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My Take: Dear God: How to pray on National Day of Prayer?
President Barack Obama praying at a White House Easter event in April.
May 3rd, 2012
09:51 AM ET

My Take: Dear God: How to pray on National Day of Prayer?

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

Dear Deity,

In the Milky Way, on planet Earth, in the United States of America, Thursday is our National Day of Prayer, so I am writing to ask You how to pray.

Seventy eight percent or so of U.S. citizens are Christians, so should we pray today to the Christian God? This seems to be the conviction of the folks at the National Day of Prayer Task Force, which pops up first if you Google “National Day of Prayer.” (By the way, do You Google, God? And if so do you ever Google "God"?)

The NDP Task Force refers to itself as “Judeo-Christian,” but it sure looks evangelical to me. It has been chaired since 1991 by Shirley Dobson, the wife of Focus on the Family founder (and evangelical stalwart) James Dobson. Its site quotes liberally from the New Testament, and one of its goals is to “foster unity within the Christian Church.”

A NDP Task Force press release begins: “Americans to Unite and Pray on Thursday, May 3rd, for the 61st Annual Observance of the National Day of Prayer." But will their sort of prayer really unite our nation?

Twenty four percent of Americans are Catholics, and God knows they don’t pray the way evangelicals do. Nearly 2% are Mormons and another 2% are Jews. And neither of those groups talks to You with the easy familiarity of born-again Christians.

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And what about American Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists?  Muslims agree with their Jewish and Christian neighbors that there is one God. But how to pray as a nation when some believers affirm more than one God and some affirm fewer?

As You obviously know, the 1.6% of Americans who call themselves atheists and the 2.4% who call themselves agnostics refer to today as the National Day of Reason. On their web site, they argue that our National Day of Prayer represents an unwanted and unconstitutional intrusion of religion into the workings of the U.S. government.

In his various proclamations of the National Day of Prayer, including this year's, President Obama has referred to prayer as an important part of U.S. history. He speaks of the Continental Congress and Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. being driven to their knees by the force of the tasks set before them.

But when our national icons have prayed on our behalf, they have done so in generic terms. Washington addressed “the Almighty”; Jefferson called on “that Infinite Power.” They did so because they wanted prayer to unite us, not to divide us, and they knew from the start that different Americans call You by different names.

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But addressing “Providence” in vague pieties will not satisfy everyone either. The evangelicals at the NPD Task Force reject efforts to “homogenize” America’s many different ways of praying into one common prayer.

I see their point. Like language, religion is a specific sort of thing. If you are going to speak, you need to choose a language. If you are going to pray, you need to choose a religion (and a god). So if they want to pray to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, more power to them.

But what happens when that particular prayer language is put forth as our collective national language? What happens when we pray, as Rick Warren did at President Obama’s inaugural, “in the name of the one who changed my life, Yeshua, Isa, Jesus”? Then prayer turns into a wedge, dividing those who call you Christ from those who call You Krishna (or do not call on You at all).

So I return to my original question: How should we pray on this National Day of Prayer?

But while I have Your attention (do I?) I have one more.

This year the NDP Task Force has chosen for its theme “One Nation Under God” and its Bible quote is: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalms 33:12). Is our god You? Since 1954 we have bragged in our Pledge of Allegiance that we are "one nation under God." Are we?

All too often, it seems to me, we use You rather than following You. Democrats ask You to shill for them on tax policy and immigration. Republicans claim to speak in Your name on abortion and gay marriage. Does this annoy You — playing the pawn in our political chess games? Don't You sometimes just want to smite us?

Finally, before I let you go, I must ask You about the marginal tax rate for the wealthiest Americans. Perhaps You have more important things on your plate, but while I have Your attention (do I?) I must ask: What portion of their income should millionaires pay to the U.S. government? When President Kennedy came into office the highest income tax rate was 91%. Was that too high? Today it is 35%. Is that too low? (Just curious.)

This prayer is already too long, so I should stop. But if You are still there (are You?) maybe you could just tell me whether You follow the Roman Catholic Church. If so, could you comment on the recent fight the Vatican has been picking with American nuns? Do you think our nuns should be spending more time fighting contraception and less time caring for the poor and the sick?

And do get back to me on that how to pray thing. We’re all supposed to do it on Thursday, together.

Sincerely,

Steve

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Barack Obama • Catholic Church • Christianity • Politics • Prayer • Uncategorized • United States

soundoff (4,673 Responses)
  1. LucretiusC

    I did enjoyed reading this article, I just disagree with the following:
    First of all, those figures are misleading. The percentage of American Atheists is way higher, and not 1.6 %. Just like Bertrand Russell said, if I speak to a philosopher I would say that I am an agnostic, and if a speak to a layman I would say that I am an atheist. The number of those 2 combined is above way above 15% (close to the percentage in the UK).
    Second of all, the Muslim god is NOT the same as the Christian god or the Jewish god. Catholics and Christians recognize GOD, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit as one. Kind of like getting an ice-cream with threee flavors blended together. The Muslims believe that Jesus existed at one point, but that Mohammed is the real prophet. So anyone believing that they all pray the same god is wrong. And the Jews ... they are still waiting for their prophet, but it will never come because he will have to be someone with lots of cash, and someone who is going to give them land and peace, and cash too.
    I was born iand raised n a Catholic family, so I prayed and even became an altar boy, and lived with fear until I turn 18 and got into UCLA. The Chem Dept and the Philosophy Dept there opened my eyes. I hold a PhD in Chemistry and an MD, and let me tell you that RELIGION IS FOR THE IMPRESSIONABLE UNEDUCATED INDIVIDUAL ONLY. No offense to anyone.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      They are all based on the same Abrahamic God of the old testament no matter how they try to differentiate from each other.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • JayJ7

      I think you could write better religion articles for CNN. You've got my vote.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      I think we have to demand that the schools teach the kids that – that religion is nonsense. Just like we teach the kids that the Earth is round.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  2. Voice of Reason

    Free from faith, free from god! We are here to protect the innocent, the children, the women, the races, mankind and dignity from the clawing hands of the religious. Educate yourselves and learn what life is about. Why do you believe such nonsense? Life is now, not later!

    May 3, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • If horses had Gods ... their Gods would be horses

      Sounds like a rally cry to action ... I'm withya!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      I'm ready to roll!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:04 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      I agree. People need to brake the shackles of religious slavery!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:39 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      I meant "break"! LOL!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:44 pm |
  3. David Rosenberg

    Interesting. As a result of the book Faith of our Founding Fathers, I have figured out that I am a Jewish Deist. However, I go to church with my Protestant wife. What I have found is that a good pastor with a good message is worth listening to, no matter what your personal belief. If only the people in the church understood what they were listening to. I share the belief of many of our founders that Jesus existed, but that while he certainly led to the founding of the Christian faith and certainly transformed Judaism, he was not born of virgin birth and was not resurrected and did not write the New Testament. However, he had a great message. Too bad more Christians don't follow it.

    May 3, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • hmmmmm

      You obviously don't pay attention in church either. Jesus didn't write the New Testament or any book in the Bible for that matter.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
  4. Todd

    Whether one chooses to believe or not, it won't alter the truth of the existence of God, Divine, Deity, or whatever you might call Him/Her/Them. This "struggle" is really our own insecurity with our decision to be people of faith, having chosen a deliberate path that converges and diverges with others' paths along the way. Be confident enough to stand firmly on your decision, recognizing that some will never agree or be convinced one way or the other. Even atheists' denial of "God" is an affirmation of God's reality. However, they (atheists) stand firm on their conviction about the negation.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Wow

      "Even atheists' denial of "God" is an affirmation of God's reality/" It's amazing streches of reason like that one that make it impossible to have a rational discussion of religion with some people.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • timc

      This is the kind of sick thinking ultra religious people like to take part in. How do you convince yourself that our doubting of your 'god' somehow actually reaffirms his existance? Are you braindead?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Todd only makes sense to those lacking sufficient chromosomes.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • JT

      How does one choose not to believe? Those of us who lack a belief in a deity do not choose this position but have no choice. Assuming you do not believe in fairies, do you choose to not believe in fairies or do you not believe because of lack of evidence and the absurdity of it all? You've been so indoctrinated from childhood that you can't step outside that bubble. Why aren't you one of the billion followers of Islam?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • The 666 Club

      You sir are what the rest of us refer to as a moron.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • LucretiusC

      The reason religion exists is because impressionable uneducated people exist.
      There is absolutely no way you attended university reasoning the way you do. I hold a PhD and an MD. And let me tell you that it is very difficult to find an educated person who believes in an imaginary friend. It is okay to do so when you're 3, but not as an adult, that would be pathological. My diagnosis to your statement is simply "Ignorance"

      May 3, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • Maya

      So, basically EVERYTHING that happens is an affirmation of your beliefs? Well, isn't THAT convenient. It allows to never have to confront the notion that YOU might possibly be wrong. It must be nice to live in a reality where YOU are always right and anyone who doesn't agree with you is always wrong.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  5. sortakinda

    ANNOUNCEMENT: The local chapter of the international organization of atheists has been arrested, suspected of being a dope ring.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • David Rosenberg

      How can your arrest a pastor.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • David Rosenberg

      Typo. How can you arrest a chapter? Sorry bout that.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  6. Brett the Atheist

    Can we please have a National Day of Reason, Learning, and Rational Thought? Just one...that's all I'm asking.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Really?

      Per this article 96% of the population believes in something god-like...and you're calling us unreasonable and illogical? LOL!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • StatingtheObvious

      The two can co-exist. They don't conflict by necessity 🙂 People just seem to think faith and reason should intersect when they probably shouldn't-at least not in the ways we seem to want them to.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Flat Earth was a another popular belief.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • President Obama

      Only if it gets me as many votes as the religion industry can!!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Lilith

      Really? ... like my Momma used to say, "If everyone jumped off a cliff does that mean you need too?!". Momma was a smart woman.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:00 pm |
    • JayJ7

      Really?...You are unreasonable and illogical, you don't have the brainpower or education to understand anything about the world. Yes you are the majority. That's why the world is in such great shape.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Brett–buy time on TV to get your message across. You must be smarter than Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas....what? Never heard of them? They never heard of you either. Their loss?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:05 pm |
    • hmmmmm

      We could but then our president would have to take the day off.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:07 pm |
    • Brett the Atheist

      sortakinda, I think you're confused... How do you conclude that I've never heard of philosophers like Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Kierkegaard, Confucius, Hume, Spinoza, etc, when I'm advocating for a day of learning, reason and rational thought?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
  7. JayJ7

    So I Goggled God, one of the first websites was how to find God. I clicked on it and got a "website not found" message. As an Atheist I took this as a sign from God to stop looking.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
  8. jashary15

    A National Day of Prayer? Then which God do you pray to? Which one will answer you? Even the Devil is referred to in the Scriptures as a "god". Is he part of that national day, too?

    May 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
  9. john

    As a believer I find it comforting for my children to know that no matter what happens in this ugly world we live in, no matter what happens to people that they don't have to fear death because GOD has an eternal place where you go to never be aFraid or hunger again. And that alone, to comfort their hearts and my own, is why I choose to believe. Ty Jesus for your suffering and Ty father for your sacrifice

    May 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      I find it comforting to know that no matter what happens after I die, I'll be dead!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Confused

      What was that sacrifice, exactly? His son is still around, as I understand it.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Maya

      You demonstrate an interesting point. Christianity depends on the presumption that the world is ugly and humanity is sinful. The religion is inherently negative. It embraces death. After all, it revolves around the notion that someone had to DIE to save us.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm |
  10. Really?

    @sybaris

    Do you think that the 96% of the population that believes in some sort of higher power is delusional? Hello pot? It's kettle calling...

    May 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      A lot of people believed in a flat Earth or that starts were holes poked by God where light shone through.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      Pulled that 96% number out of your ass, didn't you. Liar.

      In America, the number is between 16% and 36%, depending on the study and what question is asked.. Throughout the world, 16% are irreligious.

      So if the total population of America is 112% or more, your number is fine.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      I meant stars

      May 3, 2012 at 6:56 pm |
    • Really?

      @Ralph...this article...not my numbers. Wonder Llama...ha! If you were a wonder llama, you'd read before you speak!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • One one

      Actually, 16% of Americans do not identify themselves with religion. Besides percent believers means nothing. At one time most people believed the earth was flat and disease was caused by evil spirits. Today, one third of Americans believe in ghosts. That that mean all that is true? How many people believe in an afterlife? What is the evidence that an afterlife actually exists?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:01 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      You did not understand what you read, stupid. The article does not mention the number of people who answer poll "no religion" or "religion is not important in my life." Prothero only mentioned the people who specifically label themselves atheists or agnostics. The hidden number, readily available to even the simplest online search, are apatheists. These are actually atheists who do not bother to label themselves. You lumped them in with the religious.

      Feel free to google "demographics of irreligion" to see how stupid you are. You derived a number from one single article – this one – and got it wrong. Stupid.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • JT

      Reality and facts aren't open to a democratic vote. Sorry.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Maya

      If 96% of people believed in unicorns, would that mean unicorns must be real?

      Do you hear that sound? It is logic knocking on your door. Stop ignoring it.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:11 pm |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    May 3, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      God is not any more probable than a toilet orbiting the moon.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:52 pm |
    • But....

      It's my understanding that Christians believe everything that happens is according to God's plan. So if you pray for something to happen and it happens, either it was going to happen anyway according to God's plan, or your prayer somehow altered God's plan, which means it wasn't much of a plan to begin with if anyone's prayer can alter it. This is only one reason the Christian idea of prayer makes no sense to me.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Templeton Prayer study

      Results:
      In the two groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred
      in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those
      who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% confidence interval 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in
      59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52%
      (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% confidence
      interval 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.

      Conclusions:
      Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from
      CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was asociated with a higher incidence of
      complications.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:53 pm |
    • Lilith

      Prayer works as well as:
      Wishing on a star, blowing out candles or crossing you fingers
      PROVEN!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • HotAirAce

      If prayer does anything, it makes believers more stupid each time they pray.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
    • Maya

      Pathetic trolls who incessantly spam comments sections with the same unfounded drivel ad nauseum change NOTHING.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  12. Tortfeasor

    I was rasied Christian and I still pray to the Christian God, but today I believe that Jesus was a sham, so I don't know what to call myself now.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      Stop praying!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • get a life

      Jesus of Nazareth was a real man. That's not debated because there are records that say he existed just as there are records for Julius Caesar, Alexander, Cleopatra, all those folks in history. Even if he wasn't the son of God, no other person has had the effect on the world as he has. He was the greatest man to have walked the face of the earth, deity or not.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • The Sonman

      Well if Jesus is a sham to you then it would be time for you to pray somewhere else because the "Christian God" only hears our prayers through His Son Jesus!

      May 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • sortakinda

      You pray to the Christian God but don't believe in Jesus? That's nice. Is your mother your father?

      May 3, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  13. Believers are stupid!!

    God is not any more probable than a toilet full of chit orbiting the moon.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      Bad analogy. In the late Sixties and early Seventies, there were indeed toilets full of shit orbitting the moon on the Apollo capsules.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Believers are stupid!!

      So you are saying orbiting toilets are more probable than god? 😉

      May 3, 2012 at 6:55 pm |
    • sortakinda

      Nice tag. Like a one-issue candidate. When you get wet, do you dissolve like Charmin? Just aksin cause you seem to spend a load of time thinkin bout toilets.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:16 pm |
  14. raggmopp

    People who are quoting scripture are perfect examples of people who cannot think for themselves.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • And...

      And they should realize that using statements from their holy text will not be persuasive to those who use a different text or no text.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
  15. One one

    God wants our worship and love it seems.
    But he only appears to us in our dreams.
    You can pray for his help, but don’t hold your breath.
    For his plan for you is your inevitable death.
    They claim if you believe, you’re heaven bound.
    But a witness for this has never been found.
    No guarantees for this claim, now THAT’s a sin.
    So don’t take the bait and get hooked and reeled in.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Brendan

      Just because it rhymes does not make it clever. This is not clever.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:48 pm |
    • get a life

      If I'm wrong then it didn't do me any harm in having faith. If you're wrong...

      May 3, 2012 at 6:49 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      That was clever.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
    • Lilith

      The Bible teaches us to love and fear God ..
      I teach my children that's the kind of relationship to run from.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      Get a life. Exactly what all the other thousands of faiths think about you. You are taking quite a gamble by not believing in all those gods.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:51 pm |
    • get a life

      Godoflunaticscreation
      Unlike other religions, many that require for me to murder my fellow man, Christianity teaches me to help them.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • Godoflunaticscreation

      You are delusional. The god you worship calls for genocide and worse. Your religion is barbaric compared to many actual peaceful religions that exist today.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:06 pm |
  16. get a life

    How to pray? The Bible made it real easy. It's called The Lord's Prayer.
    Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name thy kingdom come thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen

    May 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • sybaris

      and yet it fails to produce any results.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Bizarre

      Odd that Paul of Tarsus, who was supposedly visited by "Jesus" himself, and was the #1 spreader of the "word", never knew that prayer (The Lord's Prayer)...

      May 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  17. One one

    Millions of devoted believers pray for world peace every day. It doesn't seem to have done much good. If there is a god and he just keeps saying NO to such a reasonable request, what is the point of praying at all?

    May 3, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
    • sybaris

      Oh but he can sure help them find their car keys!

      May 3, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
    • hmmmmm

      How do you know that it didn't prevent even more wars? I use to be Atheist as well. After years and years of my own research I found that science raised more questions then it answered. I am not trying to convert anyone. However, at least read the entire Bible before you start quoting certain passages. Have an educated opinion not just an opinion.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:58 pm |
  18. Big_D

    I'm a deist and I pray that the hatred and wars caused by organized religion will end.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • Ralph The Wonder Llama

      You don't understand deism if you pray. Deism believes that if there is a God, he is not actively operating the universe or becoming involved in the affairs of humans.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
  19. Believers are stupid!!

    Being an "atheist" is just a tiny part of being a rational human being. "God" and "religion" is really just a small, irrelevant, discredited idea.

    May 3, 2012 at 6:42 pm |
    • hmmmmm

      How has it been discredited? Any evidence there is no God? Use facts to support your statement not just the need to state your opinion and jump on the bandwagon.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
  20. J M Turner

    The NAACP was started for the advancement of blacks. National Day of Prayer was started for Christians and Jews. If you're Hindu then start one for whichever god you choose.....muslims can have one for Allah...the moon god. Atheists shoudn't worry about it since they don't believe in any god. Why do you atheists spend so much time on something you don't believe in ? Go find you something to believe in.....

    May 3, 2012 at 6:41 pm |
    • sybaris

      Because we fear the triumph of ignorance over reason.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:46 pm |
    • Because...

      Atheists spend time worrying about the people who would like our country to be a theocracy–with their particular brand of religion in charge, of course.

      May 3, 2012 at 6:47 pm |
    • Maya

      We are not spending time on things we don't believe in. We are spending time combating those who would treat us as second-class citizens for not believing it. It is sad that you cannot recognize the difference.

      May 3, 2012 at 7:15 pm |
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