What’s the Point with Prayer?
Why pray to an omniscient god? After all, it by definition knows whatever you’re about to say already. There is absolutely nothing you can tell an omniscient god. There is no point in communicating your desires to it, because it knows already, even before you yourself are aware of them.
Rather, prayer must be a sort of recognition. By praying to a god, you recognize it as your god and show your devotion. But why this empty gesture? Surely an omniscient god would know this too? If a god knows everything there is to know, it most certainly knows your true feelings, and no amount of prayer will ever fool such a god into thinking you’re really devout when you’re actually not. God will shine through all your attempts at hiding your true self. If you think that your god values honesty, it would be best not to try, lest you be punished for your lies and dishonesty. So either prayer is an empty gesture, or it must be neither communication of desires nor recognition.
Perhaps it’s helpful to look at the circumstances in which ordinary people pray. The most devout pray every day, even several times a day. However, most ordinary believers do not. They are way to busy with their daily lives. Perhaps their interest in their god is not so great, or perhaps in their perception they do not constantly need to suck up to God. Rather, they turn to God in troubled times. When accident has chanced upon them, or when they’re about to go down a fork in the road and don’t know which to choose, or when a loved one dies, or other dramatic and defining events in their lives. This seems to suggest that prayer is more of an egoistic action, a call for help when an one feels like one is unable to help oneself. But isn’t prayer supposed to be about God, too? If prayer is purely for humans, what’s the point? Is God some kind of make-me-feel-good-machine, a happiness whore whom Jesus or another savior paid the ultimate price for, so that you don’t have to reach into your own pocket to pay for some comfort?
This has me genuinely puzzled. I haven’t thought much about this before, mainly because my family is pretty areligious (as in, no religious services, no prayer, even though I’ve many relatives that are theists). So I have not really been surrounded by praying believers much.
But there’s one further complication. Let’s pretend, for a moment, that there was some information that a god didn’t know that you could communicate to it through prayer. Recall that gods, at least the common monotheistic varieties, are not only omniscient and omnipotent but also omnibenevolent, meaning that they’re perfectly good or inclined to act in such a way as to bring about the maximum possible good. Now, pretend that there are things God can only know through prayer. So, in a weak moment you pray to God and communicate something to it that it didn’t know. Wouldn’t it be obliged to act on it? Given that it has an inclination for the perfectly good, this god, given this new information, would have to act on it unless this information was of such a kind that it didn’t at all alter God’s perception of the state of the world and how to make it better, which is unlikely. Given that people regularly confess crimes or dishonesty to God, if this was new to God it would be obliged to act on this new information for it to be omnibenevolent.
I’ve looked at this from several angles, and so far I can’t see what the purpose of prayer might be. I can’t find any purpose that would render prayer anything but an empty gesture. If any theists would like to enlighten me, please feel free.