The Gulf Disaster: Prayer And Priorities

Some atheists online have mocked calls for prayer made by Obama and legislators.  You’re Not Helping argues that while there is clearly something awful about treating prayer as a substitute for practical action (such as when true believers in “faith healing” forgo actual medical treatment for prayer) not all those who turn to prayer are that foolish or deserving of scorn:

Praying to God about the spill is futile, but many of those praying are the same ones getting out and performing the actual work to combat the spill and hopefully clean some of it. Several of the Louisiana lawmakers proposing the bill, for example, are those on also on the ground helping with cleanup and recovery efforts. According to news reports, many of those who attended prayer vigils all along the Gulf coast in past weeks were cleanup workers taking part after a long day’s work in the field – workers who went back out the following day to start again. And the next day. And the next day. And the next day. If these people are risking their health and livelihoods to get out and do something about a disaster that affects each and every one of us no matter the location, we think that it’s absolutely fine if they want to pray at the same time. We just hope they’ll understand if we don’t join them in the god-offerings.

In the face of all this action and the people doing it, the atheist blogosphere seems content to shout at those people about their “stupidity” and “laziness.” We’d argue that the true laziness, however, comes from those who feel that shouting and complaining are enough for them to play their part. We offer no sympathy and support for those who will hurl invective, taunts, and accusations of apathy at the people risking their lives to clean up their spill for them…while those same people do so from behind the warm, sterile glow of their computer monitors, guzzling down fossil fuel all the while. These people – the Do Nothings – are no more helpful than the knee-bent parents letting their child decay in its bedroom. Shouting to God for help from the disaster is going to make it vanish equally as quickly as shouting at those helping to clean it up.

It is surely uncharitable, unfair, disingenuous, and ungrateful to discount people’s hard work simply because they also (foolishly) include prayer among their strategies.  But, You’re Not Helping is also unhelpfully cavalier in dismissing a legitimate complaint about the constitutionality of what should be secular governmental leaders calling for repentance before God or expressing gratitude to God with official government proclamations on behalf of the citizenry.  It’s not whining inactivity when The Freedom From Religion Foundation vigilantly refuses to let times of crisis and desperation be opportunities to undermine the vitally secular nature of our institutions:

Senate Resolution No. 145, which declared Sunday, June 20, 2010 as a “Statewide Day of Prayer for Louisiana,” was introduced by Senator Robert Adley and adopted by Louisiana state senators. The resolution made the usual human-as-worms allusion, saying “a Statewide Day of Prayer provides each of us with a powerful opportunity to humble ourselves before our Almighty God.”

And it makes the usual unconstitutional exhortation to citizens: “The citizens of Louisiana are urged to pray for a solution to this crisis . . . a crisis that remains unaffected by the efforts of mortal man.”

The usual primitive and superstitious invocations are offered that “prayers woven together through common effort can themselves become an awesome and powerful force . . . [advocating] a day of unified, intercessory prayer, by and for those people living in the regions around the Gulf of Mexico, to pray for an end to this environmental emergency.” (Isn’t it blasphemous for these senators to propose that a united humanity is actually more powerful than the god they believe in, that by sheer wishful thinking such “humble” humans can force their god to stop the gusher over which he previously has chosen not to intervene?)

Most absurdly, the resolution urges “the citizenry of the state and all people of faith throughout the United States and the world to give personal thanks . . . for God’s continued guidance.” (Don’t these senators sense a contradiction in their concept of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good god? Note that President Obama, in his speech, does not offer the expectation that God will intervene, but simply calls it a “blessing that He is with us.”)

Is You’re Not Helping correct that atheists need also to coordinate concerted charitable efforts and not only criticize infringements on the separation of church and state? Of course.  But the two endeavors are not mutually exclusive by any means.  The larger atheist movement should be able to both chip in to the Gulf Disaster relief effort with tangible resources and stand up against religious government.  You’re Not Helping’s attack on Freedom From Religion might as well be aimed at the ACLU for attending to matters of civil liberties rather than cleaning off pelicans.  

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://thebuddhaisnotserious.wordpress.com Oedipus

    In case you weren’t aware of this yet, evidence has recently surfaced which conclusively shows that the YNH author has sock puppet commenters.

    http://thebuddhaisnotserious.wordpress.com/2010/06/19/the-curious-case-of-the-youre-not-helping-blog/

  • http://outofthegdwaye.wordpress.com George W.

    I am getting increasingly annoyed with YNH and their ridiculous double standards.

    Did it ever occur to them that those people “whining” about prayer vigils may be equally likely to be offering support?

    “OH, BUT THE POOR RELIGIONISTS”

    How dare we criticize them!
    I have news for you:
    General sanity does not excuse casual fatuity.

    I reserve the right to point out when Dan Finke is being a jackass even though I am in general agreement with everything else he says.

    I feel like the whole YNH site is an ingenious little Poe; arguing from relative sanity one minute and giving away the joke the next.


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