Prayer: it’s why I lost faith

Compare prayer in Christianity and Buddhism

Perhaps like many who have left Christianity or other theistic religions, I found that prayer was a major reason I could no longer believe. I was raised in a non-denominational Christian church. My parents fought every Sunday to get four kids to church by 8am. We had morning breakfast, children’s church, worship songs, and the sermon which finally let out around 1pm. There was youth group during the week. I didn’t go trick or treating until college because “Halloween is a pagan holiday Christians should participate in”. Basically, a fairly normal Christian upbringing. How did prayer become a factor that pushed me away from faith?

From my earliest memories of saying a nightly prayer, it was always for protection for myself, healing for others, or for something I wanted. As I got into elementary school and middle school it became bargaining – if I do X, can I please get Y? It was also during these ages that prayer became confession. I needed to ask for nightly forgiveness and as I got older the guilt and confession cycle was in full swing.

I can’t pinpoint exactly when things started to break down, but I’d say in early high school it became apparent that no matter my sincerity when asking for help from the creator of all, I just couldn’t shape up. In retrospect I wasn’t asking for anything drastic, just some behavior modifications. But maybe I was just praying wrong or not believing enough.

I can say the snap came when I saw a story about mothers losing their very young children to hunger and disease. These women were sobbing and begging for help from the Christian god – presumably the right one – and yet their children passed away all the same. I thought, surely these women’s prayers are as good of a prayer as anyone could deliver and yet nothing happens. Days go by, and more innocent children pass away while their Christian mothers wail in despair. To me, it was plain to see that prayer as a way to call upon God to intercede is not real. No wonder it didn’t work for a 12-year-old me!

Prayer has other redeeming qualities, but saving lives from the grips of disease or accidents or changing the course of cause and effect is not one of them.

People who pray for a divine entity to intervene are very quick to say a prayer was answered when something goes their way. But when they ardently prayed and things don’t go their way, it’s chalked up to a mystery they will never understand.

This is not unique to Christians. Muslims, Hindus, and other theistic religions participate in this belief in intercessory prayer with the same results.

This is one aspect of theism that I couldn’t reconcile. So, that is why Buddhism, Taoism, Secularism, and Atheism, captured my attention. Buddhists do not pray to Buddha to intercede on their lives – or at least there is no basis for this type of prayer – because Buddha is not a god. Buddha was a man and has been dead for a long time and will not be reaching an invisible hand into the land of the living to make sure you sell your house.

“Prayer” in Buddhism and the other Eastern religions is perhaps not really the right word. Buddhists meditate or are mindful they are not necessarily praying in the common definition of the word – a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship. There are elaborate chants and words offering thanks to Buddha for illuminating a path to enlightenment but those might be categorized as sacred songs rather than prayer because there’s not really an element of worship because Buddha is not a deity. Chanting and saying words of thanks can be a way Buddhists get in touch with their Buddhahood, but they typically do not believe they are speaking directly to Buddha in the way most Christians think of prayer as a way to speak directly to God.

Let’s take a closer look at the differences and similarities between prayer and meditation.

Side-by-side comparison of Christian prayer and Buddhist meditation:

AspectTheistic Prayer (Christianity)Meditation/Mindfulness (Buddhism)
Nature of PracticeCommunication with a divine being, typically God.Focused self-awareness and mental discipline, often without invoking a deity.
PurposeTo establish a personal relationship with God, seek guidance, confess sins, offer praise, request divine intervention.To achieve self-realization, cultivate mindfulness, gain insight into the nature of reality, and attain enlightenment (Nirvana).
Belief in DeityBelief in the existence of a personal God who listens to and responds to prayers.Buddhism generally does not involve belief in a personal deity.
Focus of AttentionDirected toward a divine being, often with specific requests or expressions of devotion.Directed inwardly, focusing on breath, sensations, thoughts, or a specific object or mantra.
Verbal or SilentCan be either verbal (spoken prayers) or silent (mental prayer).Often silent, with an emphasis on non-verbal awareness.
Community vs. IndividualCan be practiced individually or in a communal setting, such as a church service or prayer group.Often practiced individually, although group meditation sessions and retreats are common in some Buddhist traditions.
Role of RitualsMay involve structured rituals, such as reciting prayers, making specific gestures, or using religious objects like rosaries.May involve ritualistic aspects, but meditation is often less ritualized and more adaptable to personal preferences.
Cultural and Sect VariationsDifferent Christian sects (e.g., Catholic, Protestant) have variations in prayer practices.Different Buddhist schools (e.g., Theravada, Mahayana, Zen) have variations in meditation techniques and approaches.
Goal of PracticeSeeking divine intervention, grace, or blessings.Achieving inner peace, clarity of mind, and ultimately, liberation from suffering (Nirvana).

The point of writing this out is twofold:

  1. It’s nice to be able to articulate with some clarity and distance some of the difficult questions, ideas, and feelings that came up early in my life.
  2. Perhaps someone else will be interested in the major differences between theistic prayer and non-theistic meditation and mindfulness.
  3. Provide some options for non-religious people to still engage with a nightly “prayer” routine (see below).

The power of theistic prayer

In my experience praying to God had two obvious advantages: 1) confession and bargaining made me consistent and 2) there was clarity in who I was addressing with my prayers. I was praying from when I could speak to sometime in high school and I was pretty dang consistent through it all. I think praying to a named entity helped me focus and articulate the prayers. Also, the nature of my prayers was largely to ask for help which encouraged lengthy nightly one-sided conversations.

I find it more difficult to sit and meditate with the same consistency that I was able to produce with fear-based and bargaining prayer. Furthermore, with my children it is more difficult to come up mindful versions of the catchy prayers that I grew up with. One of my go-to childhood prayer was, “As I lay me down to sleep, I pray the lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the lord my soul to take. God bless mommy and daddy and my whole entire family. Please help me to have good dreams or no dreams. Good night.”

Recently I tried a few “gratitude prayers” with my five-year-old son, he asked, “who are we talking to?” I stumbled through something like, “we are just expressing our gratitude for all we have to the universe…” I was not prepared – something I’m working on. If we were Christians praying the answer is easy. I’m having to reframe my own approach to introducing mindfulness before bed or at other moments of the day for the kids and myself.

“Prayers” for Buddhists or non-religious families

Buddhist prayers for bedtime

I think one of the difficulties is not having simple language on the tip of my tongue. So, here’s my attempt to create a few “goodnight mantras” or Buddhist inspired words my children and I can use before bed.

Just to reiterate, Buddhism doesn’t have traditional prayers to a deity (no deities here), these are mindfulness or metta (loving-kindness) phrases to say before bedtime to promote positive qualities and well-being. I believe these phrases can help instill values of compassion and inner peace. Here are a few examples:

  1. Metta (Loving-Kindness) Meditation:
    • May I be happy.
    • May I be healthy.
    • May I be safe.
    • May I live with ease.
    After repeating these for oneself, children can extend these wishes to others:
    • May my family be happy.
    • May my friends be healthy.
    • May all beings be safe.
    • May everyone live with ease.
  2. Gratitude Meditation:
    • I am thankful for this day.
    • I am grateful for my family.
    • I appreciate the love around me.
    • I am thankful for the food I eat and the roof over my head.
  3. Mindfulness Phrases:
    • I breathe in, I breathe out.
    • I am calm, I am peaceful.
    • I let go of my worries.
    • I am here in the present moment.
  4. Compassion Meditation:
    • May all beings be free from suffering.
    • May all beings find happiness.
    • May all beings live with compassion.
    • May all beings be at peace.

I agree with all these phrases and believe promoting positive qualities such as kindness, gratitude, mindfulness, and compassion will help my children navigate the challenges of life to come and just be fantastic people in this world!

From prayer to mindfulness

I haven’t prayed to a god in a very long time. During some intense life moments, like my wife being diagnosed with cancer, sometimes I “reach out” with my thoughts and energy to the universe but more often than not I’m looking to nature and inward for mindful moments. I’ve found that the words and wisdom within Buddhism align closely with my understanding and outlook on life. I no longer say a nighttime prayer but instead take the time to meditate or even just be reflective on the day and my mind. I have also found it useful to step outside or look out the window and observe nature with a meditative mind. Nature can bring calm, perspective, and typically a little humor (I have some very active squirrels around my house!) – there’s a lot that can be learned from that practice.

Do I miss prayer? Not really. However, it is still surprising how easy it is to slip into a prayer when my head hits the pillow. But nowadays I simply observe the prayer flow through my mind and let it pass along with the other thoughts.