Resolving Sexual Conflict–A Spiritual Response

shutterstock_216792595Research shows that about 80% of couples experience some degree of conflict related to mismatched sexual desire.  Some couples manage this mismatched desire well while, for others, differences in desire can become a huge marital issue.  What separates between these two groups?

Libido Not the Cause of Conflict

It turns out that mismatched sexual desire may, by itself, not be necessary contributor to marital conflict.  New research suggests that it is the couple’s response to mismatched desire that matters more than the discrepancy in libido itself.  Specifically, couples who demonstrate what researchers call, “sexual communal strength” find ways to resolve this mismatch peacefully.  Sexual communal strength is defined by both a deep generosity and respect between the partners around sexual issues.  When couples display this quality, the partners delight in making each other happy and tend to be willing to make at least small sacrifices to their own comfort levels to facilitate their partner’s happiness.  But, because that sacrifice comes from a genuine, as opposed to grudging, place the sacrifice actually contributes to the happiness of BOTH partners.  According to the researchers…. 

People who are high in sexual communal strength—those who are motivated to meet their partner’s sexual needs without the expectation of immediate reciprocation—were less concerned with the negatives of having sex — such as feeling tired the next day. Instead, these communal people were more focused on the benefits to their partner of engaging in sex, such as making their partner feel loved and desired. In turn, these motivations led the communal people to be more likely to engage in sex with their partner in these situations and also led to both partners feeling more satisfied with their sex life and relationship. This means that even though they engaged in sex to meet their partner’s needs, they reaped important benefits for themselves. In fact, communal people maintained feelings of satisfaction even in these desire discrepant situations.

Generosity NOT Resentment/Coercion

Of course, that doesn’t mean that couples who exhibit sexual communal strength are just doormats who can’t set limits or never say “no”  to their partner.  Again, the researchers note…

It is very important, however, that this motivation to meet a partner’s needs comes from a place of agency, where people feel that they are able to meet their partner’s needs, and a delight in seeing ones partner happy. Situations that involve coercion or where a person ignores their own needs in the process (termed unmitigated communion) do not lead to the same benefits. In fact, an important part of communal relationships is that both partners are attuned to and responsive to each other’s needs. At times this may also mean understanding and accepting a partner’s need to not to engage in sex.

In other words, sexual communal strength is a shared virtue where both the husband and the wife work hard to be sensitive to each other’s needs and, by virtue of a kind of unconscious relationship algorithm of mutual generosity, are able to intuit who has the greater need and the greater emotional resources to respond to that need.  Any one exchange between a couple where one partner wants sex and the other doesn’t could, in fact, go either way, but because both husband and wife are convinced of this underlying generosity and mutual respect, they are content to know that all of their separate needs will eventually be attended to. That makes it possible to make a “safe” sacrifice in the present moment.

Holy Sex and Self-Donation

In my book, Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving I describe a process couples can use to resolve sexual differences, including differences around libido. Essentially, this process involves different ways the couple can cultivate what Pope St. John Paul the Great referred to in his Theology of the Body as  “mutual self-donation.”  That is, the kind-of heroic generosity that commits two people to seeking little ways they can use everything God has given them–including their bodies–to work for each other’s good.  When a couple practices this mutual self donation–both in and out of bed–both the husband and wife’s needs get met without either one having to make too much of a fuss because both are trying to be mindful to look for ways to make each other’s lives easier or more pleasant.  Rather than this being an unattainable ideal, research like the study I’m presenting demonstrates that mutual self-donation is a reality that helps couples negotiate the most challenging aspects of their lives together, including their sexual lives.

Sexual Problems:  Always Rooted in the Marriage

The other thing this study really drives home–and it is a point I spend a great deal of time on in Holy Sex!is the idea that sexual problems are always, always, always rooted in the wider relationship.  A couple can’t develop sexual communal strength if, in the rest of their relationship they tend to live parallel lives, are generally hostile to each other, or tend to love their comfort zones more than they love each other overall.  

The upshot is that just because  you and your spouse have different libidos, it doesn’t have to be a point of contention if you can learn how to manage those differences with generosity, respect and a spirit of mutual self-donation.  This is just one example of the many ways a couple’s sexual life can be the catalyst deep and profound spiritual growth.  

Of course, if you are experiencing conflict about sexual frequency, it’s important to realize that the problem may not actually have its roots in your sexual relationship and it will be important to look at how you respond to each other’s needs in general.   As the saying goes, “sex begins in the kitchen.”  The more generous, respectful and self-donative you are in every other room in the house relates directly to how generous, respectful and self-donative you will ultimately be to each other in the bedroom.   The good news is that even when sexual differences are causing major conflict there is a great deal that can be done to find peace and sexual fulfillment.  For more information on ways you can have a more joyful, grace-filled, and satisfying sexual life, check out Holy Sex!  A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to see how our tele-counseling practice can help you experience the passionate love you deserve in your marriage.

Want to Bring the World to Christ? Strengthen Your Marriage!


People seem to think that working on their marriage is somehow self-serving or selfish. But the Theology of the Body reminds us that people aren’t converted by words and concept and arguments. They are converted by an encounter with the love the comes from God’s own heart–the free, total, faithful fruitful love Catholic couples are called to witness to in their dynamic, passionate, joyful, grace-filled marriage and family lives. 

Couples don’t have to be perfect, but if they are committed to learning how to live God’s love for each other in good times and bad…, they will be a powerful witness that will turn hearts to God. We need to be the Church that makes people say (to paraphrase Tertullian), “Look at those Catholic couples and families! See how they love one another!”

God wants to change the world through our marriages. When we work on those relationships, we help him change the world through our witness of love.

Check out these marriage-building resources or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about our tele-counseling practice.  You and your spouse can be the loving witness you were meant to be.

Attachment Parenting vs. Spiritual Detachment: Two Great Things That Go Great Together.


A guest blog by More2Life Radio Contributor,  Kim Cameron-Smith

An acquaintance and I were recently chatting when the subject of parenting came up. I explained that I am an “attachment-minded parent”. He chuckled and said, “But we’re Christians.  Aren’t we supposed to be detached from created things?”  He was only joking (I think . . .), but he does raise an interesting question about the difference between the term “attachment” in developmental psychology and the term “detachment” in spiritual development.

If Christians value spiritual detachment, can our children become too attached to us?  Can their attachment to us prevent them from maturing spiritually?  I think the contrary is true:  a secure attachment in childhood makes it easier for our children to experience spiritual detachment in adulthood.

Attachment in Developmental Psychology = GOOD

The term “attachment” in developmental psychology refers to a process by children form (or fail to form) strong bonds and a sense of security with their parents.  A child’s attachment style develops in response to repeated interactions with his parents.  It’s like a dance between a child’s needs and the parent’s response that creates an internal working model for all of the child’s relationships; it shapes his expectations about other people and how they will treat him when he is vulnerable emotionally or physically.

Secure attachment unfolds when parents respond consistently and warmly to a child’s need for comfort and guidance. This attachment gives children a secure base from which to explore the larger world, and helps them learn to regulate their emotions in response to stress and disappointment.

Insecure attachment might occur because the parents are cold and distant or too harsh (this leads to avoidant attachment).  Or the parents may meet the child’s need warmly one day, then disappear the next (this leads to anxious attachment).  Children adjust their behaviors to deal with the pain or unpredictability of their relationship with the parent.  The outcome is unfortunate.  These kids don’t trust others, they struggle in friendships with other kids, they have poor self-esteem, they may be aggressive, or lack empathy.

As they move into adulthood, insecurely attached individuals are frequently crippled in their ability to sustain healthy relationships.  Their unresolved emotional pain prevents them from experiencing or forming authentic, loving relationships in which both people are comfortable giving and receiving love.  Some adults cope by shutting out people and convincing themselves they don’t need anybody (this behavior is termed “dismissive”).  Others become preoccupied by their relationships because they are anxious about the other person’s love for them – they are clingy and needy (this behavior is termed “pre-occupied”).  These attachment stances affect their relationships with their co-workers, spouses, children, and even God.

Detachment in Spiritual Development  = GOOD

Christians strive for spiritual detachment from any inclinations, choices, or relationships that hinder their spiritual growth.  We detach ourselves from any obstacle to human flourishing, so that we can in turn re-attach to healthy human relationships and the love of God.

Think of addictions, obsessions, or a tendency to particular sins – these are unhealthy attachments.  Sometimes our attitudes toward material goods or status become the problem.  More is never enough and before we know it we are imprisoned by our stuff or our “success.” We find it increasingly difficult to connect with the people we most love; our prayer becomes distant and dry.  Sometimes detaching may mean getting a new job or purging our house of the objects that are weighing us down, but frequently we just need an adjustment in our attitude and priorities.

Maturing Christians even detach themselves from preferring one thing to another. Should my son go to this school or that one?  Should I attend a baseball game or my brother’s piano recital?  Should I take this new job or stay at my current one? Detachment leads us to a place where we don’t prefer one choice to another; we just want to do what God wants because we love him so much.  Most of us struggle with this kind of detachment, but it’s a possible for us all!

Moral of the story:

Cooperating with God to form in our child a secure attachment and capacity for self-giving love will actually make it easier for her to experience spiritual detachment later.  Because spiritual detachment requires a kind of inner balance in our hearts toward things and relationships.  People with adult attachment disorders often claw at things or people out of a desperate unmet need.  This desperation keeps them imprisoned in pain. If our children are emotionally whole, they will be more free to get about the business God has for them to do.

–Kim Cameron-Smith is the founder and editor of Tender Tidings magazine and   She lives and homeschools in Northern California with her husband Philip and their 4 children. She is a regular contributor on the topic of “intentional Catholic parenting” on Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s radio program More2Life.  Kim is a licensed attorney and a member of the California State Bar.  She holds a B.A. in English from Wellesley College, an M.Phil. in Medieval Literature from Oxford University, a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University, and a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley. Talks About Surviving & Thriving the First 3 Years of Parenthood

Image via shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image via shutterstock. Used with permission.

Recently, Lisa and I sat down with Lisa Hendey of about our book Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving the First 3 Years of Parenthood. In the interview, we share some of the struggles we’ve been through along the way and the ways that God has led us through those challenges.  Plus, we share how parents of infants and toddlers can really celebrate those early years and use that time to create the foundation for a truly joyful, love-filled, family life.  I hope you’ll check out the whole thing, but here’s a taste!

Lisa: When we were finally able to start a family–especially after everything we’d been through–we were thrilled.  But every time we told someone we were expecting, they would start telling us stories of how awful it was going to be.  “You’ll never sleep again. ”  “There goes the romance.”  “You’ll never get a moment’s peace.”  People seemed to rejoice in trying to kill our joy about having kids.  We wanted to send a different message.  Sure parenting is hard work, but we like to think of it as the hard work that goes into planning an awesome party.

Dr.Greg:  Exactly.  You could approach a party dreading every second.  Resenting the time you have to put into decorating.  Dreading all the preparation time and cooking, and effort.  Or, you could allow the hard work to build the excitement and the joy and remind you of the specialness of the thing you’re celebrating.  We don’t sugar coat anything in the book.  We’re very real.  Yes, parenting will be the most challenging thing you will ever do, but it can also be the most enjoyable, fun, loving, rewarding, soul-satisfying experience you will ever have.  We want parents to know from day one that their baby’s life is worth celebrating and that every day you get to be a family is a gift from God, and what do you do when someone gives you a gift?  You rejoice in it!  We want the book to show parents how to rejoice in their family life from day one.

Lisa:  We really hope that parents will come away from Then Comes Baby with the  sense that all the long nights and sacrifice is about more than that, it’s about opening our hearts to grace.  It’s about growing into the people God is calling you to be.  It’s about creating the kind of home life that fills your heart with love and your days with laughter.  If you can just allow yourself to turn off the inner-critic, and tune out all the people who are lining up to tell you “you’re doing it wrong” and just learn to hear God speaking to you through your child–just as St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body teaches–then you can discover a path to an uncommonly joyful, loving, grace-filled family life.  

Check out the rest! (and many thanks to Lisa Hendey for the opportunity to speak with her and for all the great work she does at!)

“Sto Lat!” Now (even more) Popcak in Poland


Sadly, I’ve never actually been to Poland, but considering that the core mission of my ministry is helping people apply principles from St John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to the challenges of daily life, I’m honored to be able to say that  almost every one of my books has been published in the homeland of St. John Paul II.  I have just learned that two more came out this month.  Parenting with Grace and Just Married  have both  just been translated and released.

The polish edition of Just Married is titled, Szczęść Boże młodej parze!  (God Bless The Young Couple) and the polish edition of Parenting with Grace is titled, WE WSPÓŁPRACY Z ŁASKĄ: Katolicki poradnik o tym jak wychowywać (prawie) doskonałe dzieci  (In Cooperation with Grace: The Catholic Guide to Raising (nearly) Perfect Children.)

Please pray that these new resources would touch the hearts of couples and families in the land of St John Paul II.  Sto lat!



Spiritually-Integrated Psychotherapy as Effective as Meds for Longterm Relief from Depression, Says Lancet


Researchers in the U.K. have found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) may offer just as much protection from depression relapse as antidepressants, with no significant difference in cost, according to a new study published in the journal The Lancet

“Depression is a recurrent disorder. Without ongoing treatment, as many as four out of five people with depression relapse at some point,” said Dr. Willem Kuyken, lead author and professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford.

What is MBCT?

MBCT teaches people with recurrent depression to recognize and respond constructively to the thoughts and feelings associated with depression relapse, thereby preventing a downward spiral into depression.  It is often considered a more spiritual approach than traditional cognitive therapy because it employs meditation-based practices to teach clients how to step outside of their emotional experiences, observe their circumstances in non-judgmental fashion and, as a result, respond more proactively (rather than reactively) to stressful circumstances.

According to Dr. Richard Byng, from the Plymouth University Peninsula Schools of Medicine and Dentistry, while medication is the most common method of keeping depression at bay, “there are many people who, for a number of different reasons, are unable to keep on a course of medication for depression. Moreover, many people do not wish to remain on medication for indefinite periods, or cannot tolerate its side effects.”

How Effective Is It?

The study involved 424 adults with recurrent major depression who were taking maintenance antidepressant medication. Participants were randomly assigned to come off their antidepressant medication slowly and receive MBCT (212 participants) or to stay on their medication (212 participants).

MBCT participants attended eight 2-¼ hour group sessions and were given daily home practice. They took part in guided mindfulness practices, group discussion and other cognitive behavioral exercises.  After the group, they had the option of attending four follow-up sessions over a 12-month period. Participants in the maintenance antidepressant group kept taking their medication for two years.

Over two years, relapse rates in both groups were similar (44 percent in the MBCT group vs. 47 percent in the maintenance antidepressant medication group).

“As a group intervention, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy was relatively low cost compared to therapies provided on an individual basis and, in terms of the cost of all health and social care services used by participants during the study, we found no significant difference between the two treatments,” said study co-author Dr. Sarah Byford, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London, U.K.

Christian Concerns Over MBCT

Many Christians approach MBCT with caution or even suspicion because many clinicians use eastern-based approaches to meditation to teach MBCT skills, but MBCT does not necessitate indoctrination in non-Christian spiritualities.  MBCT experts correctly note that every major spiritual tradition has its own meditative practices which can be respectfully and effectively employed to teach MBCT skills. For instance, in my own tele-counseling practice, where I work with a primarily Catholic population,   I employ approaches to meditation developed and taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola.  Because St Ignatius’ work is greatly respected by Christian spiritual directors and is completely orthodox, by using his teachings, I am able to offer my clients the opportunity to benefit from MBCT in a manner that is completely respectful of their own spiritual heritage.  I discuss some of these approaches to treating depression and anxiety in my book, God Help Me,  This Stress is Driving Me Crazy!  as well as in my upcoming book, Broken Gods: Hope Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart.

The Takeaway

Medication is often a helpful component to depression-recovery but, at best, it treats one dimension of depression–the physical.  Depression, as a syndrome, doesn’t just attack the body.  It attacks the mind, our spirits, and our relationships as well.  Spiritually-integrated approaches to psychotherapy like MBCT enable clients to achieve healing on every level and experience the emotional freedom they deserve.  If you or someone you love is struggling with emotional difficulties, be sure to take advantage of all treatments that can help you build the life you were created to live–physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.

Y’know that New Study That Said “Quantity Time Doesn’t Matter?” Um, Never Mind…



People were writing to ask me what I thought of this, frankly, moronic report in the WaPo last month on how it doesn’t matter how much time parents spend with kids.  I didn’t respond then because I just didn’t have time to do a proper take-down and, honestly, the findings ran so counter to every other study on the subject for the last 30 years I just didn’t think it was worth it.  Fortunately, no less an authority than the Brookings Institution decided to do the fisking for me.

According to Ariel Kalil of the University of Chicago…

There are two related problems here. First, the media reports have drawn conclusions not supported by the results of the study. Second, the study itself, which contradicts a sizable body of previous research, suffers from serious technical and analytic flaws. As a result, the main message being communicated is deeply misleading.

Feeding the flames of the “Mommy Wars”

The Milkie et al. paper sets up a media-friendly straw man, namely that mothers — implicitly highly-educated mothers — are trapped in a pattern of “intensive parenting” that diminishes their own health and well-being and provides no benefit to their children. This feeds into a popular frame about the stresses for mothers of balancing work and family.

But there is no evidence of a “mental health tax” on mothers resulting from time spent with their children. In fact, our work (and that of the Pew Research Center) shows that the principal source of happiness for mothers, whether they work outside the home or not, is spending time with their children. It would be possible to use the PSID dataset to investigate any link between maternal investments of time and psychological distress, but the authors do not. They show that mothers’ stress and/or depression is related to poor child outcomes, but offer no evidence that this psychological distress is related to the amount of time the parent spends with their child.

“Intensive parenting” and “quality time”: phrases in search of definition

The paper highlights the risk of “intensive parenting,” without defining or measuring it. The mothers in the sample studied spend on average about two hours per day engaged with their children aged between 3 and 11, and about one hour per day engaged with their teens. Is a couple hours a day really “intensive parenting”? No doubt, there is a point of diminishing returns on parental time investment. But a more sophisticated analysis would be needed to establish it, and to measure how many mothers exceed it.

The authors’ main conclusion is that “not quantity of time, but rather its quality” is what matters. But the paper does not in fact test this hypothesis. Quality of time is not measured. Nor is the time that could be seen as “high-quality” (e.g., reading to young children) differentiated or quantified.

In fact, decades of developmental theory and empirical research suggest that specific kinds of parent-child engagement are strongly correlated with certain outcomes: for example, reading and talking to support cognitive development; helping with homework to support academic achievement; playing to promote behavioral adjustment.

Go read the whole thing.  Then check out Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids to learn how you can get the most out of all the time you spend with your kids.


Horrifying New Study: Babies Feel Pain Like Adults But Most Not Given Pain Meds For Surgery

Image via shutterstock. Used with permission.

Image via shutterstock. Used with permission.

Well, this is horrifying.

The brains of babies ‘light up’ in a very similar way to adults when exposed to the same painful stimulus, a pioneering brain scanning study has discovered. It suggests that babies experience pain much like adults. As recently as the 1980s it was common practice for babies to be given neuromuscular blocks but no pain relief medication during surgery. In 2014 a review of neonatal pain management practice in intensive care highlighted that although such infants experience an average of 11 painful procedures per day 60% of babies do not receive any kind of pain medication.  Read More

Parents most commonly hear this canard when they’re preparing to have their boys circumcised but it applies to other procedures as well.  Parents, PLEASE be sure to advocate for your children if they are having medical procedures of any kind.  There are ways to safely manage your baby’s pain. Make sure your doc takes responsible steps to do so.  For more help in becoming a parent who knows how to trust your instincts and understand what even your littlest child is trying to tell you, check out Then Comes Baby:  The Catholic Guide to the First 3 Years of Parenthood and Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

Separate But Equal? Why “Freedom of Worship” Makes Religious People Sit at Back of the (Church) Bus


In light of my earlier post advancing a secular, empirical argument for the value of public prayer, I’ve been engaged in an interesting discussion with a couple of atheist bloggers at Patheos on what religious freedom really entails (Note: the discussion occurred on a private forum and I don’t have permission to share their thoughts so I will refrain from naming  or quoting them or the other participants).   I realize that politics is outside the usual purview of this blog, but I thought this was important enough an issue to post here.

In the course of our conversation my atheist colleagues pointed out that several theist bloggers, who had also joined the discussion, were also opposed to so-called, “civic deist” prayer (i.e., public prayer that does not require adherence to any particular god, religion, or dogma).  I observed that the two theist bloggers in question, who both felt that people should be allowed to pray in church or “in their heart” but not at a school board meeting, of congress,  for instance,  demonstrated the common and dangerous misunderstanding that freedom of religion is limited to freedom of worship.   (It’s understandable.  The President shares this confusion.  Hence the HHS Mandate)

Freedom of Worship V. Freedom of Religion:  What’s the Difference?

A society that limits freedom of religion to mere freedom of worship is a society in which religious persons are considered separate but equal. It is a society that says, “You can only pray in these (communion) lines and at this (baptismal) water fountain.”  Freedom of worship requires religious people to check expressions of their faith at their church door (or the door of their hearts).

Freedom of religion, by contrast, is broader. It is akin to freedom of speech. If I have freedom of speech, I may speak my mind wherever I am and whomever I am with. I may even give offense as long as I don’t directly endanger others. In the same way, true freedom of religion allows me to live, speak, and act upon my religious beliefs in whatever context I find myself–even if doing so gives offense to others–as long as doing so doesn’t represent a direct endangerment to others. 

Freedom of Worship Tells Religious People to Sit At the Back of the (Church) Bus

If I am only free to speak my thoughts “in my heart” or in this section of the (church) bus, I do not have true freedom of speech. Yes, many religious people been socialized by our present culture to believe that they must settle for freedom of worship instead of a robust freedom of religion,  but just because some African Americans were content to sit in the back of the bus prior to Rosa Parks’ brave protest doesn’t mean segregation was right or just.

A Call for True Pluralism

Freedom of religion is really about the free expression of belief in the public square. A truly pluralistic, democratic society doesn’t require that we listen to and/or accept what one another has to say, but it at least prevents us from trying to silence each other. 

A truly religiously pluralistic society allows me to pray publicly and you to scowl disapprovingly at me while I do it or, vice versa,  allows you to hold a meeting where you make fun of prayer while I scowl disapprovingly at you  for doing it,  and then encourages us to all go out for drinks after. People who want to limit freedom of religion to freedom of worship don’t want true pluralism.  Rather, they want religious segregation where religious people may be free…as long as they stay in their parish ghettos.

If that’s what passes for the secular/atheist vision of tolerance. You’ll understand if I take a pass.

Prayer Works: A Psychological Case for Public Prayer and Graceful Governance


On the Patheos Atheist Channel, Jeffrey Jay Lowder posted an article titled, “Question for Theists:  Why Is It Important to Begin Governmental Meetings with Prayer?”  I appreciated the honest and respectful attempt to engage believers on this controversial issue–especially in light of Canada’s high court ruling that such prayer is impermissible— so I thought I would attempt a purely secular, non-theist, research-based response to the question.   There actually is a purely psychological argument for the benefits of public prayer. To start, we need to look at some research on a surprisingly powerful strategy for resolving marital conflict.

The Marriage Hack

A team of resaerchers led by Eli Finkel at the University of Chicago recently identified a conflict resolution strategy Finkel calls, “The Marriage Hack.”  (You can watch his TED talk here.)  The short version is that researchers asked couples who were in conflict to imagine what a third party, who loved them both and wished the best for both of them, would advise them to do about their conflict.  This simple intervention had two surprisingly powerful results.

First, when compared to the control group who did not use this strategy, this technique enabled couples to stop being so concerned with their own agendas and made them more willing to seek mutually satisfying solutions. Second, and again, compared to the control group, couples who used this strategy were able to experience significantly more harmony in the relationship over time, actually arresting the normal decline in relationship satisfaction most couples normally experience as the years go by.

The Marriage Hack and Prayer

I would suggest that prayer serves a similar psychological function.   There is, after all, considerable evidence that couple-prayer bears tremendous fruit both in terms of relationship happiness and stability.   Even if we were–for the sake of argument–ignore any effect that grace might have, simply taking a moment to reflect, in prayer, on what God–the person who loves each of us and desires the best for all of us–would have us do before a conversation allows us to be more generous toward others, more accommodating of other’s agendas, and more egalitarian than we might otherwise prefer to be.

The Significance of Public Prayer

Would this benefit extend to public prayer at government meetings?  I would suggest that it does.  Again, for the sake of argument, leaving out any potential supernatural benefit of prayer, even simple civic deism (i.e.  pro forma displays of public spirituality that do not necessarily represent a specific belief in any doctrine or creed) causes the people praying to pause and reflect on how God–as the participants understand that concept–would want them to behave in a more pro-social manner than they might otherwise choose to behave if they were solely focused on their own agendas.  Whether the person believes in Jesus Christ, Allah, the Bab, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster is, for the sake of this argument, irrelevant.  The simple act of reflecting upon how a being that loved us all and wished the best for us has been shown to promote pro-social behavior.  Believers, of course, call this activity “prayer.”

I would suggest that people naturally intuit the social benefits of even pro-forma prayer which is why they feel so passionately about doing it in the first place.  A basic principle of evolutionary psychology argues that customs don’t develop in the absence of a perceived benefit.  My suspicion is that people’s experience tells them that prayer works, not just because of wishful thinking, but because even without considering the power of grace, the simple act of pausing to reflect what a loving, benevolent, third-party would wish us to do makes us more agreeable and helps us get things done in a more–*ahem*— graceful manner.

An Atheist Alternative

I suppose you could theoretically argue that you could get a similar benefit to civic deist prayer by simply asking the participants of a meeting to, “Please pause and reflect on how a benevolent third party who loved us all and wished the best for us would want us to behave”  but I’m not really sure how that would be different than what civic deist prayer already is and does.

A friend of mine, Patheos blogger, Mark Shea, often remarks that society could do with a bit of insensitivity training.  That is, we could all benefit from indulging in a little less of a tendency to actively seek out opportunities to feel offended, slighted, and put out, and instead look for ways to be generous in our interpretations of the behavior of those around us.  Considering this, perhaps a modest suggestion for those who are offended by civic deist prayers could simply pause and imagine what a third party who loved them and all the others in the room would wish from them?

But I’m not sure if we really have a prayer of that happening.