The Food of Priestcraft and Bane of Common Sense.

First published in London as a pamphlet in the 1840s.


  Can prayer change God?

Is prayer meritorious?

HOW should men pray?

Prayer is useful in its effects upon the mind of the petitioner

Does prayer invigorate the mind?

What are its uses?

PRAYER IS THE PETITION MADE BY MAN to the supposed author of his existence, in belief of his will and power to grant the request.

We are commanded by the popular religion to "pray without ceasing."

As this is a very difficult task, it is of course not required of us without some reasons assigned for it; the object of this little essay is to examine those reasons in order to ascertain whether they are sufficient to justify the practice.

We are told that "if we ask we shall receive," and this presents an inducement so strong, that if it were true, there is no doubt but that the majority of mankind would indeed "pray without ceasing." But it is not true. How many are the fervent petitions, presented in faith by God's worshippers, which are never granted! "Ye ask, and have not, because ye ask amiss," says the new testament. But this could not be the case with all unanswered prayers.

The full heart, bursting with affliction, looked to the God in which it had been made to believe, for help. If such God existed, he could not think such confidence in his power or love "amiss," yet how many a "bruised reed" has been "broken" by the refusal of its most urgent prayer, made in its greatest need!

"Ye desire to have that ye may consume it upon your lusts," is the reproof administered to the disappointed petitioners. But the parent who has prayed for the preservation of life or virtue of his child, knows that such rebuke is in his case unmerited.

He prayed for health and virtue for one whom he believed God had entrusted to his care, for one whom nature bid him love and cherish, "his lusts" had nothing to do with such a petition! Why was it then refused?

The poor weak erring mortal who every now and then had fallen into some indiscretion-sin if you prefer it-prays to the God whom he believes capable of giving strength to the weak, that we would save him from the temptations which surround him. He prays in the humility which would rest on a stronger than himself According to Christianity, this would not be amiss, nor was it to feed "his lusts," but on the contrary that he might be able to deny them. Why then were not his petitions granted?

The church has prayed for the success of Christ's kingdom. Its devout members have longed for the salvation of their fellow men,-they have proved their sincerity too by giving their money as well as their prayers for the promotion of that object. It was surely not one which was furnished by "their lusts," nor could they "ask amiss" when they prayed as they thought Christ had taught them-"Thy kingdom come." Yet, who can say that the scintlings of Christianity now visible in the world is any answer to eighteen hundred years of prayers from fervent generations?

When too is it remembered that a rapid movement towards scepticism had taken place within the last few years, contemporaneous with yet deeper devotion and more urgent prayers from the faithful, it appears to be demonstrable that Baal is not the only god who when men petition him, "must be asleep, or on a journey," &c., since their requests are not granted.

The church has prayed much more successfully for the "good estate of the catholic church," yet there may be some doubt whether in the latter petition more than in the former was not to be found the "asking that they might consume it upon their lusts." The purple and fine linen and sumptuous fare of the dignitaries of the church have been bestowed. The power of Christianity to amass worldly riches is, so far, unquestionable,-but its power to subdue passion and prejudice, to make the world imitators of the meek and humble one, is now more dubious then ever.

You have prayed;-prayed in vain-will not the wise abandon so profitless a pursuit? ...

Can prayer change God?

Unless prayer could change the determination of God it would seem use-less to offer it, yet there are many reasons why this is impossible.

God is said to be immutable, "that in him there is no variableness or shadow of turning," yet he must be continually changing if he suffered himself to be guided by the prayers of changeful man, who, to-day longs for the rose, and tomorrow weeps over the wound of the thorn.

Succeeding generations, from a change of tastes and habits, make op-posite requests, and "grant us peace in out time, Oh! Lord," succeeds to "prosper thou our righteous cause, Oh Lord," and "subdue the King's enemies under his feet."

Is this immutable one a vane, to be veered about by the breath of prayer from whatsoever quarter it may blow?

2. It is impossible that any God could grant the various and contradictory prayers which even saints may present. The favourable answer to one prayer often involves the disappointment of an antagonistic request. "If it be possible let this cup pass from me," said Christ, but many had prayed for salvation for Israel, and if their salvation was to be won by his tasting death for every man, (strange that every man is obliged to taste death for himself also), it was not in the power of God himself to answer both prayers favourably.

3. If God is the moral ruler of the universe, as great events often de-pend on those which appear trifling, and as every one is necessary to con-nect the great chain of cause and effect, if he has determined anything of all that has, or shall happen, he has determined all, and it must be as use-less to ask him to alter any part of the arrangement, as to ask him to undo the whole.

Christians seem to be pretty well aware of this, for the usual addenda to all their prayers is "nevertheless not my will but thine be done," and "if it please thee," or, "unless, in thy infinite wisdom thou hast otherwise determined"; which is very much like saying, You may give it me if you please, but I know that you will not give me any more for asking, so let it alone if you prefer to do so. Supple Christianity!

If prayer does not directly benefit man by the obtainment of his de-sires, in our further search into the reasons for the practice, we may ask,-

Is prayer meritorious?

The majority of the professors of the protestant religion will undoubtedly answer in the negative, but their conduct will contradict their words. They will say "we are unprofitable servants, we have done that which it was our duty to do," but they will feel, (if they are believers), all the more comfort-able for the performance. The Catholic will be more honest, he will liter-ally understand the scripture which says "the kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence, and the violent take it by storm," and so he will pour a torrent of words in hopes of swamping Heaven's determinations.

If one can be amused at the religious follies of fellow-beings, to whom these things are of such serious import, ample material is furnished for it in the Roman Catholic Book of Common Prayer, where we find directions for the obtainment of heaven's blessings in proportion to the number of times we repeat certain talismanic words....

If there be any merit in devotion it becomes an important question,

HOW should men pray?

Some suppose it necessary to prostate themselves in order to get their requests attended to. Others think it necessary to perform certain ablutions first. Some make offerings of incense, fruits, and blood, aye, even the blood of their fellow-men, and think that such gifts will procure from their God a favourable attention to their prayers. Nor is it only among Hindoos, Mahometans or savages that differences of opinion exist. Christians affirm that the nominal head of their church taught them how to pray, and what to pray for; and they prove the clearness of the instructions, or their punctilious obedience of them, by the diversity of their practice. The churches of England and Rome so devoutly appreciate that "beautiful formula" the Lord's Prayer, that they repeat it several times over in each service, as though they were apprehensive of God's inattention, but hoped out of several repetitions he may chance to hear one. They seem to think prayer God's music, and they play often what they fancy are his favorite tunes.

Among Christian churches some stand while they address their prayers to God; others think it necessary to kneel. Some turn to the east and curt-sey at certain magic words, while others make the sign of the cross and use holy water as the necessary accompaniments. Whence all these differences? If a God requires prayer of men, he would require it of all; and since it is very evident that all men cannot pray acceptably, since some accompany their prayers with ridiculous and others with cruel practices, and that they do this from ignorance, it follows, that there is no creative intelligence who requires of any man prayer, since he has not taught all men how to pray acceptably.

Perhaps the reader will have a sudden influx of Christian charity, and suppose that God overlooks all these minor differences, as he may be in-clined to call forms and ceremonies when he is engaged in an infidel con-troversy.

If this be so and all modes be equally harmless, let the gentle reader use,

for conscience sake, one of those by which the Hindoo worshipper honors the Goddess Kalee, as mentioned in the Missionary Quarterly Papers.

Prayer is useful in its effects upon the mind of the petitioner

This is the most rational defence of prayer, let us glance at its pretensions.

I will take it for granted that the constant and sincere solicitation of God to make us virtuous, meek, charitable, &c., &c., is calculated to generate in us the disposition for which we pray. But what of this? If men were taught the pure charity which thinketh no evil:-the calm content that knows no impatience:-the sober temperance which knows no excess:- in fine, the pure morals which can do no wrong, then, they would be in a state to ask for good things only, but then they would not need the so called soothing, sin-checking influence of prayer, for they would be already all that you consider prayer may make them.

Men pray out of themselves, as they speak at other times out of them-selves. "Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh." Thus, David cannot be supposed to have done any thing towards calming and purifying his heart when his prayer was, "let his children be orphans and his wife a widow." Nor is it wonderful when his religion allowed him to think that such prayers would be heard and answered by God, that on his death-bed, revenge and murder still breathed forth in his last instructions to his son and successor.

[David's praying to God to help him to commit murder has been imitated, at an humble distance, in modern times, by one, John Bridmore, aged sixty-five, who, according to Bell's New Weekly Messenger, was charged at the Lambeth Police Court, with having violated two sisters tender of age. One of them was too ill to attend, and the other stated, that the prisoner went down on his knees and made his evening prayer immediately before his commission of the offence. Did his prayer purify his heart? Or is it not possible, that even in the presence of his intended victims, he was praying for the success of his designs?]

Does prayer invigorate the mind?

On the contrary prayer is the palsy of effort. The person much inclined to ask God's assistance, learns to repose on the hope of its obtainment, in-stead of actively seeking the good desired by his own labour. They wait to see the "leadings of providence." They pause "lest they should seem to be troubled about many things," and neglect "the one thing needful."

They think it necessary to "seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness," and they expect that all other things shall be added to them.

If then prayer does not produce the blessings sought by it, and if its effect on the mind of the individual is not of an improving character, then,

What are its uses?

The priest knows them well, and applies them, to the continuance of his nefarious power. Does any member of the flock occasionally have "hard thoughts of God," doubts respecting the divinity of his religion, or suspi-cions of the righteousness of some "dispensation of providence," the priest declares him sinful and convinces him of the necessity for urgent prayer, that the "devil thus resisted may flee from him." Does a sermon appear to be, what it really is, a dry, profitless discourse, it is the fault of the hearer, he must pray that God will bless the word spoken, and render it profitable. The man who believes it a duty to pray for faith, "Lord I believe help thou my unbelief," has lost, for the time, the power to use his understanding on any matters of religion. He is the tame slave of the priest, his spiritual guide, who, over his creed, his morals, and his estate, exercises an almost unlimited sway.

Christians! shake off the supineness which your priests have created in you; dare to think for yourselves, nor suppose your God can be pleased with the sacrifice of your reason. The bended knee is not the attitude for study. Read the Bible with the eye of criticism not of faith. Suspend your devotions, and reflect on the reception of your past petitions. Ask no more till they are granted.

Copied from Women Without Superstition "No Gods, No Masters" by Annie Laurie Gaylor, published by Freedom From Religion Foundation (