Saturday, November 30, 2013

Is Prayer Therapeutic?

Atheism is all the rage these days. In the name of science and reason atheists insist that there is no God. Many of them reject God on the grounds that His existence cannot be proven empirically. Of course, His existence cannot be disproved empirically either.

One is tempted to say that atheists really believe in Ungod. Or, should I say, Antigod.

But, that would not be entirely fair. Many atheists believe in Reason. Others believe in Nature. But, these are familiar figures. In the Greek pantheon the god of Reason is Apollo and the goddess of Nature is Demeter.

Atheists have overcome Judeo-Christianity in order to embrace something that suspiciously resembles a new pagan idolatry.

Will the progress never cease!

One suspects that many therapists share the atheistic faith in reason and nature. For the most part, they are men and women of science. In principle, if not in fact, they have produced dangerous methods and therapeutic techniques using empirical observation and testing.

And yet, many of their theories reduce to dramatic conflict, the kind that would be most at home on the stage. 

In a Platonic moment Freud declared that the ego and the id are engaged in a permanent struggle.  The ego tries to control instinct, but ultimately the instinct wins.

For Freudians life is a tragedy. Perhaps this means that if you live a Freudian life it will end badly.

If so, you can’t blame him when psychoanalysis does not cure you.

Freud was not entirely wrong. If you rely on what everyday people call willpower to control your appetites and to discipline your impulses, you are going to lose. Recent research has shown that, when faced with what the ancients wisely called temptation, your willpower is, strangely enough, powerless to resist for very long.

Powerless willpower… now that’s a new concept for your quiver.

What then? What’s a modern person to do?

The latest scientific research tells us, shockingly, that when willpower fails, and fails spectacularly, prayer can succeed.

TheDaily Mail reports on the findings:

People turn to prayer 'as a coping response to the high demands in life' and are rewarded with increased strength and ability to resist temptation, researchers said.

Previous findings have shown that when people try hard to control their emotions and thoughts, the risk of aggressive outbursts and binge drinking or eating rises.

But the latest study, by German psychologists at Saarland University and the University of Mannheim, found that praying helps people maintain self-control.

'A brief period of personal prayer buffered the self-control depletion effect', wrote the team, whose findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology online.

There’s a staggering irony here. Presumably, self-control involves your ability to control yourself. Yet, you gain more self-control by giving control to God than you do when you try to exercise it in your mind.  If you have faith that God can handle the problem, apparently this makes it much more likely that He will.

None of this should be news. It is the basis of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous. Everyone knows that this program is one of the very few that did not spring forth from the bowels of a university laboratory or from the sanctum sanctorum of a neurologist’s consulting room.

The 12 Steps were cobbled together by two uncredentialed drunks in Ohio.

Examine the steps, and you will see that they are saturated with references of God and faith. AA calls for a return to God, not a return to Freud.

1.      We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives have become unmanageable.
2.    Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3.    Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
4.    Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5.     Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6.    Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7.     Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
8.    Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9.    Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10.  Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11.  Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
12.Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.

As you see in Step 11, the purpose of prayer is to bring the alcoholic into closer contact with God.

Conscientious therapists have happily embraced many of these techniques, beginning with meditation—the scientifically correct version of prayer.

They often counsel meditation as a way to attain serenity and spiritual tranquility. Meditation, one might say, calms the nerves.

Yet, the 12 Steps are clearly about God, and that means, among other things that they are about humility. They teach that if you believe that your own willpower is sufficient to control your lust for alcohol, you will lose. They also teach that if you let your addiction take over your life, you will also lose.

And yet, Bill Wilson and Bob Smith declared that if you give yourself over to a higher power, it will sustain your discipline and self-control.

It’s not so easy to understand why. Perhaps when you stop trying to force yourself— to drink or not to drink—your body tends to find a more natural and normal condition.

If you ask what God has done for you lately, apparently He helps you to improve your capacity for self-control. It is fair to ask whether belief in the Ungod or the Antigod can do the same?

Scientific studies suggest that it cannot. For believers in the Ungod or the Antigod, the news is not good. The Daily Mail reports on a study that was done in Massachusetts on depressed patients. It found that those who believed in God responded better to treatment than did those who did not:

Belief in God may improve treatment for those suffering with depression, a study published earlier year found.

Faith in a higher being was found to significantly improve treatment for people suffering with a psychiatric illness, according to research carried out by McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts.

Researchers followed 159 patients over the course of a year at the Behavioral Health Partial Hospital program to investigate the relationship between a patient's level of belief in God, expectations for treatment and actual treatment outcomes.

Each participant was asked to gauge their belief in God as well as their expectations for treatment outcome on a five-point scale.

Researchers found that patients with 'no' or only 'slight' belief in God were twice as likely not to respond to treatment than patients with higher levels of belief.

And more than 30 per cent of patients claiming no specific religious affiliation still saw the same benefits in treatment if their belief in God was rated as moderately or very high.

To be fair, these results do not prove that there is a God. They certainly do not prove that there is no God.

They do demonstrate that those who defy conventional dogma and cling to their belief in God are neither dupes nor dopes… as atheists would have it.

The results only measure the state of mind and mental resiliency of people who believe in God. One would like to know whether those who believe in God also belong to congregations and whether they attend religious services. One would also like to know what it means for them to believe in God… does it mean that they follow the moral teachings contained in the Bible or another religious text.

At the least, the tests tell us that refusing to believe in God is bad for your mental health. Do with that what you will.


Leo G said...

of course atheism is a religion, look what's happening now....

Stuart Schneiderman said...


n.n said...

Yes. Also sacrificial rites. Sale of indulgences. Articles of faith (i.e. emergent or created patterns from limited, circumstantial evidence). Deference to mortal deities.

Atheism is part of a replacement theology. Its religion (i.e. moral philosophy) is generally libertinism. It's unreconstructed ideological realization is responsible for the violation of human rights on an unprecedented scale, which has only previously been matched by Islamic imperialism.

As with other theologies, Atheism is embraced from a position of weakness (e.g. greed, lust, vulnerability). It has yet to reform itself, and since it is based a single unifying principle: rejection of theism, it is poorly designed to experience positive change or a consensus among its adherents.

That said, there are few people of a predominantly neutral faith. The people with faith in God or gods can be judged uniformly by the principles engendered by their faith.

Unknown said...

Comments about people who are more religious and spiritual:

"They’re better able to cope with stress, they heal faster from illness, and they experience increased benefits to their health and well-being. On an intellectual level, spirituality connects you to the world, which in turn enables you to stop trying to control things all by yourself. When you feel part of a greater whole, it’s easy to understand that you aren’t responsible for everything that happens in life.” - an excerpt from the book "The SuperStress Solution" by Dr. Roberta Lee

This excerpt comes from the article Spirituality and Prayer Relieve Stress.

Chronic stress is a definitely killer. It increases cortisol levels, which in turn increases blood pressure and sugar levels, and suppresses your immune system.

The article also states, " folks hope, the ultimate stress reducer. Hope, doctors say, is about the best thing you can do for your body (and Mind). It's better than a placebo."

"An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?" - Rene Descartes

Anonymous said...

I don't know what this atheist megachurch thing is. I am an agnostic, though sometimes out of convenience, I describe myself as atheist. I will offer a few scattered thoughts on some of the topics of the post and comments.

There are several strains of atheism. The version you are discussing is strong atheism, which is the belief there is no god. There is also weak atheism, which means a person does not believe in god because there is no proof there is a god and those who are asserting there is bear the burden of proof. Though the analogy is a bit inflammatory, the idea is that those who are asserting there is a giant pink invisible elephant in the room bear the burden of proving it. Agnosticism sometimes falls under the atheist umbrella, even though it is not atheism. Basically, god is supernatural, and we are natural, so we will never be able to prove god's existence or non-existence, so I don't believe one way or the other.

Also, an embarrassingly large portion of atheists are atheists more because they reject organized religion or republicans or are just rude jerks than because they reached any kind of reasoned conclusion about the matter. (you are also discussing this version of atheism.)

As for the atheist churches, one common thought among atheists is that religion has no monopoly on morals or spirituality. I don't need to believe in god to know that killing other people is wrong or that stealing is wrong. The benefits of prayer, which I would describe as reasoned reflection combined with a desire to achieve an aspirational goal, could be had through other mechanisms without bring god vel non into the picture. An atheist "church" spreading moral teachings but without invoking a higher power might be one way to achieve that.

The problem with religion is not that prayer is bad or going to church is bad. One problem is that throughout history, religion has been hijacked by those who desire power and control. Huge numbers of atrocities have been committed in the name of religion. For example, the inquisition, the crusades, witch hunts, and islamic terrorism. There is also lesser problems, such as persecution of those who are of different religions. But my point is that it is not clear that religion is a net positive force, let alone an unbridled positive force as many religious people claim. At least as they claim about their own religion, of course, and not about those other bad ones.

Anonymous said...

Answer: YES. Try contemplative prayer sometime. You just mike like it...