Why I Don't Pray in the Face of Tragedy
The Futility of Prayer
We had another mass shooting a couple of days ago. (In the United States, we call this type of event, “Wednesday.”) This one hit home particularly for me since San Bernardino is about a forty-five minute drive from my house. At the moment, the motive has not yet been determined. The now dead suspects were Muslims, and they were apparently very well armed, so this might be another terrorist attack. It is also possible that these were just deranged individuals who had some issues with those at the male suspect’s workplace. For the dead and wounded, the motives don’t really matter. And this is not another blog post/essay/editorial about guns, mass shootings, or terrorism. I’m kind of sick of talking about those topics anyway.
In addition to all of the talk about gun control or gun rights from both sides of the political spectrum, these recurring events seem to stimulate a lot of prayer. Some people give prayers of thanks because either they or their loved ones were spared by God and allowed to survive the carnage. Others pray that God would save the wounded, protect those still in danger, or bring comfort to those who have lost loved ones.
Now this may make me a bad person, but I have found myself increasingly annoyed over the years by these types of prayers, with prayers of thanks for “spared” loved ones being the most irritating and offensive. When praising God for showing mercy and sparing the lives of certain individuals, these individuals or their loved ones are showing a great deal of insensitivity toward those whose loved ones were not spared. Apparently, God cared more for the survivors than for the dead when he intervened and saved those fortunate ones. To my faithless eyes, God’s decision may seem completely arbitrary. But in his infinite wisdom, and in order to carry out his mysterious will, he supposedly allowed some to survive and others to die. If God is truly omnipotent as major monotheistic faiths claim, this is the only plausible explanation.
In my view, however, prayers for God to save the wounded or bring comfort to hurting family members are less offensive. They are just a waste of time. If God exists, he has clearly demonstrated over the course of thousands of years that he either lacks the ability or the desire to stop horrible things from happening to people. When people pray that their friends, loved ones, or human beings in general are healed from diseases, protected from violence, or spared during natural disasters, sometimes these prayers might be “answered” and sometimes they won’t. But in spite of this obvious fact, the prayers continue, and some seem to think that the more time and effort that you spend praying, or the more people you get to pray, the more likely God is to answer. No one seems to ask themselves why a good and all-powerful God needs people to beg and plead before he will stop people from experiencing horrific suffering. Why doesn’t he just do it on his own? And if God is more likely to intervene when lots of people are praying, I feel very sorry for those who were not lucky enough to have a bunch of people praying for them.
For whatever reason, people are happy to attribute all of the good things in life to God but not hold him responsible for any of the bad. But if you believe in an omnipotent God that has the capacity to intervene and impact the lives of human beings, then you have no choice but to hold him responsible for both. Of course, it is possible that God either lacks the ability to control his creation or has chosen to create a place in which he will allow human choices to have consequences and rotten things inevitably to happen. But if that is the case, then a prayer for God’s intervention or thanking him for good fortune doesn’t make any sense. If God does anything to influence the world, it is by giving us the capacity to discern right from wrong and to empathize with our fellow humans.
Still, if someone says that he or she is praying for me or my family, I am not going to get upset and subject this person to a quick summary of what I wrote above. Instead, I will smile, say thank you, and proceed with the firm conviction that this person’s prayers will not make a damn bit of difference. There are, however, far worse things that a person can do than pray for the good fortune of others. If nothing else, praying for other people can cause us to focus on a subject other than ourselves. And at its best, praying for others to be blessed or for problems to be solved might make us more likely to go out and actually do something to make the world a better place.