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.