Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Problematic and Pathogenic Communication Patterns in Prayers

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Problematic and Pathogenic Communication Patterns in Prayers

Article excerpt

Many have viewed prayer as a form of communication (e.g. Phillips, 1965, p.30: "When a believer prays, he talks to God"; see also Heschel, 1953, p. 170, regarding "the gift of addressing God"). In what follows I will point out several pathogenic patterns in this unusual type of communication by analyzing some prayers of the three monotheistic religions, and by paying special attention to logical, rather than psychological, problems (cf. Moore, 1995). I will use as sources a variety of prayer books and hymnals, as well as the scriptures regarded as holy by practitioners of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. (Selections from these scriptures appear in the daily prayers of millions of believers around the world.) In my analysis I will disregard complex theological arguments about the proper interpretation of liturgy. Instead, my interest lies in the simple, straightforward content that reaches believers who recite their daily prayers, repeat the same message thousands of times, and thus continuously reinforce a pattern of "semantic pathology." Neither will I do more than mention in passing the fundamental contradictions, inconsistencies, and paradoxes inherent in the very concept of religion, well summed up in Tertullian's Rule of Faith: "I believe because it is impossible." While this 2nd century Christian's credo refers specifically to the virgin birth, it applies, no less, to other cornerstones of various religions, such as the miracles recounted in the Jewish Bible, in the New Testament and in the Koran, the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Koran's insistence on the existence of Djinn, or the eschatological visions of the three religions under discussion.

Word Magic

Mistaking words for deeds (or maps for territories; see Korzybski, 1958) provides the basis of a type of parataxic (as in Sullivan, 1953, p.29) thought process, frequently encountered in highly stratified human encounters; it lies behind both the offering and the acceptance of flattery, phoney politeness, forced apologies etc. In all of these postures the speaker behaves as if the utterance of words alone would suffice and materially change a given situation. No wonder, then, that we recognize a similar pattern in the anthropomorphic projections of religion, as well. The magical power assigned to words comes to the fore especially in some laudatory, rather than petitionary prayers. When believers recite one of the following formulae, they engage, at best, in wishful thinking:

"The Lord is gracious, his mercy is everlasting." (BCP (Book of Common Prayer), 1968, p. 11.)

"God is my strong salvation; / What foe have I to fear? / In darkness and temptation / My light, my help is near." (Baptist, (The Baptist Hymn Book) 1962, # 575.)

Every one of the Koran's 114 chapters starts with the words: "In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful."

"And gracious is He to those who return to Him." (Koran 17: 2.)

"... for thou hearkenest in mercy to the prayers of thy people Israel. Blessed art thou, O Lord, who hearkenest unto prayer." (From the Morning Service, Hertz, 1959, p. 147; see also Service, 1967, p.52.)

"May every living being thank You; may they praise and bless Your great name in truth for You are the God who saves and helps us." (Assembly, 1977, p.179.)

Circular Reasoning and Other Logical Conundrums

In the same way that a schizophrenic's garbled thoughts constitute an adaptive response to an impossible, double-binding situation (see below), believers must make the best of the irrational system in which they participate. Indeed, one may very well question the applicability of the rules of logic to religion (despite the occasional claim which makes reason itself an aspect of the deity). In her analysis of Islamic prayers, Padwick (1961, p.266) came close to this conclusion, deeming the following petition illogical, and "impelled by a deeper logic of the heart":

"O God I did not sin through boldness towards Thee nor through a light estimate of Thee. …

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