November 17, 2015

Dear Atheists: Your complaints against prayers are a strawman. Sorry.

Usually, today would be my Dear Christians column, but in the interest of switching things up, I thought I'd try something different.

Last week, we saw a horrific tragedy in Paris with at least 129 people dead in a night of absolute horror. I think it's safe to say that the world, secular and religious and apathetic alike, is still reeling from those events, as well as the bombings in Baghdad and Beirut, 24 hours of sheer unrelenting violence that claimed far too many lives. Just the devastating loss of so much human potential is shattering.

In the interim, you've seen a lot of #PrayForParis. That that particular hashtag is trending, and not the other cities, is a topic that has been aptly covered by other mediums, so what I'd like to talk about is a particular strawman that I've seen lurking--again--like it does in the wake of any tragedy: atheists and nonbelievers taking an issue with people sending prayers.

I've seen this in a few forms--several of my secular groups were lamenting it, for instance--but the most public that I have seen so far is this one, by Anthony Jeselnik, as covered by the Friendly Atheist yesterday:

…and they all write down the exact same thing: “My thoughts and prayers.” “My thoughts and prayers with the people in Aurora.” “My thoughts and prayers with the families in Boston.”
Do you know what that’s worth? Fucking nothing. Less than nothing. You are not giving any of your time, your money, or even your compassion. All you are doing is saying, “Don’t forget about me today. Lots of crazy distractions in the news right now, but don’t forget how sadz I am.” Those people are worthless, and they deserve to be made fun of.

Jeselnik is voicing it here, but it's a common enough complaint. It's one that will be trotted out over and over again by the faces of our secular movement.

And it's totally bullshit.

I chose a strawman to lead with, but in reality, there's a combination of logical fallacies in this argument. To explore them, let's first boil down the premise, shall we?

People offer prayers instead of tangible assistance to make themselves feel better.

 As a strawman, it looks like this: People believe their prayers will do more than tangible assistance. And that's simply untrue. It's not an accurate representation of the argument of theists in favor of prayer. Don't get me wrong; I personally have issues with the doctrines surrounding prayer. I find them to be nonsensical at best, and unethical at worst. After all, if God already knows everything, what is my praying doing? Either he doesn't know everything, or he doesn't care to intervene until I beg him too--and that is distasteful to me.

But making the argument that they think prayer will do more than anything else simply isn't accurate. There's a common saying--it's even a contemporary Christian song, in fact--"We are his hands and feet." Regardless of how you feel about prayer, whether you have objections like I do, the truth is that the majority of theists agree with you that tragedies require a greater response than just prayer. This is why, in the wake of any tragedy, you'll see church groups and religious charities mobilizing to help people.

Whether you agree with those facts or not is irrelevant; it is what it is.

But there's a second fallacy lurking here: the argument against prayer is a false dichotomy. It's a false dilemma. In essence, what it implies is that you can either pray or do something, and that's patently untrue. You can pray while working very hard in very tangible ways.

This argument--and again, this is just one public face of an argument that I'm seeing rehashed over and over again in various atheist forums--is inept. It's tilting at windmills.

The truth is, you can't tell from someone posting "thoughts & prayers" what they are doing to actually affect real change for people who are hurting. And,'re denying a real aspect of human nature: the desire to say something during a time when people are hurting. As social creatures, it's natural to feel driven to comfort those that we see in pain. It's especially disconcerting for me when I look at international tragedies, because I feel so safe in my daily life. Indeed, while I was watching coverage of what was going on in Paris, I was making pizza for my family. My children were playing happily outside. It was surreal, in a way, to have the television coverage going while my evening just continued as normal, to know that so many people were hurting, so many people were dying, elsewhere.

Terry Firma, writing for the Friendly Atheist, touched on this too:

But while “thoughts and prayers” is certainly inadequate, I disagree with Jeselnik when he says it means nothing. The phrase, ideally, accomplishes three things. 
1. It gives the person who utters it a chance to say something about the tragic event, connecting with others whose mind space is also occupied by it. 
2. It provides those words as an expression of succor and support to the families and friends of the victims. 
3. It marks, albeit with only the tiniest soup├žon of respect, one’s regret over the loss of innocent lives.

Is it inadequate in all of these? As Firma points out, yes. Yes, it is in many, many ways.

But when coping with a tragedy on the scale of those we saw during that twenty four hours...I don't begrudge people the chance to deal with it however they can, even if to me it seems a little pointless.

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