Northern Iowa Atheists Hold Service Week in Response to Prayer Week

There are several atheists groups that hold a “National Day of Reason” or a “National Day of Service” in response to the “National Day of Prayer.” The point being: Sitting around praying accomplishes nothing. Standing up and helping other people makes a real difference.

The Secular Student Alliance affiliate at the University of Northern Iowa decided to do some volunteering early. In response to their campus’ “second annual 24/7 Prayer Week” (a Christian effort to encourage “seven days of continuous prayer”), the atheist group scheduled a variety of volunteering opportunities.

They called it the “24/7 Service Week.”

“If people want to pray, that’s their prerogative, but we wanted people to have an opportunity to give back to the community in a real way,” said [senior Cory] Derringer, a sociology major and president of UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers.

Service Week volunteers helped sort or bag donations at the Northeast Iowa Food Bank and planted trees and spread mulch on trails at the Hartman Reserve Nature Center. They also played bingo with residents at NewAldaya Lifescapes, formerly the Cedar Falls Lutheran Home, and picked up cigarette butts.

“It’s fun work and you can see the benefit as you do it,” Derringer said.

UNI Freethinkers and Inquirers invited both non-religious and religious students to take part in 24/7 Service Week. About 20 students showed up for service projects, Derringer said, and to his knowledge, maybe one or two openly identified themselves as religious.

What a fantastic project. This is the type of interfaith cooperation I can get behind :) It’s not about promoting superstitious nonsense. It’s about getting work done, and I’m proud of the atheist group for taking a lead on this.

On their website, UNIFI member MIchael Dippold offered his thoughts on why Service Week was so important:

Organizers of Prayer Week have claimed that “God has done amazing things this week, as we humbly expected him to!” Unfortunately, I don’t see it. No mountains moved. No diseases magically disappeared. People are still ravaged by the plagues of war, famine, and poverty. This is why prayer is ridiculous, and why it’s so important to compare it to ways of helping the plight of the human race that actually do work. It has been said that two hands working can do more than a thousand clasped in prayer, I absolutely believe this to be true.

Over the next week or two, you’ll hear Christians talk about how prayer is important but they must go hand-in-hand with deeds.

Which makes no sense when you think about it. And churches do it all the time.

They want a new building, so they pray for it… but they also ask for donations.

They might pray to get better if they’re sick… but they’re also going to see the doctor.

If the latter works, you don’t need the former. There’s no redeeming quality to prayer. It accomplishes nothing except making the Christians feel better about themselves.

0 + 1 still equals 1.

The atheists are just making that equation more efficient.

  • http://friendlyhumanist.net Timothy Mills

    I agree with almost everything you say here. Just one quibble. You say,

    There’s no redeeming quality to prayer. It accomplishes nothing except making the Christians feel better about themselves.

    Sort of contradicting yourself there, aren’t you, Hemant?

    I would have said that “feeling good about themselves” is one of the only (perhaps the only) positive effects that prayer actually has.

    Like I said, I agree with pretty much everything else you say in this post.

  • mkb

    What does “interfaith” have to do with this? It’s a week of service projects organized by a secular group. All are welcome to participate. If that is interfaith, then just about anything is.

  • Jonas

    Service projects are always a good idea, whoever is organizing it. That a secular group is again taking the lead and saying — Look we’re here, we’re helpful, and caring, and **NOT DEMONS** is a good thing.

    Still I’m a little miffed at the recent court ruling saying the FFRF was without standing in the N-D.O.P. Lawsuit. — Though whatever the legal avenue if the N-D.O.P. were to survive the Supreme Court, maybe atheists should hold “Mock Prayers to God” –

    ex: — God Answers Prayers, 5/21/11 Rapture postponed.

  • Freemage

    I’m going to note that the above is all absolutely true for intercessory prayer, but that is not the only sort of prayer that exists. Two other sorts (which I’ll dub here confessional and inspirational) are, indeed, about making the person feel better–with a very specific goal of then serving as a tool for focusing on the supplicant’s behavior.

    Confessional prayer, of course, is about realizing you done screwed up, and resolving to do better. Inspirational prayer is when you “pray for strength” to do what you know is right, even when it requires sacrifice or hardship.

    Not every denomination of Xianity buys into intercessory prayer, some even going so far as to consider it sinful (as C.S. Lewis put it, intercessory prayer often devolves into “Thy Will be done–but so Will it!”).

    Now, obviously, all three types are, from the atheist perspective, completely worthless, but at least the latter two don’t specifically require cognitive dissonance.

  • e-man

    ”Confessional prayer, of course, is about realizing you done screwed up, and resolving to do better. ”

    Things we do create anxiety and conflict.. is confession a way of saying I will be a better person or more about ridding ourselves of feeling bad… if we exercise the demons of our bad feelings cleansing ourselves becomes as simple as washing dirt off our hands… wouldn’t it be better to live with the bad feeling until we act in ways that cleans our filthy souls?

    I’d be interested in the recidivism rate for such sinners (do they repeat the same offense over and over?)

  • Freemage

    e-man: Depends on the individual (and their denomination’s) approach to confessional prayer, honestly.

    Catholics, for instance, tend to fall into the trap you mention quite blatantly; it was even one of the major causes of the Protestant Reformation.

    For others, though, it’s a way of addressing guilt over a misdeed, particularly in situations where direct atonement isn’t viable. Guilt can lead to paralysis; sometimes it really is better to resolve to do better, and ‘proper’ confessional prayer usually entails a request to God for aid in doing so (in this way, confessional prayer can be seen as a sub-category of inspirational prayer, but with a focus on avoiding bad behaviors, as opposed to actively setting one’s mind to doing good).

    As for recidivism… Fuck if I know. It varies from person to person. I wasn’t making a claim that these forms of prayer are any more effective than the classic intercessory prayers are, merely that they don’t usually come with a built-in excuse to not do anything.

  • http://n/a Dustin Finney

    I call this evidence that secular students needn’t submit to being lumped together with the “interfaith” crowd in order to do good work. And unlike the boosters of the “Interfaith Challenge” and the “Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships,” the UNI Freethinkers have the good manners to focus their project’s title on service instead of religious status, without excluding anyone in the process.

  • http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com Sharmin

    This sounds like a great idea!

  • http://www.correntewire.com chicago dyke

    as usual, atheists are awesome. nice work, Freethinkers! love the bingo part. i’m sure Granny fleeced your asses. ;-)

    prayer that “inspires” one to do the right thing is fine by me. if a person needs to talk to Magic Invisible Buddy for a few minutes in order to tell the truth, do a hard thing, help someone, whatever- i’m for that, so long as it leads to action that is right. there was a silly TV show i saw recently that had a scene like that, but i “got” it, why it worked for the praying character (a little kid, in this case, who was answered by the voice of his father, and not The Father, in his head; interesting, that). facing harsh reality is hard work and some people need a little stimulus before they can do it. athletes bounce at the starting line. politician clear their throat before taking the podium. soldiers write letters to family before battle. weak minded people talk to fairies and angels before they face reality. meh.

  • Rieux

    What mkb and Dustin Finney said.

    C’mon, Hemant: this is a terrific project and the UNI group deserves major congrats, but it’s not “interfaith.” Nothing that substantially includes nonbelievers can be.

  • http://grace-filled.net jen

    I think having a National Week of Service or National Day of Service is a nice alternative activity instead of the NDOP. The whole point of the NDOP is to get people to be cognizant of issues in their communities and the prayers are a means to that end. I’m not going to go into how effective the prayers are but they do spur people into action.

  • Alex

    Waaidaminit… prayer causes atheists to do shit?! Moar prayer!!!11