One of the toughest questions for me, as a religious atheist, is what do I gain by davenning (praying). Alain de Botton, in his fabulous book Religion for Atheists; a Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion, offers a number of answers that apply well to the Jewish context.
“If we have managed to remain awake to (and for) the lessons of the Mass, it should by its close have succeeded in shifting us at least fractionally off our accustomed egocentric axes. It should also have given us a few ideas which we could use to mend some of the endemic fractures of the modern world.”
de Botton here, while talking about the Christian context of prayer, hits upon some of what makes prayer universally important. While Islam and Judaism highlight this more in the popular imagination than Christianity, all three Abrahamic religions stress the importance of repetitive davenning. This is not something you get right the first time, only to move on to more meaningful activities. The obligation to pray three or more times daily, as is the case with Judaism, is a tacit admission that the lessons that are to be learned from prayer can only possibly enter our consciousness after hundreds of repetitions. Given that prayer is filled with some of the hardest concepts to internalize — submission to a force greater than oneself, admission that we are impotent in controlling the course of our lives, true forgiveness of ourselves and others, etc. — it is not at all surprising that we are implored to make this a constant in our lives. While there are some who believe that, as practiced in Orthodox Jewish circles, prayer can become monotonous and devoid of meaning, as everyone mumbles the prescribed words, I have found that memorizing the prayers actually leaves more internal time to focus on the meaning, rather than being overwhelmed by how many prayers there are. There is still the natural inclination to view prayer as simply an obligation, which detracts from its purpose. That is an impulse that must be fought, as our daily lives stand to be much enhanced if those of us who pray regularly would carry even one message from that prayer with them throughout the day.
This, I believe, is de Botton’s second insight: that prayer, while conveyed verbally from words on a page and songs sung, must be brought into our dealings with each other to have truly served its purpose. It must bring to mind the aphorism from Pirkei Avot: “The work is not for you to complete; but neither are you free to shirk your obligation from it” (2:16). As is the nature of a world made up of mortal and inherently flawed beings, there will always be endless work to be done to improve the lives of people on this planet. The enormity of the task should — we can all hope — both motivate us to devote ourselves to it as only we can, and give us the perspective to see that we must approach the task equipped with the wisdom of those who came before us. de Botton is stressing that religion, and not secular society (as of yet), is alive to the truth that such wisdom cannot be learnt once and applied for a lifetime. It must be learnt, and re-learnt, again and again, as long as we live.
For more, see here.