A lecture delivered before the Ingersoll Secular Society in Investigator Hall, Boston, December 6, 1884
The Foolishness of Prayer
by: Lemuel K. Washburn
MR. CHAIRMAN, LADIES, AND GENTLEMEN:
I know of no sufficient reason why a man should not acknowledge his religious convictions. The first duty we owe to ourselves and to the world is to be honest. But I know of no good reason why a person should profess a faith which his life contradicts. There is no necessity for a person to be a hypocrite. If a certain class of people in a community openly profess and avow certain principles, and publicly preach them, and also assume that they are better men and women for believing such principles, then if they openly violate their professions; are they not justly liable to criticism, if not censure ? It is upon the ground of treachery to their principles that Christians are open to condemnation. When a man assumes the character of an honest man, we do not like to find him as slippery as a piece of wet soap ; and when he professes to love his brother man, we do not want him to sell seven feet and a half of wood for a cord. We do not judge a man by what he professes ; we judge his professions by what he does.
No pious performance has imposed more upon the world than praying. The praying man has been the good man, the religious man, the saintly man. If you have ever seen one of these praying men, you have seenh them all, for they are as similar as the faces on a sheet of postage stamps. They all have the same don’t-you-see-how-pious-I-am look. But a prayer to-day does not pass forits face value, and the praying man is not trusted on account of his doctrines. There is a feeling in
the business worldwhich amounts to conviction-that when a man possesses an offensive air of sanctity, it is best to keep an eye on him. When we hear of a defaulter to-day, we involuntarily ask, what church does he belong to ? Does any one know why it is that so many of the embezzlers of the present time are prominent Christians in their respective communities ? From the church to the jail is getting to be a well-trodden road in this age.
It has been justly observed, that an honest disbelief of the Christian dogmas has not hurt the cause of religion so much as a dishonest belief. The Pecksniffs, and not the Voltaires and Paines and Ingersolls, are the enemies of righteousness. Those men that are so “ utterly, utterly ” pious, are generally hypocrites. The experience of mankind bids us beware of the praying man.
I am willing to believe the statement that sickness can be cured by prayer; when I see it done ; but I am not willing that the simple and credulous should be imposed upon, and be the victims of a cruel superstition which designing men have fostered for their own selfish purposes.
This is the attitude of unbelievers towards prayer. We doubt its efficacy and ask that it be demonstrated before we have faith in it. This is the only safeguard against imposition, and if prayer shrinks from a trial of its power, it confesses itself a fraud and a cheat. Men have the right to demand that they who teach that blessings and benefits may be had by praying for them, shall show that they are telling the truth. It is a legitimate request that the pulpit exhibit the fruits of its prayers, or else stop its praying, for prayer is manifest hypocrisy unless it can get what it asks for. It is a foolish waste of time and breath to pray for things, if they cannot be had in this way.
The sudden fear that seized the church throughout Christendom when Prof. Tyndall offered his prayer-gauge to test the virtue of petitions to God for temporal gifts, proves that faith in prayer is only pretence. Were there any real ground for believing that prayers are answered, how ready would be the church to stand trial ! Not a Christian minister in the land but would lift up his voice to confound unbelief, did he know that he could get what he prayed for; but not one dares make the attempt. It is time that the superstition about prayer was met face to face, and compelled to prove its claim, or confess its hypocrisy. Let a person who professes to believe that God stands ready to give to man whatsoever he shall ask for, come forward and pray before a public audience for some gift, and have the prayer answered within sight of all present. In this way only will the world be convinced that persons making such professions mean what they say.
I do not believe that any words addressed to the name of God have power over a single square inch of Nature, or that cause and effect in the material world can be directed by the pious wishes of mortals. In what part of the universe is to be found this Being, who, we are told, watches over not only man’s fall, but even the sparrow’s fall ? I ask this question in all seriousness. Does any man or woman in this city candidly believe that there is an intelligent, watchful, loving power apart from humanity, that knows our weaknesses, watches over our lives, and has power to save them from temptation, from danger, from death?
Come out with me, and let us interrogate the scene around us. Ask the soil if it knows that a man is walking over it. Does the ground quiver with pain when we strike it with our foot ? Does the rock moan when we break it asunder ? Put your mouth to the earth and call the name of God, and see if you receive any response. Look into the heavens, and see if there be aught above you that can be named God. Call to the stars, and note if they show any sign that they hear you. Question the sun, the moon, the planets, if they know where this Divine Being is. What part of earth or heaven has hand, eye, ear, or sense of feeling? From whence comes the answer to human prayer; when man prays for help ?
If we fall into the sea and pray God to rescue us from drowning, will he do it ? Do not dodge this question, but answer yes! or no! If we by mistake swallow a fatal dose of poison and pray God to save onr life, will he answer our prayer ? Will you, who profess to believe that there is a God who will answer the prayers of men, try it and see? Jf we are in a burning building and there is no escape from the fire, will God save us from perishing in the flames if we pray to him for help? Does any one believe so? There is no necessity for our Christian manufacturers to provide fire-escapes for their buildings if God will answer prayer; no use for physicians, no reason why people need to drown, if prayer will save them. Do you know of one single human being who has been taken from the water or from the flames by the hand of God?
Were you to put your faith in prayer, as the only power to preserve your life, your friends would very soon put you into-the ground. Praying is the greatest folly:of the nineteenth century. It is the offspring of superstition and ignorance. Praying for benefits is about as rational as a child crying for the moon. There is not a bone in the body of prayer, not an eye in its head, not a finger in its hand, and not a particle of power in its expression. It is as empty as a soap-bubble. It goes from the mouth of man to the ear of man. It is sent to heaven, but it falls on the earth.
Let us look around us and see if we can discover anything that prayer has accomplished. Has it opened a street in a city or town on the globe ? Has it put a bridge across a river, or laid a track over the mountains? Has it built a shop or sailed it over the seas? Is it to be trusted as a pilot on the water ; as a guide on the land ? Where are the tracks of its feet, the marks of its bands, the monuments of its labor ? What has man got by prayer? Did he get his house, or his furniture? Does he get his groceries or provisions, his wood and coal, by praying for them ? Did man ever get a thing by prayer that costs money ? If so, then have we found the poor man’s currency. But I would not advise any one to depend upon praying for a business capital.
Will prayer make the deformed man straight, or the ignorant man wise? Will it make the dishonest man honest? If it ,will, then ministers do well in saying, “Let us pray.” But I believe that not a word has come out of the heavens above, and not a thing out of the earth beneath in answer to prayer. Of course my unbelief is met by the belief of others that prayers are answered, but I will want to see the answers. I know that people will believe anything. When you can find men and women that believe that St. John wrote his life of Jesus with a feather from the wing of an angel, the belief that a prayer to God for a barrel of flour was answered, fades into utter insignificance in comparison.
There never was a lie yet told that some one did not believe it. If we are to endorse one who believes that Balaam’s beast was gifted with the power of human speech, why are we not to endorse another who says that he has heard a steam-engine talk in the English language ? We may as well swallow one Jonah as another. There are millions of people in our FREE land who profess to believe that the Bible was written under Divine inspiration, but common sense sees in it only an ancient Morey letter. We cannot accept everybody’s faith as reasonable, and I should not want to swap my belief for Cotton Mather’s, even with the promise of heaven to boot.
The creeds of other people are not worth as much to us as to them. They lose their value if circulated outside of their native place. They are like Mexican dollars in this country, that pass for only eighty-five cents. A very large discount must be made on faith in prayers.
How have men obtained knowledge ? By patient research and study, or by prayer? Did Humboldt have his splendid contributions to scientific knowledge delivered to him in answer to prayer, or were they the result of labor’? Did Darwin find out the “ Origin of Species” by praying, or by observation and reflection? Did Spencer discover the law of evolution by repeating a pater noster ?
A man might pray for knowledge from sunrise until sunset every day in the year, and every year of his life, and if he took no other means to acquire it, he would die a dunce. Knowledge does not come for the asking. One person is taught to work, to depend upon labor for whatever he gets in life, to use human means to benefit his race. Another is taught to pray, to depend upon prayer for whatever he gets in life, to use petitions to God to help humankind. The first person becomes a useful member of society; by his labor he gains independence, and in due time makes for himself a home, takes a wife, and rears a family of bright, healthy chtldren, that gladden his heart and enrich society. He lends a helping hand to his less fortunate brother, gives words of cheer or counsel to those in distress, assistance to those in poverty ; and sets an example of industry and virtue to the world.
The other becomes a useless member of society ; he is supported by the labor of others, and thus robs the hard-working men and women of the right to blessings which they have earned. He lives alone and contributes no benefit to society. He sets an example of idleness and sloth to the world, and of so little account is his life that it might be said of him when he dies, “ Earth is no poorer and heaven no richer for his departure.” Work would make a garden of the earth, when prayer would make a cemetery.
Nine-tenths of all the foolishness of human faith roots in the belief that the Bible was written by God, and that it is to be believed as we believe the truth. Drive out of the mind the faith that this book is the word of God, and civilization would leap forward a thousand years. This faith has made men and women nearly everything that is bad, and scarcely anything that is good. It has instigated man to commit almost every crime. The belief that the Bible is holy, has caused the death of more human beings than there are words in the book.
The faith in praying is a Bible product. On its promises are prayers made. But men to-day are beginning to ask with Job, “What profit should we have if we pray unto the Almighty ?” What good does it do? is the common-sense objection to prayer. We cannot get a breakfast or a supper by praying for it. We cannot make the elm bear apples, or the bushes yield bread by prayer. We cannot protect our homes from misfortune, nor drive away suffering and want, by praying.
When we express a doubt in regard to the virtue of prayer, and ask to see the person who has had his prayers answered, some man or woman wishes to how “if we do not believe what the Bible says ? We answer, “We do not ! Nor do we believe there is a human being on the globe who does believe what it says! ”
We read in the twenty-first chapter of Matthew, “All things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” Do you tell me that the man or woman lives who believes such a statement as that ? If so, and that verse holds the truth in the clasp of its words, then every soul that can sound its wish in the ear of heaven is master of the universe, and God himself (If there be a God) but the servant of its desires ! That verse, if true, makes man a God, and gives him power to change earth to heaven in the twinkling of a star.
But what a lie it is ! Were that declaration true, there should not be a pang on earth to-night. Not a cry of want should be heard. Not a tear of grief or shame should fall. The feast of plenty should load the board of famine; and misery and despair, these gaunt and grim spectres of human sins and crimes, should be changed to joy and blessedness. But it is useless to paint the canvas of human life with Bible colors. They will not wash. If any man thinks that he has an Aladdin’s lamp in this verse of the twenty-first chapter of Matthew, let him put his faith to a trial.
Remembering the promise that “all things whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, ye shall recei ve,” let him trust to praying for something to eat and drink, and let him undertake to go without food until God sets the table for his appetite, and rings the bell for his supper. Before he got a mouthful, his period of fasting would throw that of Dr. Tanner into the shade.
To trust to God to feed us, is a sure road to starvation. Christians who profess to believe in the Bible as God’s word, do not seem to have much faith in the notion that there is a divine restaurant to which prayer is the key, but follow Infidels and unbelievers, and go to eating-houses where men and women do the cooking, knowing that a dollar will purchase a better dinner than a prayer.
How much faith have men and women in prayers to clothe then ? We have not heard of any silk or velvet, woven by the power of prayer, being on exhibition at our industrial fairs, nor have we seen any clergymen dressed in broadcloth that came from the looms of heaven. It is evident that Christian men and women prefer to have tailors and dressmakers, rather than trust to a Bible promise that God will clothe them.
Prayer, when asked to do a thing for humanity that must be done to keep life in the body, is obliged to be excused. We read in the Bible, “ Is any sick among you ? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him.” The language here used is sufficiently clear to admit of no doubt as to its meaning ; but does any intelligent person believe that prayer will arrest the ravages of disease? that a sick man can be cured by a number of words spoken over his body ? It seems to me that we are forced to question the honesty of men or to doubt their intelligence, when they profess to believe that disease can be charmed away by praying over it.
I have never heard of a college in this country, however Orthodox it may.be, that has bestowed the degree of M. D. upon prayer, or showed by any act that it believed that praying possessed the power of healing. Does the person who pretends to believe that the Bible is God’s word of truth, send for the elders of the church when a member of his family is attacked with pneumonia or typhoid fever, as he is there enjoined to do ? The question needs no answer. The passage which we have quoted stands for a faith that has passed away.
It is plain that Christians have more faith in a skillful physician than in the elders of their church in time of sickness, notwithstanding the Divine injunction to call in the latter, and the assurance that their prayers will prove effectual in the treatment of diseases. We have no particular desire to see the Christian ranks decimated, and we wish to be acquitted of any malicious thought or feeling, when we say we candidly think that if Christians were required to stand manfully to their faith, and in time of sickness risk their safety to the virtue of prayer, that no surer method could be adopted for getting rid of the entire lot. It would be inhuman to hold Christians to their professions, and we would be the very last to insist I that they should be doctored with prayers. We only wish to point out. the utter disregard for their professions manifested by Christians ; and let me tell them that the world is beginning to see, not only their inconsistency, but the practical dishonesty which is involved in their pious pretensions.
While I am not desirous of having the Christian men and women of the United States suffer the folly of their faith, I am quite willing that they should be made to demonstrate their foolishness in believing that prayers are answered. If they are honest in their faith they will renounce it, if, after an impartial trial, they find that they are deceiving themselves by their faith.
Suppose we have a company of respectable church members, who pretend to believe the promise of God, that “Whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, ye shall. receive,” seat themselves around an empty table, and repeat in concert these words:
Now we sit us down to eat,
We pray the Lord to give us meat;
If we should pray for food in vain,
We ne’er will trust in prayer again,
would they be honest enough to abide the result of their experiment, or would they keep on making their pious professions when they know that praying has no more effect upon the power that rules the world than has whistling ? They know, every one of them, that they would not be willing to submit to the test here proposed.
The excuse for the foolish faith in prayer of most people is, that the Bible teaches this faith, and therefore it must be true. We are told that the Bible says, “Ask and ye shall receive.” We say, “Ask, and see if ye shall receive.” The only answer yet made to a prayer to God was silence.
Of the words in the Bible upon which men and women rest their belief in prayer, we can only say, it was base to speak such words, baser still to write and print them ; but the blackest guilt of all is to teach them as God’s promise to men. The history of faith in these words for the last eighteen hundred years is a history of broken promises.
Notwithstanding the fact that we are living in an age of so-called reason and science, the superstitious faith in prayer still deforms religion, and men pray to Gods, to ghosts, to saints, and to idols ; but what a silly, foolish performance it is when looked at seriously ! Think of a minister’s praying God to kill grasshoppers, as was done in the West a few years ago ! Imagine God trying to kill all the grasshoppers in the States of Missouri, Iowa, and Minnesota ! A year or two later these same ministers, or others like them, tried to induce the Deity to undertake a crusade of one against the Colorado beetle ! But we never read that the deity enlisted in the undertaking. He probably had previous engagements. But imagine God on the path of a potato-bug ! If an Infidel lecturer were to pray God to abolish mosquitoes, every Christian preacher in the land would declare that he was trying to ridicule the power of God. But if it is a pious task to set God on to grasshoppers and potato-bugs, why is it impious to ask him to put an end to mosquitoes?
Every time we have a drouth the pulpit prays for rain, and when we have a flood it prays for dry weather, and we presume that men who have prayed for rain every day for three weeks actually believe their prayers did the business when at the end of that time a shower drenched the earth. Oh! religion, how many foolish things are done in thy name! A good many years ago we heard a minister pray, and in the course of his remarks to the Almighty, he took the liberty to suggest that a larger measure of wisdom would not be hurtful to the congregation. We agreed with him, but Christian ministers have been asking God to give their people wisdom for a long while, and we have never seen any sign that he has heard their prayers.
There is nothing more calculated to profane all that is sacred to the soul, and cheapen the feelings and emotions which we hold dear, than the Christian notion that the secret wish of the heart, the hidden desire of the soul, is to be dragged before an audience for the entertainment of the curious and vulgar. There are no words great enough or pure enough for the heart’s desire. We all have longings for help which earth cannot give, for light which the sun cannot shed, for love which the living cannot feel, but to voice these longings would soil them.
You ask me, would you not like to have things different in the world ? There are hundreds of things which good men and pure women would rejoice to see it1 human life. There are reforms and improvements that would elevate society which all right-minded persons wish made, but such things will not come for the asking. We wish to see the ignorant enlightened, the foolish made wise, the down-trodden lifted up, the fallen restored to honor, the wrong-doer converted to right-doing, the bad made good: and the good better ; but we know that no amount of wishing will bring these blessings. Praying will not reform the world, or there will not be a vice or wrong in it in twenty-four hours. Mere desire for good produces no good result. A great many seem to thing that if they lie down with a good resolution they will get up covered with the glory of heroic action. If prayers were the only weapons wielded against the wrongs of society, not one would be corrected. If prayer were the only influence used to keep our homes pure and sweet for human life, not one of them would be fit for man or woman to live in. If prayer were the only power employed to reform mankind, not a single stain of vice would be washed out.
One of the silliest things that fathers and mothers do is to teach their children to pray. Bring up the young to tell the truth, to be honest in word and deed ; to be kind to their fellows ; to be fearless and brave for the right ; to know and obey the laws of body and mind, and earth will be covered with noble men and women, It is thought by some a beautiful sight to see a little, innocent child kneeling with clasped hands in the attitude of prayer ; but it is a sad sight to those who know that a human mind is being enslaved to a superstition; that a human heart is being filled with fear; that a human soul is being made the victim of deception.
No matter who makes a prayer ; no matter. where it is made, or when, or how, it is foolish. Children should never be taught to pray. Men and women should know better than to do so. The mind that is busy with thoughts and plans for the world’s improvement, is the abode of the best angels that ever blessed man with their ministrations, and no prayer is needed to bring these guests to our earthly homes, but a true love of truth, a manly love of man, and a right love of righteousness.
It is useless to disguise the fact, or deny the truth. There is a lot of hypocrisy in the piety of the church, Men are not always what they profess to be. There are pious frauds in every community ; men who are saints on their knees, but knaves on their feet. Behind a pious face they hide a villain heart. They will believe anv doctrine that has a dollar in it. These frauds are always men of prayer. They are ready to pray anywhere where they can be heard, and have an opportunity to advertise their piety. These men use prayer as a sort of theological weapon, a kind of religious pocket-pistol. It is fired off at Infidels, but it contains only a blank cartridge.
Religion is not what drops from the lips, but what grows around the life. It is not shown by going to church, but by character and conduct ; not in prayers, but in deeds.