the way we live now

Christopher Smith concludes that atheists haven’t a prayer

I recently bought a book with the amusing title, Religion for Atheists. It’s by a man called Alain de Botton, who writes about philosophy among other things.

The tone of the book is, to say the least, patronising, but we should always know our enemy, in this case one who would cherry-pick from us those things he believes are socially useful, but leave the impression that religion is valueless at its core. As de Botton puts it right at the end of his book (which is, of course, where an author reveals what he really thinks), ‘many of the problems of the modern soul [note the use of the word soul!] can successfully be addressed by solutions put forward by religions, once these solutions have been dislodged from the supernatural structure within which they were first conceived’.

In other words, religious-type structures can be good for people in the modern world if God is taken out of them! And he finishes with these words: ‘Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.’ Ouch!

You can tell what the author thinks are the ‘useful’ things about religion (and he does, mostly, mean Christianity) from his chapter headings: community, kindness, education, tenderness, art and architecture, and so on. But what he can’t treat, of course, is our relationship with God. And the whole thing falls down because of that, really. He can say nothing about mission, or about prayer, or about sacrifice. He can talk about the Eucharist from its community aspects, but not from the relationship with God which lies at the heart of it.

For the Christian community is a praying community. And that concept is well beyond Religion for Atheists. It was a point beautifully emphasized by that greatest of Anglican Benedictines, Dom Gregory Dix. He notes that, in the Rule, St Benedict does not have much to say about prayer itself, beyond the practicalities. It makes sense, says

Dix, if you keep in mind that the life of prayer is not restricted to what we do in church. From the moments when we feel most energized by prayer, we can continue to draw energy for the rest of the time.

He says that there is a danger that we have ‘psychologized’ prayer by assuming that it is purely a mental activity: that all the real work happens in the head, although that may lead us to feel something in the heart. The Renaissance then tried to turn prayer into an art, ‘with a skilled technique of its own’. But Dix goes on, ‘For the older, simpler tradition, prayer was not an act or an art. It was a state – almost a ‘state of life’ – into which a man entered and which could and should be expressed in his whole way of life.’ Dix challenges us to live a life of prayer, even though we are not cloistered.

It has amused me ever since I’ve been ordained that priests get blamed for bad weather. ‘You haven’t been praying hard enough, have you Father?’, the newsagent will say on a rainy morning – so he’s had plenty of scope for that gag this summer! And I often reply that, when it comes to weather prayers, God is just as likely to listen to him as to me, and perhaps he should be praying harder too. I suppose in the popular imagination, weather is one of the few things reserved to God, because it is still beyond man’s control.

But what a limited understanding of prayer that betrays. To quote Dom Gregory again: ‘Prayer in its simplest elements is the going forth of your little created human spirit from itself to meet the downrush of the uncreated Spirit of God.’ In all the little acts of sacrifice of self that we might perform, sacrificing time to be in church or to be praying with our office book, or in patient listening to another, or unobtrusive caring for a stranger, any act of putting another’s needs before our own, we are living a life of prayer. ‘You do it with your life’, he says, ‘and not entirely with your mind.’

Now, of course, that has an upside and a downside. It is a helpful thing to bear in mind when we are distracted in the course of formal prayer. But it also demands of us a standard of life that means we do not want to hide anything from God. And few of us are easily capable of that. For most of us, there are dark little places where we’d rather God did not look, even though we know we cannot hide anything from him!

How, then, can we build ourselves up as a praying people, a people who not only come together to pray in church, but who carry that prayer out into our lives? Well, the first and most obvious place to start is in church: to get it right there, so that we have the resources to take it with us. Regularity, time, and stillness can help us get beyond mere words, beyond speaking to God, and into listening to God. And then we will be well placed to live it out.

Of course, none of this is of any use in the context of Religion for Atheists. Prayer barely features in the book. But for Dom Gregory Dix, ‘Our life does not have two sections, prayer-time and not-prayer-time. It is the whole man who must go to God in prayer and out of prayers’. The atheist has closed himself off from that way of life. Can we do better? ND

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