It’s becoming common nowadays to see atheists and skeptics ridicule prayer in the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Harvey. One clever meme that I’ve seen this time around contains a picture of an empty truck, with the caption, “Good news! Your shipment of prayers has arrived.” Funny, right?
Secular scoffers who speak thus usually explain that expressions of “thoughts and prayers” aren’t only obnoxious, but harmful, since (they reason) such sentiments are offered as substitutes for actual, material aid. People who might otherwise donate money and time are exempted from doing so because their prayers and positivity feel like sufficient effort. Hence, the atheist concludes, we have another example of how religion poisons everything.
There are two things I find interesting about this mindset. The first is how detached from reality it is. Prayerful, religious people are consistently some of the most giving, most voluntaristic citizens. The alleged connection between prayer and inactivity is little more than an assumption based on a presupposition. Atheists, after all, believe that the reason people pray in the first place is that they are overwhelmed by life and lack either the ability or the willingness to face it honestly. Accusations of hiding behind “thoughts and prayers” an excuse not to serve others looks good to skeptics on paper because it confirms a preexisting set of beliefs about why humans chose to believe rather than disbelieve. So the old irony appears again–it turns out that atheists act very fundamentalistically when it comes to how they think of others who don’t think like them.
The second thing I find interesting is that prayer, unlike almost every other religious practice, is naturally private and personal in a way that secularists generally enjoy. New Atheists go hoarse explaining that they don’t want to outlaw religion or railroad private religious beliefs out of existence. They just want to make sure that religion stays private–out of public education, out of public policy, out of public influence. If there’s one religious discipline that should fit this bill perfectly, it’s private prayer, right? Isn’t prayer what we want religious people doing in lieu of actually going out and spreading their beliefs?
So why the animosity toward prayer? I don’t think it’s because praying people are stingy people, as I’ve said. Rather, I suspect that secularists dislike expressions of prayer in times of tragedy because such expressions are reminders of the limitations of human effort. “Thoughts and prayers” irritate those who cannot offer them. In moments of true human empathy, where we want to reach out and fix something broken about the world but cannot reach far enough, there’s something written on our hearts that tells us that Someone should be able to reach for us. Prayer is an invocation of that Someone. That’s why the skeptic, whose universe begins and end with human evolution and revolution, resists it.
This is why the fracture of the world, rather than its design, is the strongest apologetic for the Creator. For the materialist, all the suffering, all the agony, and all the sympathy in the universe adds up to little more than a footnote in human history. There is nothing, and ultimately no one, above or below it. The voice in the soul that whispers that drowning mothers and trapped elderly and destroyed homes are not the way the universe is meant to work has nowhere to direct its message in the mind of the prayerless. Such sentiment either reverberates hollowly against an indifferent natural universe, or else is suppressed as meaningless neurological events. For the prayerful, however, the hurricane brings with it reminders that families weren’t designed to die, and that somewhere this truth holds fast.
“Thoughts and prayers” suggest that hurricanes cannot destroy everything that is really real. For the prayerless, this is terrifying. For the prayerful, it’s the best of news.