Family reunions, although generally nice events, often bring me into contact with religion. Since I’ve been around 14 years old, it’s been obvious to me that none of the approximately 8000 gods humanity has invented actually exist. The god delusion is still very prevalent amongst my relatives, though. At my grandma’s 80th birthday party, I was especially surprised by the way the prayers my uncle spoke, deprive believers of agency and responsibility. Let me review two prayers in more detail, to clarify what I mean.
The Forces of Good
First, a very common prayer from Germany:
1 The forces of good are wonderfully surrounding,
2 so we await confidently whatever comes our way,
3 God’s with us from dawn to the slumber of evening,
4 and certainly at the break of each new day.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer (translated from the German original)
Line 1, aside from being obviously false, also gives the believer the impression that there is someone good looking out for them. It removes responsibility from the believer, especially with line 2 following. Believers can just sit at home and watch TV, awaiting confidently whatever comes, because the forces of good will deal with all problems. That’s so wrong, it hurts. No, the forces of good won’t deal with all problems. Every person has to do the best they can in order to make living on this planet work out. We can’t sit back and wait for imaginary good forces to do our bidding.
Unfortunately, the prayer takes a turn for the worse in lines 3 and 4. These lines make sure the believer understands that they will be surveilled all the time, every day. The fact that believers are already used to the state of total surveillance makes them much more easily content with the total surveillance of the state. Which is a direction many states are heading in. Believers, like all people, need to resist that, not revel in it!
The Lord is my Shepherd
To show that this is not a unique example, here’s another well-known prayer:
1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
2 He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters.
3 He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.
4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff they comfort me. Psalm 23 (1—4), The Bible
Similar to “The Forces of Good”, lines 1 and 2 paint a picture of a good shepherd caring for the believers. Believers don’t need to do anything by themselves, everything will be provided for. I think this also instills a sense of entitlement in believers. They’re told everything will be provided, but in reality, it isn’t. So they might complain why they aren’t given what was promised, instead of providing it themselves.
In line 3, we find a nice example why conflicts beween religions are so common: the path of righteousness sounds to me—from a perspective of the enlightenment—to be a path where the believer can’t be wrong. In reality, however, admitting (or even assuming) that we’re wrong and then looking for reasons why we’re wrong, is often a great path towards enlightening discoveries.
With it’s conclusion in line 4, the prayer takes even more things away from the believer. This time, it’s fear. Especially in dark valleys, fear is a useful instinct. I admit that in a metaphorical sense, modern dark valleys (e. g. problems at work) might not be served by this instinct. But we shouldn’t walk through the valley trusting in an imaginary friend, we should walk through it with real friends or real skills, trusting in those instead. The surveillance theme in this line is also not helpful, but I repeat myself.
Prayers—ritualistic phrases that are often repeated—aren’t a bad idea in general. But the examples I know, two of which I’ve discussed, all degrade the believer from enlightened human to powerless worshipper. Such a waste! Christians could have used these opportunities to highlight mindsets that are beneficial for personal development. They could instill skepticism instead of obedience, freedom instead of surveillance or responsibility instead of passivity. Wouldn’t that be great‽