Taking Action and the Limitations of Prayer

When I was young, I never prayed.

I never understood what prayer was for. If god were omniscient, he should have already known what I was thinking and doing. Plus, he should already have known whether I was repentant or not. There was nothing I could have expressed through prayer that god wouldn’t already have been aware of. By the age of eight, I’d seen through it. I didn’t see the point of prayer.

That’s just me. I know people who place a lot of emotional weight on prayer. There’s something in prayer that is spiritually meaningful for them in ways that it never was for me. I don’t have a problem with people praying.

I do, however, have a problem when people substitute prayer for action.

The New York Daily News had it exactly right a few days ago when, in response to Republican presidential candidates who made anodyne comments about “praying” for the victims of the San Bernadino shootings, they plastered “God Isn’t Fixing This” on their front page.

Several months ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Charleston shootings, I saw Ted Cruz’s Tweet about praying for the victims, and I came -so- close to replying to him with something like, “Don’t pray. Do. What are you doing? What will you do? Praying isn’t doing.”

In the past few days, more and more people have been doing things exactly like this — pointing out to people that prayer isn’t accomplishing anything concrete. The term “prayer shaming” has been thrown about. Ruth Graham, writing in Slate, thinks the platitudinal “thoughts and prayers” could become the next political “dog whistle,” which would be unfortunate — just another way to divide people and tear them apart instead of bringing them together and building something.

I don’t think the term is right, because “shaming” implies that the person who is praying should feel guilty for praying. And I don’t see anything about prayer that one should be ashamed of; as I said, many many people place great emotional and spiritual weight on prayer, it soothes their souls, it gives order and direction to their lives. Those are not bad things, and Scott Simon editorialized about them, in a way I can’t and wouldn’t disagree with at all, this morning on NPR Weekend Edition:

I think a lot of people who pray don’t think of it as a replacement for deeds, or an occasion to utter a gift list of desires. They pray to open their minds and hearts. They pray when words won’t come, and emotions overwhelm. They pray to mark a loss, and to try to make a moment of peace in a landscape of turmoil. They don’t see prayer as a substitute for action, but the beginning. The merit of prayer is what people do after we say Amen.

Yet, I see nothing wrong with challenging those who pray and do nothing else, whose actions end with “Amen,” especially when it’s someone with the position and power to do something about the very problem they are praying about. When they use prayer to “pass the buck,” essentially, and take no action because they believe prayer was the action, they shouldn’t get an ethical pass for their prayer and they deserve to be called out for that. That’s a platitude, not an action.

And yes, I realize there’s a great irony to an atheist who never prayed to talk about what prayer should be for. I can understand why people have taken offense to the criticism and the “prayer shaming.” I would point out that nothing is above criticism, that sometimes it takes an outsider to point out a problem or a place where intent doesn’t match results. The criticism isn’t to tear someone down. The criticism is to make one think about what they’re doing with prayer — and what they’re doing after their moment of spiritual communion.

Prayer should be the beginning of action, not its ending.

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