We seem to have crossed a new threshold in public willingness to attack prayer and those who pray, with some attacks stemming from a desire to make political points and others exhibiting a deep-seated hostility to religious expression. Consider a few of the comments following the Texas church shooting rampage earlier this month.
Actor and comedian Michael McKean tweeted, “They were in church. They had the prayers shot right out of them. Maybe try something else.”
Actor Wil Wheaton faced criticism when he tweeted “The murdered victims were in church. If prayers did anything, they’d still be alive, you worthless sack of sh..t.” He was responding to Paul Ryan’s tweet that “the people of Sutherland Springs need our prayers right now.”
An article in The Atlantic, The Case for Thoughts and Prayers Even if You Don’t Believe in God, makes the case for prayer whether you are a believer or not. The article’s author Katelyn Beaty writes, “After a tragedy like a mass shooting, prayer is not an indulgent retreat from reality but a responsible reaction to it.” She goes on to cite science and history to back her position:
From the scientific perspective, neuroscientific research has found that prayer can reshape the brain, leading to increased focus and peace. From an historical perspective, Beaty writes that great social change, including the abolitionists and civil rights movements “found a lifeline in a God who could change hearts and minds and sustain leaders who put their lives on the line for the oppressed.”
She concludes by saying, “To insist that we humans can heal the world’s pathologies on our own without any appeal to God or spirituality is just hubris. And it hasn’t worked for us yet.”
The Atlantic article elicited a barrage of negative responses, a few of which I include here:
“What utter bullshit….prayers to your invisible sky-god did NOTHING. Prayer really? Really? That only consoles the guilty. How does that possibly help the dead in Las Vegas?”
“Prayer earns billions of dollars for the cons who sell their invisible product and imaginary supernatural being.”
“How breathtakingly myopic for a believer to think that a non-believer would benefit from prayer or that for a non-believer prayer would be a responsible reaction to a crisis. Those of us who don’t rely on mythology to distract us from the realities of a crisis think that taking action is preferable to the self-deception of prayer.”
“I am deeply offended that the Atlantic would publish this. Shame on you.”
Vitriolic responses to prayer and to an article defending prayer might be politically motivated and indicative of the frustration and helplessness many of us feel about our and our government’s inability to curb the tide of senseless, random violence sweeping the country. But these responses also reveal the shallow, uninformed view many people have of prayer and a disdain for believers that transcends politics.
The prevailing sentiment appears to be How could those idiots believe in prayer when it obviously doesn’t work?
Why do people pray?
This is an important question, because the secular view seems to be that people pray either to get everything they want or out of ignorance. The religious, according to this perspective, use God as a sort of magic wand in the pursuit of material comfort and happiness.
If you view religion from a “name it and claim it” prosperity gospel perspective, there might be some validity to this opinion. But if asking God for material comfort and success is the ultimate activity of the faithful, faith is bound to be shaken up eventually. All believers are broadsided sooner or later by what appears to be God’s silence in the face of suffering. Christ himself cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46)
For faith to survive the inevitable realities of suffering and injustice, faith’s roots must go deeper than a shallow belief based on prayer as some magical talisman. Deeper faith derives comfort and strength through prayer despite external circumstances. There is belief that God is acting in response to prayers even if we cannot immediately see that response.
All three of the monotheistic religions, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, believe in prayer, but none of them teach prayer as a substitute for action. A website called Islamic Insights indicates that Muslims praise God and in so doing sow seeds of reward to be reaped on judgment day. Muslims pray because they believe Allah has instructed them to, with prayer bringing them into direct contact with Allah. Prayer is one of the more important obligations of the Islamic faith, being an opportunity to seek guidance and forgiveness.
For Jewish insights into prayer, Ben Greenberg writes, “In every act of prayer, we express our belief that God created the world with love and purpose, that we, at times, feel hopeless and lost and that God illustrates what it means to perform deeds of justice and righteousness in the world.” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel states in Man in Search of God that “Prayer is our attachment to the utmost.”
Christians believe the Bible commands prayer. “Pray for those who persecute you.” Matthew 5:44; “Don’t quit in hard times; pray all the harder.” Romans 12:12; “I desire that in every place the men shoud pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling...” 1 Timothy 2:8
The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
Christ, the ultimate model for Christians, lived a life characterized by constant prayer. Even Christ did not always receive the answer to prayer that he initially wanted. Faced with death on the cross, he prayed, “Father, remove this cup from me. But please, not what I want. What do you want?”
Not only do attacks on prayer reveal shallow and uninformed views of what prayer is all about. These attacks damage the credibility of those who are advocating gun control or other political solutions to the crisis of violence. By criticizing people of faith, the critics are diverting attention from topics that should be part of a civil national discussion. They are squandering an opportunity to bring together people with different beliefs and perspectives.
When did the tide of public opinion turn against prayer? After all, it’s been part of this country’s history for a long time. In 1668 the Virginia House of Burgesses in Jamestown passed an ordinance stating “The 27th of August is appointed for a Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer to implore God’s mercy.”
On May 24th, 1774, Thomas Jefferson drafted a resolution for a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer to be observed as the British blockaded Boston’s harbor.
Almost every president in our nation’s history has issued a proclamation for a national day of prayer.
In the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries it was common for public schools to begin the day with oral prayer and Bible readings. This began to change in 1962 when the U.S. Supreme Court made its first-ever decision regarding prayer in public schools. Steven Engle, a founding member of the New York Civil Liberties Union, brought action against his son’s school for the mandatory recital of a prayer developed by the New York Board of Regents for use in public schools. The Engel v. Vitale case brought an end to legal sanctioning of public school prayer.
Some Christians as well as secularists support the ban on public school prayer because they believe it violates the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
Others, including both religious and nonreligious people, support the Supreme Court decision because they feel religious instruction, observation or indoctrination should not be part of public schools in a highly-diverse population.
An attempt to achieve balance between religious and secular interests is the observance of a Moment of Silence. It weathered a court challenge in 1984 when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of this approach as an alternative to specific prayers favoring one religion over another. The Moment of Silence has been widely used in the public arena in lieu of prayer since then.
In recent years the ban on public school prayer has extended into other areas. The 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. ruled that a North Carolina county’s practice of opening commissioners’ meetings with Christian prayers is unconstitutional. Two U.S. circuit courts of appeal have ruled that school board prayers are unconstitutional.
A few days ago an atheist group sued to stop an annual blessing of the animals at a New Jersey animal shelter. The lawsuit says the shelter is using government resources to promote religious ceremonies.
Opponents of government-sponsored prayer have used the rule of law based on their interpretation of the Constitution to make a case for curbing prayer at public institutions. Their arguments have sounded reasonable, even to many people of faith, when touted as a way to avoid favoring one religion over another in a society that values and protects diversity.
But Christians must now be wondering if all these reasonable sounding arguments and decisions created a slippery slope that led to the current climate of open hostility to prayer. Successful legal challenges appear to have fostered a disdain for Christians and prayer that is just now bubbling to the surface.
Can we as a society view prayer negatively in the public arena without also concluding that prayer is useless and something to be disdained?
In a Wall Street Journal article titled An Atheist Can Respect Prayer, Andy Ngo writes about the time he attended a series of debates between a local atheist and a pastor in a suburban, Ore. church. Ngo, an atheist, found himself uncomfortable entering the church. He stood in a corner keeping to himself until a member of the congregation introduced herself and brought him pizza and a soft drink from the kitchen. She also introduced him to her adult son, who was as welcoming and friendly as his mother.
Months later when Ngo attended the next debate at that church, he spotted the kind church woman again. When he asked about her son, she told him of her son’s recent suicide, adding that prayers and her faith in God had barely kept her afloat. “It’s all I have,” she said.
A friend of the writer, a fellow atheist, walked up at that moment and proceeded to mock faith, the Bible and prayer. “None of it’s true and it doesn’t work,” he announced, oblivious to the church woman’s sadness. She began to shake and tears welled in her eyes while Ngo’s friend, having made his point, walked triumphantly away.
After this incident, Ngo vowed that he never wanted to be that type of atheist again. In the aftermath of the Baptist church massacre in Texas, he wrote, “I find it helps galvanize me to act. While I call it a reflection, others may see it as prayer. Regardless, I want to grieve together in our common humanity, which transcends belief-or nonbelief.”
Rabbi Jill Jacob says, “Ultimately prayer also forces us back into the world. We cannot praise God for divine acts of justice and mercy without hearing the call to imitate God through our own actions.”
Addressing violence and healing our nation’s wounds requires civil discussion without fanning flames of hatred. Those who dismiss thoughts and prayers as a substitute for action are impeding constructive conversation rather than working to bring about solutions. They don’t understand that to the faithful, prayer always precedes action.
Pursuing justice and making our country safer are goals we can agree on. People of faith believe prayer connects us to a God who acts with mercy and compassion. Far from inhibiting action, the privilege of prayer demands it. As we read in James 2:17: “Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?”