What is prayer for, and how is it different to meditation? If God is all-knowing, then the point of praying is not to reveal things to God. Because God is perfectly just, praying can't improve justice in the world. As because God's plan is perfect, prayer can't change which is the best action for God to take - the prayer is either against God's plan, or, it is for what God is going to do anyway - praying for God to act makes no sense. The effectiveness of prayer is one of the reasons people give for being religious1 but prayer doesn't work against individual ailments, nor do they change national outlooks (even on health)2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9. What business, then, have theists got in praying? It's clear that it's not for God, but for ourselves.
Prayer has other functions, other than God. Prayer is also often used as a not-so-subtle coded insult - saying I'll pray for you to someone during a disagreement is the height of passive-aggressive hot air. It can also be worn as a good-guy-badge when done in public. Ignoring those shallow displays, prayer still has positive uses. It gives us a quiet-time to think slowly, and let ideas and resolutions come to us10. It can also create social togetherness and consolidarity, as can all shared rituals. With these advantages, although theists call it "prayer" - others, more accurately, call it meditation, which actually does have some positive results on one's own health11,12.
When we pray, we are conveying our thoughts to what we think of as God. But, if God is all-knowing then it already knows anything we would want to say. If we pray because we are feeling insecure or frightened... God already knows how we feel. If we pray because we want God to make a friend recover from illness... then God already knows that we want it to help our friend. So what is the point of praying to God for these things? It is certainly not because it needs us to, or because we want it to tell it something that it already knows! Clearly, prayer is not because God has needs!
Of all the many courses of action or inaction, a perfect God always picks the best one. This appears to makes prayers ineffectual. If one prays for a friend to miraculously recover from an inoperable brain disease, what will happen? The prayer cannot make a difference, because, God has already picked the best course of action. If the prayer is successful, it's because God was already going to move that way. If it was unsuccessful, then, God has a better plan. It seems that to pray for God to act is to doubt that God already knows best13,14.
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Prayer still has psychological use as a facilitator of reflection, and as quiet-time that gives us a while to think slowly, and let ideas and resolutions come to us. Nietzsche calls religion's propensity towards the "soft placidity" of prayer as "idleness with a good conscience"15; but idleness can generate new thought16, and so, it has a purpose which is especially important in today's overly manic world. So, although theists call it "prayer" - others, more accurately, call it meditation.
“Dr. Herbert Benson, MD, who heads the Mind-Body Medical Institute and also is connected to Harvard Medical School, recommends a stress-reduction procedure meant to evoke what he calls "the relaxation response." He wrote a best-selling self-help book in 1975 with that title. [...]
Dr. Benson's book sold more than 3 million copies. But if you're too stressed to take the time read the book, I can give the secret away in two lines: Concentrate on repeating a simple prayer or mantra. Ignore the inevitable distractions that come up while you´re doing it. In other words, meditate. It's hardly a new idea. People all over the world have practiced meditation in some form for thousands of years. [...]
One way to meditate is to pray. ... If you don't have a rosary, chant Buddhist prayers while spinning a prayer wheel, or maybe prostrate yourself on a prayer rug facing east while repeating 'God is great.' Your respiration will slow, along with your metabolism and pulse rate. However you pray, it can reduce the symptoms of stress and prepare your body for healing. It's no miracle cure, but it can help. It doesn't seem to matter how or to whom you pray, and it apparently works as well for nonbelievers as for the devout. For that reason, The Relaxation Response is offensive to some of the faithful who feel it trivializes prayer.”
It is widely assumed that when a theist prays for someone which whom they disagree on a point of belief or behaviour, the prayer is often, secretly, a snide and obnoxious way of disparaging them. Theists know this and go to lengths to distance themselves from their own feeling that their prayer is an exercise in passive aggression expression (emotionally aggressive behaviour disguised as something neutral). This is a sore-spot: theists must convince themselves that when telling someone that they are praying for them they are doing it from a pure motive - because, after all, God knows their inner motives.
It's normally clearer to others what the underlying psychology is. An ultimate insult comes from the ultimate outsider, the Church of Satan, when its founder spat out the following words:
“Even though the god in all of these religions is basically the same, each regards the way chosen by the others as reprehensible, and to top it all, religionists actually PRAY for one another! They have scorn for their brothers of the right-hand path because their religions carry different labels, and somehow this animosity must be released. What better way than through 'prayer'! What a simperingly polite way of saying: 'I hate your guts,' is the thinly disguised device known as praying for your enemy! Praying for one's own enemy is nothing more than bargain-basement anger, and of a decidedly shoddy and inferior quality!”