On October 19, 1991, a massive firestorm swept through the Oakland hills where we lived. Twenty-five people were killed and 2843 homes were destroyed. Due in part to a good Samaritan, the fire stopped just before our home.
When I learned the next day that our house had not burned, I remember standing on the sidewalk, going nowhere in particular and repeating over and over: Thank You! Thank you! Then I stopped and asked myself: Whom are you thanking, you numbskull? You don’t believe in God!
When waiting for the result of a test, something in me prays: please let it not be cancer. When the plane I am in shudders and shakes I pray: please don’t crash!
Is the need to pray an inherent part of us? Is it built into our genes? Is it an atavistic vestige of the past no longer needed like an appendix but still working? We have made great scientific advances. We know the answers to many previously obscure questions and we are answering important new questions more and more quickly. We are no longer groping in the dark. We know that there is no God who cares about us individually and can alter things for us and yet we still pray for this favor.
The ultimate curmudgeon Ambrose Bierce wrote, “To pray is to ask the laws of the Universe to be annulled on behalf of a single petitioner.”
When I lived in Beirut the word “Inchallah” often cropped up in conversations: The doctor would say:
“Tomorrow, Inchallah, you will feel much better.” I translated it as “hopefully”, but it literally means “God willing”
When the late Christopher Hitchens was dying of cancer he asked: “Don’t trouble a Deaf Heaven with prayers for me.” And on September 3, when the President declared
a National Day of Prayer for the victims of Hurricane Harvey, Richard Dawkins tweeted” Yes, God will now feel free to come to the rescue. Er…why did he send the hurricane in the first place?”
Is it possible that we cannot live by reason alone?