William James, America’s 19th century philosopher, is credited with saying that “man is incurably religious.” If that is possibly true, there must be a lot of folks praying for peace these days on behalf of the Ukrainian people.
That would include me.
And maybe you?
And maybe a good many Russians.
I’ve long assumed that the one human freedom that was guaranteed in every nation was that of religion. As long as there is prayer, and it doesn’t have to be public or corporate, there is religion. And as long as there is prayer, there will probably be prayers for peace on earth.
So how’s that “prayer thing” working out for us so far? Well, over the course of the last 3,400 years, not so hot. Only 268 of those years have been peaceful around the world, or just 8 percent of recorded history. With war defined as any human conflict where 1000 or more people are killed, that’s a lot of violent death. In the 20th century estimates run as high as 108 million or more people dying from warfare.
Who is to say that without prayer matters may have been even worse? But one can still wonder why all the prayers for peace have not born more visible fruit over the course of time. After all, even Zarathustra’s prayers healed the horse that helped form the Zoroastrian faith in ancient times. It doesn’t take a lot of “yes” answers to keep the faith. But only 8%?
Could it be that the real reason such prayer has such a low batting average is that at the same time the world’s people have been praying for peace they’ve actually been working for war?
What we as social scientists at least think we have evidence to support is that war is essentially caused by two human experiences: poverty and shame. Not directly, but indirectly.
Poverty and shame serve as emotional triggers. They trigger two profound fears: The fear of scarcity (not having enough) and the fear of inferiority (not being enough or of being “less than”).
“Wait up!” you may say. What’s the cause and effect here? Even if poverty and shame were to cause the fear of scarcity and inferiority, how do we know for sure that these fears bring about war? Isn’t that a stretch?
Yes. But here’s the evidence for such a stretch.
As the Harvard educated historian, Dr.Fiona Hill, writes in her book, “There is nothing for you here,” about her own uncommon success in rising from poverty and shame in northern England’s County Durham (think eastern Kentucky, USA) to arguably the world’s top expert on Vladmir Putin, it is the fear of scarcity and inferiority that causes critical masses of such people to demand a warrior king, by whatever title. Whether we’re talking the biblical Israelites clamoring for King Saul, or more recently the post WW I German people clamoring for Adolf Hitler or the post Soviet Russian people clamoring for Vladmir Putin, populist authoritarians or autocratic dictators become the warrior kings who conduct genocidal atrocities to ease the fears of their impoverished and ashamed citizenry, their follower "base."
Fearful people seek controlling authorities. They do so out of the anger that fear is always guaranteed to produce (just as fire produces smoke). They angrily demand warrior kings who will declare war against their scapegoated enemy. They then end up suffering the very scarcity and inferiority they feared the most; their fears become the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecies. The poor and the shamed become poorer and more ashamed. They seek a controlling authority who will fight for them. Their leader goes to war. The vicious cycle goes round and round.
Which then takes us back to the original question: praying for peace?
An 8% success rate suggests to me two things: 1) many of those praying for peace are doing so out of their own fear, and consequential anger, by having faith in a controlling God who shares their anger and their same enemies list. Which is to say, they’re praying to a god who doesn’t even exist. That may help explain a 92% failure rate. Plus 2) many of those praying to that nonexistent god who is controlling and angry may hedge their bets by working to find their own controlling and angry political ruler who will fight to end their poverty and shame, their scarcity and inferiority. No such god exists but every nation has such a political ruler in waiting, be it a Hitler or Putin. Or others even in our own land of America. Someone who will promise to work alongside the controlling and angry “God” as if in answer to their prayers.
So what’s the answer? Should we all stop praying?
No. That's not the point.
If we pray to the uncontrolling God who loves his enemies and sends his own Son to be the non-warrior prince of peace by turning the other cheek? And then go about working alongside that God who does exist by doing as he commanded, loving others as self? My own faith convinces me we would then reduce the poverty and shame, and the fears of scarcity and inferiority that come along with such. And find peace at last! If you feel like arguing against such a faith, try reading Rutger Bregman’s book, “Utopia for realists,” and then get back to me.
Praying for peace isn’t, in the final analysis, even the right question. We know that rarely works.
Working for justice? Ending poverty and shame, resolving fears of scarcity and inferiority? Loving our neighbor as self?
If only the incurably religious would so believe and behave.
Yes. That is the point.