Prayer: A Form of Authoritative Introspection?
by: Will Petillo
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“Once in the middle of a prayer to God…I realized I was talking to myself”
A few years ago, when a conversation I had with a Christian friend turned towards the topic of religion, she told me about her personal relationship with God as being a vitally important aspect of her life. So important, in fact, that she wanted to share this source of comfort, strength, and happiness with everyone around her. Since she was merely trying to articulate her feelings on the importance of faith, not actively trying to convert me, I listened patiently, only asking questions of clarification.
The above example was not the first or the last time I had a conversation with a Christian on this subject. Indeed, I have heard Christians talk about their “personal relationship” with God on more occasions than I can remember. I have been intensely interest in figuring out what this relationship is all about. I am particularly interested in finding out if there are any sources of psychological fulfillment that Christians have access to that can be maintained without the religious elements and thus be used to the benefit of myself as an Agnostic.
Then I remembered an anti-religious quotation (see epigraph above) that I saw several months ago on the sweatshirt of a staunch Atheist. At the time, I simply took it as non-religious humor. But now I have connected the dots and have come up with an explanation for some of the positive effects of faith and prayer that Christians go on about and I offer it up for your consideration:
Prayer is a form of authoritative introspection.
Now I should qualify here that I do not intend to apply this theory to all prayer, for some of it bears a greater resemblance to a petition. Since the latter purpose of prayer seems to be well-understood and thoroughly criticized by non-believers, I intend to explore the former purpose of introspection.
When I am faced with a problem, I often engage in a complex set of mental processes to deal with the situation. Some of these are logical: assessing the details of the situation, my options, the potential results of each option…and so on. But at least as important are the emotional processes: determining how I feel about the situation and the potential outcomes, “spinning” the situation so that I can see problems as opportunities wherever possible, and overcoming the desire to cave into inertia and just give up…and so on. All of these processes, which I lump together under the term “introspection,” are essential to living a good life and maintaining some degree of happiness through all the difficulties that I inevitably encounter in the world.
But what if I, recognizing myself as an all-too fallible human, did not trust my own judgment? Well that would just be too bad, because unless I talk to another person (which, as a side note, is generally advisable), my mind is all I have. But it occurs to me now that some people may not see things this way. Perhaps Christians go through the same process, but instead of attributing the positive results to their own introspection, they attribute their ability to cope with adversity in whole or in part to a higher authority, God. This seems to me like it would not be too difficult of an opinion to entertain, since in my experience introspection involves a dialogue between my conscious mind and the depths of my subconscious and the latter is so inscrutable that there are times when pulling information from it feels like I am communicating with a kind of oracle that speaks in the cryptic language of emotion and is separate from myself. By attributing the effects of introspection to divine guidance, one could grant a sense of legitimacy to one’s convictions. The effects of this additional authority could be positive or negative, since humans are at times affected by both under and overconfidence. Positive effects might include the drive to persevere through and see the good in hard times or noble causes, negative effects might include destructive actions taken in the name of God.
So how can we, as Agnostics, obtain the positive elements of authoritative introspection without being affected by the negative? As I have only begun to ask such questions, I cannot give any definitive answers. But as a general guideline, I believe the best course to take is to allow ourselves to function as our own authorities, to trust our own intuitions for guidance…but at the same time be aware of the way in which we do this and not allow our convictions to go too far.