I have thought about writing this for some time. It is a difficult subject to broach, but I think it is an important topic to discuss in my ongoing efforts to build bridges between theists and atheists. After tragedies, there are many things that I see on social media, from condolences to pointing fingers to expressions of despair or solidarity. Because of the circles I run in, I see many posts about praying for the victims of violence and hatred born out of fear. On the other hand, I see many of my atheist family professing boldly that prayer does nothing and is a waste of time; these posts generally look something along the lines of “don’t pray, do something.”
As is often the case, I see where both sides are coming from. As a theist, I believe there is good in prayer and see the value in it in times of tragedy. Yet, I see the perspective of my atheist family that sees prayer as a waste of time. I think that this view comes with good reason. Many Christians view prayer as a sort of slot machine, where prayers are put in and every now and then money comes back out. This has become a common definition among those in theist and atheist communities; one, of course sees it as profitable, the other as utter nonsense, even though the definition itself stays the same. If this, then, is the concept of prayer, then of course it is worthless in times of tragedy. From an empirical point of view, there is no evidence to suggest that if one prays for X, X will occur as a result. Otherwise, I dare say, there would be no atheists. It makes total sense then that those in atheist communities would proclaim that theists should “hold their prayers.”
Yet I see the perspective of my friends and colleagues who do pray, offering prayers for others, and displaying such on social media. If prayer is not merely putting money in a slot machine, but rather a means of connection within the community and with what is believed to be a higher power, then perhaps there is some value in it, especially in times of crisis. What is needed, I think, is a different understanding of the term. There are a great deal of us Christians who see prayer as something else entirely.
In my tradition, we have this prayer that is often said during the principle Sunday service: “Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this Table for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal.” The point being that we must be reminded that prayer for us is not merely about pardon or solace, it is about gathering the strength to continue to engage the world. For many of us, it is a way of coming together and being present for and with one another in a place that is sacred to us within that communion. Many draw their strength from such practices. Strength that is then used to go out beyond the church walls and stand against the forces of hatred and destruction in our world.
Now, perhaps this is weakness; needing such a practice to find empowerment and connectedness. Perhaps those of us who find comfort and strength in such practices are misguided or delusional about doctrine or theology or even belief in God. Perhaps there are other ways to gain such strength or “renewal of spirit.” And yet. What I would say to those in secular communities is that if prayer acts as a source of empowerment for many so that they can be present in other ways, emotionally and physically, then why boldly proclaim that those who practice it should refrain, especially in a time of sorrow? I would argue that by making such claims as “do not pray for those in trouble, do something about it,” reinforces the idea that the two are mutually exclusive, which I have argued not to be the case even from a secular standpoint. These statements reinforce the idea that prayer can be done as something other than a renewal of strength or call to action and perhaps are more harmful than helpful.
Many Christians see prayer as merely something to do so that they satisfy their moral compass. To them I would say this: you are missing the point. If a practice like prayer does not embolden you to stand next to those who have been victims of oppression and hatred, then such prayer is missing the point and perhaps is not prayer at all. What I would say to my Christian communities is to pray, as a source of communion, renewal, and strength. But do so with your sandals on and your staff in hand, for there is work to be done. To those in secular communities I would ask that you not proliferate this idea that prayer is merely sitting around doing nothing; even if from your opinion it is just that. I ask this because if we can vocally do anything to embolden others into action or encourage them into practices that help them engage the world in love and peace, then we should do so. For some, that comes down to practices such as prayer. By all means, call those individuals and groups out who proclaim, through words or actions, that it is morally permissible to pray without action; I will be right there with you speaking vehemently against such a thing. Yet I see no reason to attack or divide in times of tragedy by assuming one particular definition of prayer is carte blanc applicable to all who practice it.
As always, I am open to criticism and counterarguments. These help us to better understand one another and perhaps grow closer together even as we disagree on many topics. Agreement is not important, but understanding is paramount. The more understanding we have of those around us, the more we are able to be present with each other in love, weep in sorrow, and laugh in joy. In love, as always,
wonder, wisdom, and peace,
The Profane Parson