Pitting prayer and action against each other, one headline shouted “God isn’t fixing this,” and ridiculed those who respond to massacres with words such as “My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims.” Prayers like that are “meaningless platitudes,” people said. It is time to stop praying and start acting. Prayer is only a “placebo” and has “zero effect.”
Such prayer shaming is a clear measure by which to gauge where America is today, and how far this country has come in the last decade. Several responses must be spelled out clearly and discussed in greater depth. First, prayer shaming underscores that for many people public references to prayer have become empty pieties that are no more than what philosophers call “pro-emotions.”
“I will pray for you” is simply another way of saying “I care for you,” and says nothing objective about any real time spent praying for the person. President Obama himself has often used the phrase, and one wonders if he ever actually dropped to his knees in the Oval Office to follow through with the words. A friend of mine often used to say, “Don’t tell me you’re going to pray for me unless you mean it. Prayer is a serious commitment.”
Second, the prayer shamers themselves are shamed by their shaming. On the one hand, their much-vaunted claims on behalf of “tolerance,” “inclusiveness” and “diversity” are yet again shown up for their strict limits, if not the hypocrisy of their intolerance. The recent attacks on prayer showed scant respect, if not outright contempt for other people’s beliefs, and were often clear evidence of the atheism’s slide into militant anti-theism and the general “ABC moment” in American culture (“Anything but Christianity”).
On the other hand, they showed none of the humility of the recent awareness in intellectual circles that, in Jrgen Habermas’s haunting confession, there is “something missing” in secularism. The recent trend toward “secularist religion” would once have been dismissed as an oxymoron. It is now stoutly defended as an attempt to assuage an insatiable hunger among atheists and “religious nones.”
Third, prayer shaming challenges religious believers, Jews and Christians included. We must all face the fact that many who do believe in prayer have grown far more secular in their consciousness than they realize. As advanced modern people we live in what sociologist Peter Berger has called a “world without windows.” Not long ago, what was unseen was not unreal. In fact the unseen was more real than the seen, for the seen world was understood in light of the unseen.
For us, however, William Blake’s “single vision” is the rule what is real is bounded by the limits of the five senses, so that the unseen has become unreal. The result is a chasm between the way prayer is understood as powerful and practical in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, and in most of history and much of the rest of the world, and the way it has become viewed as marginal and ethereal in the West.
Fourth, the prayer shaming demonstrates America’s willful blindness in facing the intense religious and ideological realities of today’s global world, for it highlights what Max Weber called the “tone deafness” of many of our leaders and our elites.
As the urgent search for a new world order shows, Kant’s Enlightenment vision of “perpetual peace” is as distant as ever, and Nietzsche’s prediction of an unprecedented “war of spirits” is all too close to describing the cataclysm engulfing parts of our world.
It is commonplace to say that guns alone will not win these wars, but we have yet to appreciate what it means that the “spirit of the age” is more than a metaphor.
Lastly, prayer shaming and the wider trends that it represents call into question the foundations of the American republic. The genius of this country is that it simultaneously rejects any formal, official and established religious or ideological beliefs, yet it relies on the freely chosen beliefs of its citizens. In other words, American freedom relies on what might be called “the golden triangle of freedom:” that freedom requires virtue, that virtue requires faith of some sort, that faith of any sort requires freedom, which requires virtue and so on.
For those who know God, prayer is a conversation with God and a vital and indispensable part of such faith. Certainly “prayer changes things” and effects the course of history. But equally importantly, prayer changes us in the conversation, for it is in prayer that we see God rightly, we see ourselves rightly, and we see the world rightly, all of which are essential to living the good life and to responsible citizenship in a free and open society.
Our brave new prayer shamers have forgotten something to their own loss: Action is not the alternative to prayer. Action goes hand in hand with prayer. The only alternative to prayer is prayer.
Os Guinness is an Englishman and the author of many books, including A Free People’s Suicide. He lives in McLean, Virginia.
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