This is a re-post of something I wrote for Off The Map – Atheist in 2008 but with the errors tidied up so that I look cleverer.
I remember my first personal encounter with religion vividly. I’m not talking about attending the weddings of my cousins or family friends, saying the Lord’s Prayer at cub scouts or even the daily rote lectures that took the place of religious education at school. Religion in these contexts was easy to ignore as it was simply part of the ritual of the institution. I’m talking about my first contact outside of this protective bubble.
I was about 10 or 11 years old and in typical boyish fashion I’d been out all day on my bike. We used to ride our bikes all over the woods and hills, looking for new dens or places to hide. It was summer and very hot and I was tired. I’d cycled most of the way home but decided that I wanted a drink. I hopped off my bike, dumped it on the pavement (we were just as inconsiderate of pedestrians in my day) and popped into the nearest shop. I should point out that the newsagents of the day weren’t all 7\11 clones but small, privately owned affairs typically run by families. You had to go to the counter and ask for what you wanted and the staff would fetch it for you.*
No-one was behind the counter though, at least no-one that I could see. I had to wait. Without warning a little old lady got up off the floor from behind the counter. “Sorry,” she said, “I was just praying”. I mumbled something , bought my drink and left. I couldn’t help wonder though: Why was she praying? What good would it do? Why was she on her knees? and while she was working? To my childish mind this was an glimpse of something that I didn’t think I should see, something taboo. I’ve never quite shaken that idea and, to this day, public displays of faith make me uncomfortable.
It may have been the reaction to my presence that turned me off the idea of prayer. Why leap to her feet (as far as the elderly can) if her behaviour is normal? Why offer the “I was just praying” excuse if the act was acceptable?
Embarrassment occurs in socially awkward situations. These may be caused by misunderstandings but more often they result from a realisation on the part of the embarrassed person that their behaviour is not normal. If you are caught talking to yourself you feel embarrassed. That embarrassment signifies the behaviour as abnormal within the social situation.
This is why I think people pray in groups and why the instruction in the bible (Matthew 6:5) to pray alone is significant. It signifies that you should avoid shame in your actions, whether prayer or not. If you can justify to yourself that your actions are right then you do not need to feel shame.
The ritualization of prayer, if ritual and prayer are different things, must help people to overcome that embarrassment. The sincere belief in talking to God must be secondary to the social situation. It must be or churches would not be so prevalent. I wonder then, how much of prayer is directed towards a deity rather than towards a group effort?
If a congregation pray to spare little Jimmy from terminal cancer, then the group support towards the effort is what unites the group. Not the effectiveness of the prayer. If little Jimmy dies it is “God’s Will” and the group is blameless but if he survives then it is as a result of the group action. In that regard it is a method for getting Christians to agree with one another.
*This makes me sound really old but it wasn’t that long ago. Only about 25 years….Oh dear, I am old.