This past week, one of the biggest news stories in the atheist blogosphere was the news that Richard Dawkins had suffered a minor stroke and would be cancelling his tour of Australia and New Zealand to recover. Fortunately, Dawkins’ health is improving and expected to recover reasonably well. While I have had my personal criticisms of Dawkins, I’m quite pleased to hear that he’s doing well and hope that his recovery continues apace.
Unfortunately, even while he’s recovering from such a medical episode, controversy follows him. For once, though, one such controversy appears to have nothing to do with anything he’s done or said.
On February 12, the Church of England’s official Twitter account sent out this tweet:
Prayers for Prof Dawkins and his family https://t.co/KxBBkBrECk
— Church of England (@c_of_e) February 12, 2016
Yes, that tweet was literally just “Prayers for Prof Dawkins and his family” with a link to a tweet by The Independent, a British news outlet.
What the Church of England’s communications person probably didn’t expect was a sort of inquisition, but that’s what they got. A hashtag emerged — #PrayForDawkins — and while some Twitterers appeared to be using the hashtag in much the same way as the C of E’s original tweet, many (including my Patheos colleague Michael Stone) accused the church of “trolling” Dawkins, calling the tweet “tactless,” “passive-aggressive,” and “disingenuous” (among other things).
Many other people have watched this in bemusement. Indeed, even the C of E’s response on Tumblr seemed to be quite confused about why a “Twitterstorm” had erupted over such an innocuous tweet, noting their prayerful tweets over a variety of other events such as the Paris attacks. (That response even went so far as to explain the purpose of prayer, which did strike me as a bit passive-aggressive in a sort of “if you’re going to criticize us for this, you must not understand what it is” way.)
Let’s clear up one thing first of all: This just isn’t trolling. To call it trolling assumes the worst about the intent of the C of E’s Twitter handler, that they would want to make a public display of praying for one of the world’s most public and vocal atheists as some kind of jab. I see no reason to assume that the tweet was made in bad faith (no pun intended). Even if someone at the Church of England would really like to make such a remark to Dawkins to, as my mother often liked to say when I was younger, “heap burning coals on his head” by being so magnanimous, it just makes no sense as a public relations move.
Much of this sounds very familiar to me, given the “prayer shaming” nonsense of a few months ago, but I have to say that, like so many things, I think both sides get something right about this position that the other would be wise to heed.
The Church of England and its defenders are correct that extending prayers for someone can very well be a sincere gesture of kindness.
The critics of this tweet are correct in being skeptical of such a statement, even though this time they appear to have leaped on a false positive.
What many religious people don’t often understand about “I’ll pray for you”-type statements is that they can have a variety of undertones that are largely contingent on the people making them, their relationship to the person being prayed for, and the circumstances of the statement. In many cases, the subtext is in fact passive-aggressive and quite unwelcome.
When I told my own mother about having deconverted, for instance, she immediately (and repeatedly) told me that she would be praying for me. It was quite clear to me under those circumstances that she wasn’t praying for my health or safety (at least not in the corporeal sense): she was praying for my reconversion. I didn’t get angry about it, but I mentally rolled my eyes, certainly.
In other cases, statements like this can be even more harsh, functioning like a middle finger, as if to say, “I’m done with you, so I’ll let God deal with you.” When this happens, the pray-er almost always ends up being a stranger, and that is basically what the situation is with the Church of England is with Dawkins.
Because of this, atheists and other non-believers often have to develop a sense for detecting when a statement like this is sincere and when it is a subtle, plausibly deniable barb. Religious people aren’t often aware of this because they don’t need to be; you see religious people using this approach against other religious people with much less frequency, and most religious people are used to prayerful sentiments being relatively sincere.
So yes, in this case, I think the critics are suffering from overactive pattern detection. They can stand down.
But this is a reminder to all of the religious people: Be mindful of what gestures you make to the non-religious. Some of us will understand when you say you’ll pray for us, but more importantly, if the point is to make a gesture that will be meaningful to us, it’s important that you don’t center yourself by making the gesture instead something that is meaningful only to you.
Intent matters, but so does the effect.