We wrote a book called Never Pray Again. The book began as a thought experiment. What if you took the word “prayer” out of a variety of public and private forms of prayer? What would be left? Instead of prayers of confession you’d just have an imperative to confess. Instead of prayers for intercession you’d have an imperative to intercede. We noticed that in almost every case there was an interesting spiritual practice rooted in neighbor-centered activity instead of the predominantly passive mode of prayer.
Whenever I discuss the premise of the book with people for the first time the basic objection I encounter is this: why not do both? Why not pray AND act with justice and mercy? Few people disagree with me and my co-authors about the need for increased social-justice activity among Christians, but many people don’t agree with us, or don’t understand why we think prayer might be, in some circumstances, a hindrance to this cause.
So I would like to offer an analogy.
I used to play World of Warcraft (WoW). Not just play: I was the main tank for a raiding guild throughout the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. For those of you not familiar with what I’m talking about, WoW is the most successful massively multiplayer online roleplaying game ever. Hundreds of millions of people have created characters to log-in to a fantasy world to go on quests, which mostly involve some variant of killing x wild creatures and turning in y scavenged body parts. A raiding guild is a group of people who team up to conquer powerful enemies. Being in a raid requires hundreds and hundreds of hours invested in the game honing skills and learning tactics, and the main tank is arguably the most difficult and time-intensive role in the group.
Depending on who you are this little confession has either caused me to lose all your respect or to grow considerably in your esteem.
One of the features that WoW instituted during that period was a system of achievements, a feature which is now ubiquitous in video games. The achievement system basically tracked certain statistics about your activity in the game and rewarded you with a little banner that would pop up on the screen whenever you did something that the designers decided qualified as an achievement. Some of the achievements included in-game rewards like mounts for your character to ride, but the vast majority were nothing more than a box ticked in a database attached to your character that almost no one but you would ever view.
You might be asking, “who would care about getting a little banner to pop up proclaiming that you just harvested your 10,000th chunk of ore in a video game?” Me. That’s who. And millions of other players. We care about getting these achievements so much we spend hours doing things we acknowledge are drudgery, or attempting feats which require a lot of practice mastering niche skills only useful in a video game, or waiting on a random number generator to finally produce the right integer in order to see that little golden graphic on the screen and feel the little dose of happy endorphins our brain provides whenever it happens.
Those endorphins are the secret. Our brain literally rewards us when we engage in these virtual actions. It makes us feel like we accomplished something meaningful in the real world when all we’ve done is move some electrons around on a circuit board, or some pixels on a screen. Game designers know this and they exploit it. WoW is perhaps the greatest intermittent reward dispenser ever devised and it is highly addictive (and fun) for that very reason.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this analogy already. Prayer is a lot like the achievement system in WoW. When we pray about challenging situations in our lives, or the lives of our neighbors, our brain gives us a little endorphin rush which makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something. At the very least it helps dispel the anxiety that we were feeling and which might have driven us to meaningful action if we didn’t pray. When we pray about world hunger a little banner pops up in our brain that says “that was your 10,000th action to address world hunger,” and we feel like we’ve done something awesome even though we haven’t fed a single person.
Just like the achievements in WoW, no one but us really looks at or cares about the database of virtual accomplishments we are keeping in our heads. Periodically, I suppose, there are real-world rewards for these prayer-achievements. Piety tends to be rewarded in Christian circles with admiration and prestige, but like a pixelated mount or a title for your video game character these rewards are pretty insubstantial. The real game we are playing is one of self-admiration based entirely in a virtual currency only we are honoring.
There is one way WoW is actually superior to prayer: I may have fooled myself into thinking I was accomplishing something valuable while playing WoW, but I never fooled myself into thinking I was accomplishing something morally virtuous by playing WoW. At the end of the day I knew that WoW was just a game, but periodically when I pray I manage to convince myself that I’m actually doing something righteous.