Out of the thousands of Facebook posts, Instagram pictures, and Twitter twats that have been circulating non-stop in the wake of the awful Boston bombing, the majority seem to be focused on prayer. “Pray for Boston,” “My prayers and thoughts are with Boston,” and #PrayforBoston are on every cellphone and computer screen around the country.
Apparently, people find this to be a show of solidarity and support. After all, something terrible has happened–what else can we do but pray for God’s help?
But as good and kind as it may seem, this social media prayer phenomenon really bothers me. And believe it or not, it’s not because I’m an angry atheist or think all people who pray are stupid. Prayer seems to have a wonderfully calming effect on everyone who performs it–so much so that, despite the fact that prayer literally changes nothing about our circumstances except our outlook, it makes us feel so much better that we just keep doing it. When I was religious, prayer was always my instinctive go-to. When I lost something, I’d pray; and then, whether I found it or not, I felt as if the outcome was the “right” thing.
But what if it wasn’t “right”? What if I prayed for something I badly needed, like finding the key to my car, after I had dropped it in the dumpster outside? What if that key was permanently lost, and as a result, I was out a hundred bucks and my car for a week? And what if, prayer notwithstanding, shit like losing keys just happens?
This is clearly a facetious example–the Boston bombings are much more serious than losing keys. But the principle stands; praying only makes whatever happens seem better, even if it’s actually not. After witnessing the violence and destruction on the news, sitting on your ass and posting about how you’re going to pray doesn’t do a damn thing except make you feel better and then make whatever the resulting outcome is seem “right”.
Oh, and it conveniently lets everyone else know what a righteous ass-soul you are.
Not to fight with a weapon I consider tantamount to holy sword made of poo, but in the Bible Jesus condemns the Pharisees for praying in public (perhaps this Jesus guy was smarter than I give him credit for). And I quote:
“Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).
Not to be too punny, but Jesus hits the nail right on the head. O ye who post over and over about how thou art praying for this family or that tragedy–good job. Now everybody knows you’re a good person, and we’ll all “like” your status and give you spiritual high-fives.
But if the purpose of real prayer is to bring personal comfort, doesn’t it seem like it would be much better carried out alone, minus the incessant social media postings, where you can really pour your heart out to God and receive the comfort it gives you? Yes. And there’s nothing wrong about that.
Here’s where the problem with the mass prayer phenomenon comes in, though. Praying for the suffering of others you don’t know makes you feel good–but it doesn’t do anything else. At. All. This fascinating study discusses a very carefully conducted experiment about prayer. Essentially, 1800 patients undergoing heart surgery were placed in three different groups: Those who were being prayed for and knew it, those who were being prayed for and didn’t know it, and those who weren’t being prayed for at all. Those who weren’t being prayed for, and those who were being prayed for and didn’t know it, recovered at the same pace. But those who were being prayed for and did know it had more complications and recovered slower than the other two groups.
Some have suggested that spiritual matters like prayer transcend that of scientific studies’ capabilities. Why, though? If God has the power to alter matter in the universe and use prayer to affect real, tangible things like bombs and broken bodies, why shouldn’t the “power” of prayer be measurable? Why would He put the physical evidence of His power beyond our reach? It doesn’t make sense that a God who wanted his children to believe in him/her/it would do such a thing, or, as some people suggest, maliciously try to confuse us by deliberately thwarting such studies.
Still, all this considered, prayer couldn’t be a bad thing, could it? Except maybe it could. Because, since all posting about praying on Facebook does is make you feel like a good person, it enables you to literally sit on your ass (or knees) and do nothing while bad things happen around you.
Because, as the study above shows, people who pray remotely for others they don’t know have absolutely no effect on the prayees’ health or well-being. In reality, if you were sincerely interested in making life better for the disadvantaged, there is literally no end to the good you could do if you just got off your duffer and did it.
The worst has already happened in Boston. Your prayers, after the fact, won’t take back time and change that explosion, or bring that eight year old boy home, or stop the suffering of those who lost legs. And while the bombing in Boston is awful, and close to home, in reality the world is full of much, much worse things every day.
So, rather than type your prayers out for the world to see, why not do something better–something more noble and something that will actually make a difference. You don’t have to have money, or resources, or even a ton of time to do something that will make somebody’s life easier than praying will.
And perhaps it’s just my arrogant anti-religious sentiment, but the irony of the whole “Pray for Boston” situation is that the evidence seems to show this attack was religiously motivated to begin with by fundamentalist Islamists.
Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t. But religious or not, you can’t argue too hard against the fact that this world would be a hell of a lot more like heaven if we all started praying less and doing more.
And on that happy note, I’m going to go rescue a kitten from a tree.