How Not to Respond to Crises

I dislike prayer.

Okay, that’s an oversimplification and thus a lie. Praying when you’re in a crisis is perfectly understandable. I can see how this might make it easier to cope with bad things that are happening to you. (I find no comfort in this idea, but hey, whatever floats your boat.) It’s not the act of prayer itself that bothers me—context is important. What I’m referring to is when religious believers who weren’t involved in the crisis say “I’ll pray for you” or “Let’s pray for the victims.” As I have said, the words are not the problem, but what happens after this pledge? It’s far too common for believers to approach prayer as if it’s the solution to a problem. It isn’t.

When someone says “I’ll pray for you” to someone in crisis, what I hear is this: “Gosh, your situation makes me feel bad, but I’m not actually going to do anything to fix it. In order to assuage the feeling of guilt I will experience for my inaction, I’ll just think about it in the general direction of the sky, and it’ll be just like I’m helping!” As far as I can tell, prayer is just a method of cognitive dissonance removal.

* * *

Prayer does not work, and it may even make things worse. But you know what does work? Taking action. Someone you know gets sick? Getting them medicine is a pretty good start. I guess it might be awkward to buy someone’s meds for them, though (it’s not like picking up the tab in a bar!), but that’s not the only way to contribute to a cause. One could give their time and/or money to related charities. One could make donations to medical organizations. Or, perhaps most realistic of all, one could offer to be there for someone in their time of need.

  • I’ll talk to God about you.”
  • I’ll be here for you at any time if you need me.”

Which of these two options is a more authentic demonstration of your sympathy? To me, the clear answer is the latter. A believer who really gave a damn about your problem would, at the very least, say both. But no, someone who says only the former is just using weasel-speak to communicate a desire not to bother doing anything. Even worse, the expected response to this declaration of apathy is to thank the person making it. Absolutely not.

With this in mind, it’s only natural that I get particularly rankled when politicians advocate prayer. Oh, some crazy motherfucker shoots up a theater full of people? Well obviously the best response a politician can have is to tell the American people to turn to God in response!*

This is nothing short of an abdication of governance.

Politicians are in a very powerful position: by having an influence over how the government responds to any given situation, they have the power to effect change. They can respond by advocating proactive solutions to negate future problems, even if they’re not currently elected officials. Praying about it instead is the failure to realize this potential—it’s the act of watching a horrible thing unfold and refusing to act to improve it.

I understand that the person who says this may have good intentions. I know this person might genuinely want to make things better. This person believes that God might actually intervene, even though “free will” makes this a rather contradictory suggestion. History reveals the lie inherent in this belief. It’s an absurdity. If you ask God to intervene, he might cure your sister’s abusive husband of his violent tendencies, even though God’s insistence upon free will otherwise borders on the obsessive. If you ask God to intervene, he might send your best friend’s aunt’s cancer into remission, even though he certainly won’t remove cancer from the world (or do this). If you ask God to intervene, he might cause the sole survivor of a natural disaster to wake up from a coma, even though he certainly did nothing to prevent that disaster in the first place. Like so many other religious beliefs, the notion that prayer works is inconsistent with reality and even, at times, other doctrinal tenets.

Ultimately, prayer is impotent. If someone wants to pray, they’re certainly not harming anyone by doing so, but the theist who substitutes prayer for an honest proactive attempt to make things better is making things worse. The act of prayer in this case provides an unearned catharsis; by uttering some words to an invisible being, the believer is giving themselves a false sense of doing something. This is the kind of prayer I dislike. It is deeply reprehensible.

To both the believer and the vote-pandering politician alike I would offer the following plea: pray if you like, but do not regard this as sufficient action. If you feel compelled to pray for someone, show your god that you actually give a shit by also doing something about it here in the real world. A Christian whose house has burnt down might appreciate your offer to ask God to give them a new one, but they’d much prefer it if you just built them a new house (or at least offered to let them crash on your couch).

* This is sarcasm, just in case you couldn't tell. (And if you didn't notice, I'll pray for you.)

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