Living on a Prayer

APTOPIX France Truck Attack

The truck which slammed into revelers late Thursday, July 14.



I haven’t written a blog in quite a while. I guess I’ve become a little tired of hearing people’s reactionary opinions to things and by consequence I’ve become a little bored of spouting my own.


This morning I woke to the news that 85 people had been mown down by a man in a lorry in Nice during the Bastille Day celebrations. There’s no official connection with terrorism although it seems likely. ISIS appeares to have waged war against the secularism that permeated the French Revolution of which the storming of Bastille in 1789 was such a significant moment. Of course it could also just be a lone arsehole. I withhold judgement until further notice.


Almost a soon as this tragedy has occurred, the the Western World has reacted through the internet. The overwhelmingly popular words, as was the case with Paris, are “Pray for Nice”.


Immediately there has been a huge backlash by others explicitly damning the notion that people should pray because of the idea that extremists also pray. Michael Stone writes an article that pretty much sums up the attitude.


Essentially the view is that prayer is the problem. That prayer or the belief behind it is the cause of these atrocities.


My view on prayer is very similar to atheists. If you’re looking to change the world by appealing to a deity then you may as well pray to a football with a face on it. Whether or not there is a God with a hand in global affairs is irrelevant. We know that he or she doesn’t stop  “creation” from  crucifying children or driving trucks over people in busy streets. No prayer will prevent another suicide bomber from killing 250 people in the centre of Bagdad. Lots of prayers though will be said to appeal to some deity to stop it. Perhaps more than the prayers said by those about to commit these atrocities.


But here’s the thing. Everyone has the right to personally  respond to tragedy in whatever way they choose (so long as that response is not criminal.)  Everyone has the right to believe in whatever they choose and I would go so far as to say they have the right for that belief or lack of belief to fluctuate.


I do not really label myself as anything these days other than a humanist but I was brought up amongst amongst evangelical Christians. Amongst them were some exceptionally decent  people whose faith they maintained with a genuine desire to improve the life of others. These people knew that engagement and love without condition transformed others regardless of whether that recipient took on that faith or not. There were of course many others that possessed an arrogance towards people of other faiths and those of none that made me want to vomit. These were the types that manipulated the vulnerable and scared them into compliance. They possessed a snobbery which almost found the idea of someone else’s existential failings pleasing.


Having moved away from all that, I find it a sad observation that such snobbery is not a religious trait. It’s a human trait and it is as present amongst those who promote secularism or atheism as it is amongst those of faith.


Telling someone that prayer is ineffective without really understanding prayer is is as ignorant as telling someone their atheism is wrong without first truly understanding atheism. Back during my days of faith, I read a book called school for prayer by Anthony Blum. It was a handbook for prayer most of which I’ve forgotten, but there was one story which I remember.


A poor farmer every day puts a plate of bread and milk under a tree and offers it as a sacrifice in prayer to God. By the next morning, the milk and bread is always gone. By virtue of this, the farmer believes that God is responding to his prayers by taking the milk. One day the farmer has an overwhelming desire to see what God looks like. So he places the food and hides with a clear view of the plate. Early in the morning a fox arrives and eats the food. It suddenly dawns on the farmer that this has been the case all along. The question facing the farmer then is does he have a crisis of faith or does he readjust his ideas of how his prayers have been answered? Does he stop putting the milk out because it is not getting to God or does he continue because his small sacrifice to God is bringing some benefit.


The point is that prayer for many people is not just a two way interaction. (I would hold that it’s not a two way interaction at all of course ). For many people expressing sorrow, anger, helplessness, gratitude, love toward a deity or image of a set of characteristics, fine tunes feelings and vents frustration. Having been someone who suffers frequently from low mood, experience tells me that talking about what’s up is a really productive way of steering clear of letting low mood set in and the  consequences that follow. Buddhism uses the idea of Bodhisattvas;  embodiment of certain attributes to focus energy and sentiment so that they too can embody compassion or whatever characteristic the Bodhisattvas hold.


Am I advocating prayer then? No I’m not. I don’t pray because for me personally it is not a productive channel of expression or trigger for action. I sit quietly. I think. I meditate of a fashion. Maybe it’s the same thing. It’s about as useless as prayer and it’s about as useful.


Regardless, of my position about prayer, I firmly stand up against anyone who  undermines or disrespects those who do find prayer of benefit. I am part of a culture and people who, on the whole, strive for tolerance and understanding. We bang on about how those separate to us refuse to integrate and yet we criticise from afar without ourselves engaging.


The negative reaction to prayer may of course just be anger  and frustration that these atrocities have occurred. Of course we have the right to express yourself and speak openly. That is our absolute right, but to dress it up as an intellectual approach to improving the world is deserving of criticism as much as prayer is.


To tell someone they shouldn’t pray from the comfort of a computer keyboard without engaging, without demonstrating a viable alternative, is to essentially serve nothing other  than oneself and self inflation.


Select theologians, scientists, social commentators can throw cakes in each other’s faces till the holy cow comes home. Some people may even try to emulate them. But intellectualism actually has  relatively small part to play in the transformation and development of a human. Transformation and development  comes occurs through friendship and love and nuture. It allows expression and then the exploration of alternative expression.  You cannot tell someone who’s desperately  lonely not to pray and then fuck off. That’s taunting not transforming. That’s like telling a hungry person they’re not eating healthily.

Even worse is using the deaths of multiple people to further your own agenda in much the same way as I find some  faiths doing missionary work to convert the poor.


So next time I see a post on the internet asking me to pray for Nice or Paris or Bagdad, I won’t if that’s OK. It’s just not how I operate but I will share in your sentiment of sorrow and a sense of tragedy before we collectively get back up to engage with those around us. To cause love and inclusion to be so infectious it starves the need for extremism.



  1. I agree with what you write about prayer. Like you I do not expect God to sort out my problems or society’s problems. However I disagree emphatically your assertion that prayer is not a two-way interaction. I am not suggesting that there is a providential God who interferes directly with life on earth. I am not talking about some pietistic notion that we can have direct communion with God. I am not even sure about the idea of God’s presence exuding from churches, cathedrals, the Bible or holy people. What I am suggesting is that events in my life lead me to assert that there is something intrinsically benevolent and wonderful about life (which I suppose we would call love) that has something to do with the idea of a Universal life principle called God. This “something” affects me without any intention on my part and this being affected is all I know of God.
    I realise this is a bit heavy so I will express it a different way: My hero Levinas was a rabbi in a concentration camp during WWII. Everyone was saying “why has God deserted us”. He responded by asserting the simple fact that at the end of the day believing in God’s providence, or God for that matter, was irrelevant compared to the fact that all that really matters in life is to love and be loved. God is kenotic and withdraws in order that we engage in the creative and redemptive processes that make the world turn round. There is good beyond being, even God’s being. It is not that God has deserted us, but that God expects us to create an ethical world of justice and fairness for everyone. It seems reasonable to turn this round and assert that this intersubjective God relates to us through ethics and in fact is revealed to us in the service we give to others.
    So how does this work? The fact that we expect the world to be based on justice and fairness, even as children, suggests to me that the description of the human condition as sinners in need of repentance is false. I contend that we are born with the potential and desire to be other-obsessed altruists. Whenever we meet a fellow human being in trouble or distress we experience a demand to care for that person. This demand affects everyone irrespective of religious persuasion even if we ignore it. In my opinion it is the motivation for spirituality, religion, art, poetry etc. The important fact about it is that it arises without any intention on our part.
    With this in mind I am suggesting that we are unintentionally affected by God, or the grace of God, and of course this implies a two-way interaction – prayer.
    When I wrote my master’s thesis on Levinas I found this idea extremely difficult to put over and wrote a poem that I feel expressed it better than theory. This is it.

    The Hug

    The need of a child, or a woman or a man may be met with a hug,
    or a touch on the arm, or even a smile.
    Everyone longs for human contact. We all need each other.
    To look into someone’s eyes and make meaningful contact
    is to recognise the need in the other person:
    To respond to that need is like giving a hug.
    The hug has awesome implications, God gives us no option but to
    bring our own need to such contact.
    The hug transforms both the hugger and the hugged –
    and when that happens we participate in divine grace.
    In our desperate clinging or gentle empathy to each other our
    relationship will be changed.
    We may be daughter and father, son and mother, husband and wife, life partners, lovers, friends or passing acquaintances.
    But driven by need we become two vulnerable human beings,
    huddled by the fire, in a cave, in the ice age,
    two hundred thousand years ago.

    Robert Bridge

    1. Redshirt · · Reply

      Robert thank you for your reply. Your position makes a lot of sense. I am merely giving my own. I dont pretend to be the last world on anything but I do like to stir up discussion and I am immensely pleased you felt compelled to share your thoughts with me.

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