How George Carlin Misunderstood Prayer

William Blake, Ancient of Days (1794)
William Blake, Ancient of Days (1794)

The famous comedian George Carlin was a fervent atheist, and had a particular disdain for Christian prayer. He argued (language warning) that it was arrogant of us to ask the God of the Universe for anything. He’s got a Divine plan, and then we come along to ask Him for special favors.

But Carlin also viewed prayer as either destructive or worthless. After all, God is the all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good God of the Universe, and He has a Divine Plan. If our prayers cause Him to change that plan, Carlin reasoned, we’re making things worse. If our prayers don’t cause Him to change His plans, what’s the point?

So what do we say to that? Is praying arrogant?

Not at all. Prayer is a recognition of our own weakness and utter dependency upon God. That’s the exact opposite of arrogance, and it’s why the truly arrogant can’t pray. Remember the parable that Christ tells about the Pharisee and the tax collector who go in to the Temple. The Pharisee is puffed up, he’s arrogant. And Jesus says that “he prayed to himself.” He had a whole prayer about thankful he was not to be the other fellow… and the whole time, Our Lord says, he was just praying to himself. His pride kept him from admitting that he needed God, and that he needed forgiveness, and so it kept him from praying. When we pray, we’re acknowledging that we need God and that we’re absolutely desperate without Him.  It’s not arrogant to cry for help.

But there’s a second reason it’s not arrogant to pray… because God invites us to do so. In Isaiah 7, God tells the king to ask for a sign, great or small, and He will give it to him. But the king refuses… even though God has told him to. That’s not true humility. God has invited us to pray, and it’s not arrogant for us to obey Him. On the contrary, the whole purpose of our existence is to go to Him.

But God does more than that. Through Baptism, He makes us His sons and daughters, and it’s not rude for a child to tell his or her parents how their day is going, or what they need, or what they love about their parents. The problem is that Carlin imagined God as some far-off tyrant, when God is really a loving and intimate Father.

This is also why Carlin’s second objection – the idea that prayer is dangerous because it interferes with the Divine plan – is completely wrong. You and I, we’re part of the Divine plan. We’re not just pieces in a great big cosmic machine that God has dreamed up. We’re the sons and daughters of God, and one of the major parts of the Divine Plan is for us to grow in intimacy with God. And so He answers prayers.

He is our Father. And parents say things like, “if you ask nicely, you can have dessert.” That’s not because you, as a parent, really want to give or withhold dessert, and it’s not because you need your kids to tell you that they like dessert. It’s because in raising your child to ask politely, your children become better. So, too, God teaches us to pray because prayer makes us better people, it makes us humbler, and it makes us better sons and daughters of God.

Of course, having said that, we should be aware that God’s answer to our prayers won’t always be “yes.” In yesterday’s Gospel, Jesus says that no one whose son asks for a fish will give him a snake. But sometimes, we ask for a snake. We pray for something that isn’t good for us. And we should be thankful that God doesn’t respond to our prayers by giving us a snake.

We should also be aware that God won’t necessarily give us what we want when we want it. Just as He knows what’s best for, He also knows when it’s best for us. When your son asks you for a fish and a loaf of bread, you’re not going to give him a stone and a snake, but you might make him wait for dinner. God sometimes does this to us, too, like any good Father.

And so we should follow Jesus’ instruction here: trust in God, trust that He has a Divine plan and that He knows what’s best for us, but that part of that plan, part of what’s best for us, is to pray. So pray boldly!

6 Comments

  1. It has been my understanding that prayer is eternal. Because prayers are eternal, they are part of God’s plan. He designed our opportunities and circumstances based on what we ask, past present and future. (almost impossible to comprehend)

  2. On a different issue, but related to prayer — There are times that we are asked to pray for someone who is in need but for whatever reason, we receive the request late, but are not aware that it is late. For ex, I get a delayed email asking for prayers for someone about to have surgery. I pray. However, unbeknownst to me, the person underwent surgery the day before my prayer. Couldn’t my prayer be effectual because God is outside of time?

    1. St. Padre Pio was said to have prayed for the happy death of his Great Uncle who had already passed on decades before. He said that it was precisely because God is outside time that his prayers were efficacious.

  3. I remember we 8th graders “illegally” listening to Carlin’s, ‘Class Clown’ album in the cloakroom during inside-recess at St. George Grade School when Sr. Julia stepped out of the classroom. We howled with laughter. As I (and he) got older, George’s comedy turned angrier…and less funny.

    I don’t think he’s in heaven. It’s a shame to see a guy that you enjoyed as a kid, grow so bitter and sacrilegious. As a Catholic, he had all the knowledge and opportunity to be funny about the faith (like Jeff Gaffigan), and still live a holy life. Just a shame.

    1. Someone with a crusader icon is saying George Carlin is in hell for his opinions? Do you not see the problem with that?

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