Reading Christopher Hitchens' Mortality I was struck once again by how people like him have no understanding of religion at all. Lacking as they do any religious sense, they can only (mis)understand it from the outside as if it were just a set of strange doctrines. They don't seem to understand that the doctrines are "necessary makeshifts," to borrow a fine phrase from F. H. Bradley, whereby we undertake to understand the Transcendent. Failing to appreciate the provisional character of doctrines and dogmatic formulations, people like Hitchens seize upon them as if they were the reality represented and then look for contradictions and absurdities. And of course they find them. For example, Hitchens sees an absurdity in prayer:
The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right. Half-buried in the contradiction is the distressing idea that nobody is in charge, or nobody with any moral authority. The call to prayer is self-cancelling. (Mortality, pp. 21-22)
The context makes this this little 'chemo-brain' outburst even less clear, if that is possible. Prayer, we are told, is the attempt to instruct God on how to set right what he has has got "all wrong." Now that has nothing to do with what anyone who actually prays means by 'prayer.' Take Plotinus (205-270):
The only way truly to pray is to approach alone the One who is Alone [All-One]. To contemplate that One, we must withdraw into the inner soul, as into a temple, and be still. (Enneads)
Did chatterbox Hitchens ever withdraw into his inner soul and be still? No? Then what right does he have to speak of these matters? This from the Talmud:
He who rises from prayer a better man, his prayer is answered.
The point here, I take it, is that we don't pray to change God so much as to change and improve ourselves. If we succeed in this, if we succeed in stilling our thoughts, mastering our desires, strengthening our resolutions, and re-directing our aspirations from the base to the noble, then we have succeeded in improving ourselves and our prayer has been answered. Here, in a similar vein, is Ralph Waldo Emerson from his great essay "Self-Reliance":
Prayer that craves a particular commodity, — any thing less than all good, — is vicious. Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view.
Hitchens has no understanding of religion or of prayer. The two are closely linked as William James observed:
Prayer is religion in act; that is, prayer is real religion. (Varieties of Religious Experience, 464)
In his profound incomprehension, Hitchens takes prayer in its crassest petitionary sense, oblivious of the iceberg submerged beneath that paltry tip.
Lacking as he does the religious sensibility, Hitchens is devoid of all sympathy for it, and can't see anything good in it. His understanding of it is the misundertanding of the outsider. To understand religion from the outside is like trying to understand music from the outside as a peculiar sort of acoustic disturbance. But religion, like music, chess, love, poetry, mathematics, running, science . . . can only be understood from the inside by those who engage in these activities and have the inner predisposition and talent to engage in them.