The Case for Prayer-Shaming

The Case for Prayer-Shaming December 7, 2015

In the aftermath of yet another horrific mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, this one apparently committed by a Muslim couple inspired by ISIS, the Daily News ran this amazing front page:

This was, of course, a callout aimed at Republican candidates who have no response to the continuing bloodshed in America other than the hollow recitation of prayers-for-the-victims rhetoric. Whether it’s religiously motivated terrorism, sexist and racist revenge attacks, school and workplace rampages, or purely random violence, America is inundated with deadly weapons and plagued by gun killings. But politicians who are purchased by the NRA have blocked every effort to do something about it. To excuse their culpable indifference to mass murder, “thoughts and prayers” has become their empty slogan of choice.

I don’t expect the latest atrocity to make much difference – if it were possible to outrage Americans into meaningful action against gun violence, we’d have passed that point a long time ago – but I was still surprised and impressed by the vehemence of the Daily News headline. If you’d told me in 2006, when I started writing about atheism, that a top-selling national newspaper would attack prayer on their front page within ten years, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. It’s very possible that the rapid rise of the non-religious and the decline of American Christianity has opened up space for tacit criticism of civil religion.

That doesn’t mean there’s been no pushback. In the Atlantic, Emma Green fretted about “prayer-shaming“, claiming that liberals “turned their anger about the shooting not at the perpetrator… but at those who offered their prayers”. (It’s an impressively arrogant use of the false dichotomy to assume that you can’t be angry at both.) She called this “cynicism” which portrays “policy-making and praying… as mutually exclusive”.

Just to be clear, I have no problem with people who pray as a means of expressing their grief or sympathy. But I object most ferociously to people who do nothing but pray for these terrible killings to stop and convince themselves they’ve done something useful. It’s this sentiment that politicians exploit by appealing to voters’ religiosity as a justification to do nothing. If condemning that tendency is prayer-shaming, then I’m all in favor of prayer-shaming. And this problem is inherent to religious belief: as long as people believe prayer has the power to influence events, then prayer always will compete with and distract from actual, worthwhile action.

Even more offensive are the conservative politicians who call for prayer as a way to duck the consequences of their own policies. Whether it’s denying climate-change science and then praying for rain in a drought; opposing health-care reform but demanding government reimbursement for faith healing; or as in this case, praying for peace in the aftermath of another mass murder while opposing background checks and assault-weapons bans – this theology encourages leaders who promote policies that are ignorant, ineffective and ill-advised, then beg the unconcerned universe to rescue them from the foreseeable outcomes of their own actions.

As an atheist, I obviously don’t believe that prayer accomplishes anything other than stirring the air. But theists have no basis to think otherwise, even assuming the truth of their ideas for the sake of argument. As I wrote in “Nothing Fails Like Prayer“, the idea of praying to influence events is completely nonsensical. It’s an implicit claim that prayer can bring a problem to God’s attention that he didn’t know about, or that it can persuade God to reconsider his plans. Neither of these makes the slightest bit of sense if you believe in a deity who’s omniscient and omnipotent.

But the worst of all is when prayer goes beyond being an excuse for inaction and becomes a way to denigrate or devalue the efforts of people who are actually trying to do something. Here’s an example in this column by Jonathan Merritt:

A life of faith is a life of prayer and action, but never one without the other. Action without prayer is merely activism, and prayer without action is useless piety.

What on earth is “mere activism”?

While it may sound superficially moderate and sensible, this platitude insultingly claims that there’s something “mere” about acting without praying – as though solving a problem doesn’t count if it wasn’t done with religious help. It puts human action on the same level as uttering incantations to the empty air. You might as well proclaim, “Driving without prayer is mere transportation,” or “Medicine without prayer is mere curing.”

As insurmountable as it seems, mass shootings are a solvable problem. Other nations, like the U.K. and Australia, reacted to similar tragedies by passing strict gun control laws – and saw gun crime decline almost to zero. We can do the same in the U.S., if we’re willing to act rationally. But as long as half of our politicians and voters are in the throes of religious delusion that makes them think prayer is a reasonable response to calamity, the bloodbath won’t end.

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