Is it wrong to pray (or, if you like, act as if praying) what you don’t believe? For the sake of brevity and relevance to my own practice, I’ll restrict my attention to participation in a public worship service. If to say a certain sentence in prayer is (inter alia) to assert the sentence or its propositional content, then praying what you don’t believe seems to entail either lying, bullshitting, or some form of public self-misrepresentation. (It might only entail lying or bullshitting if we take the alleged assertive force of a prayer to be directed to the people around us, on the plausible principle that, simply by asserting a proposition one doesn’t believe, one can only lie or bullshit to other creatures.) I take it that lying or bullshitting (to your fellows in temple or church) through prayer is wrong. And even if we don’t lie or bullshit by praying what we don’t believe, it is still wrong to publicly misrepresent ourselves in the way I have in mind, that is, by knowingly inviting other people to believe something untrue about ourselves (namely, that we believe what we are saying). So if prayer entails assertion of the content of the prayer, then it is wrong to pray what you don’t believe. And if prayer is taken by the community in which one prays to involve assertion of a certain content, then even if one does not take oneself to be asserting this, one is still knowingly inviting other people to adopt false (and, I take it, important) beliefs. So prayer of what one doesn’t believe is wrong even if one is merely taken to assert the content of the prayer.
I like public prayer, but I do not believe a great deal of the propositional content of most prayer services, so this is an unsettling conclusion for me. Perhaps it should also be an unsettling conclusion for Pascal, who famously recommended that one make one’s way to faith by (at first faithlessly) performing rituals such as public prayer. Now, perhaps Pascal should be unsettled - I, for one, think faith (understood as firm belief in the conscious absence of any known epistemic reasons) in religious propositions (if any there be) is wrong. But I don’t want to be unsettled. Public prayer feels good, it connects me to a kind and serious community, it renews my appreciation for what I do believe in the prayer service, and, I think, it probably causes me to act, on average, a little bit better. It would be a shame if it were wrong for me to pray in spite of all this. I also imagine that there are a number of others like me, especially in liberal religious movements like Reform Judaism.
Happily, I believe that it need not be wrong to pray what one does not believe. It is not clear to me that saying a prayer involves the assertion of its content (if it has any); it’s hard to say exactly how one might go about finding out whether that is the case. But even if prayer, as it stands right now, involves assertion of the prayer’s content at least some of the time, it seems that it is in the power of church- and temple-goers to change this. This follows from the widely adopted view that some sort of convention is needed to give an utterance (in a context) its illocutionary force. It is in the power of the relevant linguistic community to renounce the convention according to which prayer is assertoric. It is always within the power of human beings to give up any one of their conventions; this is, I take it, a conceptual truth. Of course, there is some question in what linguistic community the convention of the assertive force of (my own) prayer resides. The members of my temple? Temple- and church-goers everywhere? Every competent English speaker? There is also the question how one changes a linguistic convention of this type. My intuition, though, is that if everyone I regularly pray with agrees that I am not asserting the content of my prayers when I utter them, I couldn’t possibly be asserting their content when I pray with them and them alone. We can take “agrees that I am not asserting the content of my prayers” in a sense suggested by William Alston in Illocutionary Acts and Sentence Meaning; if everyone I regularly pray with is not entitled to subject me to some form of censure if (the content of) my prayers turn out to be false, they agree that I am not asserting their content. Perhaps we should also add that everyone must not be entitled to censure me if I even contradict the content of my prayers in another, assertoric context - say, by publicly declaring atheism or agnosticism (assuming these declarations have assertoric content). So, intuitively, my answers to the two questions I just posed are (1) that the linguistic community governing the illocutionary force of prayer is the part of a congregation that prays together regularly, and (2) that we convince this linguistic community not to warrant censure of non-believing participants in public prayer. Given the size of most prayer groups - in Reform Judaism, at least - this second aim, if not already achieved, can be achieved without difficulty.
Still, there remains the question whether we somehow defang prayer by stripping it of assertive force. I think we needn’t, but that’s a topic for another post.