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My fiancée, who believes in God, once told me that God seems much too distant to pray to. Despite not having any Catholic background, when she feels like praying, she prays to saints. When I was in the running for a good tenure-track job in our area, she prayed to St. Thomas Aquinas, as the patron saint of academics and philosophers, that I would get it. Until that point I don’t think I’d even made the connection between the saints people pray to and actual historical people – I’d only thought of Thomas as a natural law theorist and systematic theologian.

Fast forward: a little while ago, things were a little rough in my home. My fiancée and I tried to adopt a big beautiful black dog, which turned out not to be the right pet for our situation. The dog found a very good home and we’ll be able to get another dog soon enough, but losing the dog was pretty rough on us, especially my fiancée. It didn’t help that it was late winter, when everything was dark and cold, without the novelty of snow’s first arrival or the joys of Christmas. The stress of wedding planning didn’t help either. I was intending to ease some of my fiancée’s distress by planning a surprise party for her approaching milestone birthday. Of course, while the planning was happening, I couldn’t tell her about the party to comfort her; and hiding the event from her was its own source of stress.

It was a hard thing to take. Even though I knew I was doing something that would make her happy in the end, the combination of the secrecy and the present suffering was hard for me to handle emotionally. And so I found myself offering a prayer to Mañjuśrī, the celestial bodhisattva to whom Śāntideva offers his devotion. I prayed, tearfully, for him to give me the strength I needed to help me through my loved one’s suffering. At one point while doing this I wound up calling him Maitreya, because (I admit sheepishly) I sometimes have difficulty remembering the difference between the two.

All this is no small deal for me, because I don’t actually believe in Mañjuśrī or Maitreya, at least not in any standard sense of the term. I don’t think there is actually somebody out there who accumulated enough good karma to become a celestial being who redirects good karma down to the rest of us for our benefit. I don’t even think we get reborn after death.

But in moments like these it becomes clear to me that prayer to some sort of personal higher being is something I need. And I am surely not alone in this. As atheists have become more open and strident in their criticism of theism, one of their favourite memes is the Flying Spaghetti Monster – a made-up joke deity which, they argue, should have as much of a status as any historical religious tradition, since there’s no more reason to believe in any of those.

And yet. A couple years ago the AAR held a panel on the Flying Spaghetti Monster phenomenon, one of the few such panels to catch the media’s eye. Lucas Johnston, a student on the panel, told an anecdote that rightfully caught a lot of attention. As reported in the AP story on the panel: “his neighbor, a militant atheist who sports a pro-Darwin bumper sticker on her car, tried recently to start her car on a dying battery. As she turned the key, she murmured under her breath: ‘Come on, Spaghetti Monster!'”

Was she joking or being ironic? To some extent perhaps – but clearly she really wanted her car to start, felt a need to say something. And it seems to me that when facing difficult times, most people feel a need to pray to something, even if they don’t think there’s any real entity they can pray to.

Why is this? Freud thought that “religion” was all about the personification of nature: we have learned to treat nature, which we have no influence over, like the fellow human beings we do have some influence on. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were accurate as a historical account of belief in higher beings (which, let’s not forget, is far from exhausting the concept of “religion” as it is usually used.) But there’s something further and deeper going on here as well – something I think Augustine really grasped. We human beings will never be as good as we want to be, let alone having all the things we want. We need help, we are dependent – but the people we depend on, our community, are often not there for us. We need a being to turn to. For Augustine this was really convenient, since he believed that life was all about turning to such a being. And yet, experience seems to testify that even if there are no higher beings, it is still necessary to invent them. David Hume’s Natural History of Religion claimed that science would lead us to belief in a distant deist God, a First Cause, but also noted that most “religion” had nothing to do with this – rather, it was a belief in actively intervening beings like saints or celestial bodhisattvas, whose existence was completely unsupported scientifically.

Hume dismissed such “superstitious” beliefs, saw them as being of value only to the uninformed. But there are good reasons for their endurance, well beyond misinformation. The Alcoholics Anonymous program has proved to be one of the most successful ways of dealing with alcohol addiction, and their “12-step” method has transferred successfully to treating many other kinds of addictions, not only to substances. The heart of the method is admitting one’s own helplessness and putting oneself in the hands of God, or some sort of trusted Godlike being – Mañjuśrī would do the trick. Relying on oneself doesn’t work, because oneself caused the problem; nor can one rely on the people around one, who work in the same established patterns in which the problem developed. It’s a very Augustinian method: one relies on grace and faith, not on works.

So the question is, what do we moderns do about this matter? If we are not convinced that gods exist, or if the God we believe in is an abstract First Explanation (let alone a First Cause) that doesn’t answer prayers, is there any appropriate way to satisfy our need for prayer in hard times?