prayed for grace, for generosity of spirit, for the health of my friends and relatives, and for The Little Jewess to live a long and happy life and to always find peace inside herself. (This is not my normal personality, but I took silent prayer very seriously, especially after I became a parent. It was like I was modeling for The Little Jewess even inside my own head.)

For all those years, I prayed silently and seriously while never being convinced there was a God. I always said that it didn't matter. I loved the quote:

              Pray as if everything depended on God,
              Act as if everything depended on you.
              Who rise from prayer better people,
              Their prayer is answered.

(No, it's not an exact quote. I've gender-neutraled it. It's what I do.) I took that quote to mean that prayer is an opportunity to self-examine and then we must act to make the world a better place. And I felt that praying with sincerity, seriously, is a way to focus one's intentions, which is why I always took care to focus my attention on the person I wanted to be. I think there is value in stopping weekly and saying, "I wish I was more generous and forgiving." It's not that I ever expected God to make me more generous and forgiving, but that by reminding myself frequently that I have this desire, I would work harder at opening my heart to others.

But this time, when the Rabbi said it was time for a moment of silence (interestingly, she did not say it was time for silent prayer, although she sometimes does) I didn't do anything. I was, to be fair to myself, responsible at that moment for The Little Jewess and two of her friends, who had been suffering terribly from giggling fits throughout the service, and I was a bit concerned that they would have another giggling fit and disturb the people in front of us, whom I happened to know were in mourning. So it wouldn't have been my best prayer anyway. But I also felt ridiculous praying to a God who isn't there.

This is one of the weaknesses that Humanism needs to overcome. The kind of meditation that silent prayer has always provided me is an important task. I do think it is good for people to think about how they would like to become better and what they want for others and the world. I believe that there is power in positive thinking, in taking stock of oneself, and in choosing a direction for self-improvement. Also, moments of silence abound in our society. It seems there's always a moment of silence for dead soldiers, for those who have died from a disease, for 9/11 and so on. Humanists need something to do during that time--something that is as productive for us as prayer is for the believers.

But how to do it? What do we call it? How do we pray without God?

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