- - Sunday, November 29, 2015

Does prayer work, or is prayer a fantasy?

When I grew up in the 1960s and went to high school, chapel attendance every day and twice on Sunday was mandatory. We did not sit down to eat without saying a prayer first. Thus, I grew up in a world where prayer was important.

There have always been skeptics about prayer. I like what Anglican Archbishop William Temple once said, “When I pray, coincidences happen. When I stop praying, coincidences stop happening.” That is a statement that everyone I talk with understands. It is also my experience.

For the skeptic, I believe that Blaise Pascal, the French mathematician, physicist and philosopher who lived from 1623 to 1662, got it exactly right when he presented “The Wager.” It was a groundbreaking proposition in that it charted new territory in probability theory and marked the first use of decision theory, and anticipated future philosophies including existentialism. It was set out in section 233 of his Pensees, published after his death.

In “The Wager,” Pascal posited that humans all bet with their lives either that God exists or that He does not. Based on the assumption that the stakes are eternal if God exists and that there is at least a probability that God in fact exists, Pascal argues that a rational person should live as though God exists and seek to believe in God. If God does not exist, such a person will have only a finite loss, perhaps some pleasures or luxuries forgone, whereas if He actually does exist they stand to receive infinite gains represented by an eternity in heaven and will have avoided the infinite losses of eternity in hell.

The Wager uses the following logic set out in Pensees, part III, 233:

1. God is, or God is not. Reason cannot decide between the two alternatives.

2. A Game is being played where heads or tails will turn up.

3. You must wager (it is not optional).

4. Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.

5. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is. There is here an infinity of an infinitely happy life to gain, a chance of gain against a finite number of chances of loss, and what you stake is finite. And so our proposition is of infinite force, when there is the finite to stake in a game where there are equal risks of gain and of loss, and the infinite to gain.

6. But some cannot believe. They should then “at least learn your inability to believe” and “Endeavour then to convince” themselves.

Pascal asks the reader to analyze mankind’s position, where our actions can be enormously consequential but our understanding of those consequences is flawed. While we can discern a great deal through reason, we are ultimately forced to gamble.

The same argument would seem to apply to prayer, which in essence is an acknowledgment of God, but even more so a God that is involved in the every day. This is beyond the deist God who does not get involved in the day-to-day. This is belief in a God who does get involved in the day-to-day.

In other words, what is the upside and what is the downside of faith? The upside is huge. The downside? There is no downside. Thus, even if you are a skeptic, why would you not consider prayer?

Prayer also does something beneficial. It recognizes that we need to be humble. If we don’t need anything, we can have lots of pride and treat people badly. If we are truly needy, and I haven’t yet found anyone who isn’t needy at some level, humility might be a much better approach. We need to respect others, acknowledge that we don’t know everything, ask for forgiveness when we have misbehaved toward others and ask for guidance. What person doesn’t need guidance in the future? You don’t need guidance only if you are in control of everything and you know exactly what is going to happen.

Thus, prayer offers us some great opportunities with no downside and can help us get right with the world, confess our mistakes, ask for guidance and be humble.

My mentor, Tommy Davis, was one of the most successful investors in Silicon Valley for over four decades. The most valuable lesson that he ever taught me is not to take risks. That is why, in his view, he was more successful in his overall results than other venture capitalists in Silicon Valley. Tommy could have as big a win as anyone, but he avoided losses like the plague, and thus on average did much, much better than his peers.

With this kind of upside and no downside, why would anyone not at least try prayer?

Chuck Stetson is CEO of the Stetson Family Office and of Essentials in Education, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to closing the gap between what students need to know and what they are being taught.

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