the relevance of prayer

I have seen a couple of posts, these days, intimating that America’s problems—notably the recent mass murder of children in Newtown, Connecticut—are attributable to our rejection of school prayer and our disinclination to refer to the festively decorated conifers that decorate the December landscape as “Christmas trees.”

Presumably the way I’ve phrased these sentiments makes my opinion clear. Like most atheists, I remain in favor of the establishment clause, in part because I believe that prayer and reverence to God are at best uncertain solutions to the problems facing the United States and the world. I would very much like my Christian friends and family to know that we nonbelievers grieve for the dead as much as they do, but, right or wrong, we are not going to accept explanations for the world’s horrors that are rooted in an insufficiency of prayer or reverence to God. We would, for our part, prefer to address the causes of these tragedies directly—for example, by improving America’s approach to mental health, or restricting access to firearms, or reducing the infamy that can be gained from massacre.

And I’m bothering to write because I believe that most Christians, even if they didn’t agree with any of the methods I suggested, would acknowledge the value of that direct address. To my knowledge, no one thinks that problems can really be prayed away. Everyone knows that action and thought are required. And Christian charity has, historically and to this day, been one of the great engines of that action. I’m privileged to have neighbors and countrymen who participate in that great and ancient tradition, who feel that a higher power compels them to sacrifice to ease the suffering of strangers.

But I reject the implication that things would be better if Christians could only coerce the children of nonbelievers to pray at their desks. And I respectfully hope that Christians reject the implication that their God is so weak that he needs human laws to bend before he can do good, or so cruel that he demands they do.


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