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PJ Slinger: Columnist fails to show power of prayer

PJ Slinger

By PJ Slinger

In the aftermath of the Nashville shooting on March 27, where three 9-year-old schoolchildren and three adults were killed, there was a column published in the New York Times on March 30, titled, “In the face of tragedy, petitioning God is an act of faith.”

It was written by David French, a conservative columnist for the Times, who is a believer in the Christian God. As I read it, I tried to imagine myself as a believer to better understand his thought process.

He writes: “In an increasingly secular culture, there is often a misunderstanding of the true purpose of prayer. If you don’t believe in God, it may strike you as silly, something beneficial only to the extent that it provides a placebo effect. At its worst, it can seem like a cheap and easy way to respond to a terrible, preventable tragedy. Prayer, in this formulation, is a substitute for action. It’s a way that a guilty culture can feel good about itself even as it does nothing — nothing but watch children die. Again.”

OK, no need to step out of my own thoughts to wholeheartedly agree with that paragraph. 

But then he goes on: “When there is genuine belief and genuine humility, prayer is something else entirely. It’s an act that — again, presuming you believe anything close to what I believe — connects you to the creator of the universe.”

OK, now I have to step back and play make-believe to try to understand this. It “connects you to the creator of the universe.” 

Connects you how, exactly? Through your thoughts? Is God communicating directly into your brain with understandable language? What is the actual “connection”? Or is it just a “feeling,” which you take for “connecting”? Is it a one-way street? Or is there some type of reciprocation or acknowledgement from God? If so, what form does that take?  

French continues: “Petitioning God is more powerful than petitioning any president.”

OK, so petitioning individually to any president is actually not very powerful, so saying petitioning God is more powerful is not really that strong of a statement.

But let’s take his statement for what I presume he means, that petitioning God is indeed quite powerful. Again, I ask: How? Powerful in what respect? Powerful to God, or powerful to the petitioner? 

Back to French’s column: “For the faithful believer, prayer isn’t a substitute for action, it’s a prerequisite for action.”

So, you can’t take any action until you’ve prayed? Is this for any event, large or small? If not, what is the magnitude of an event where you will need to pray before you take action? What is then expected of the prayer? Will the prayer reveal what then needs to be done in the real world? Or is it more of a motivational tool? “OK, I’ve got God on my side now, so let’s do this course of action!” 

French goes on: “Moreover, petitioning God is a tangible act of faith. It reminds believers of their ultimate sense of trust in an eternal presence. It reminds us of the very concept of eternal life.”

So, in this paragraph, French seems to be saying that prayer isn’t necessarily supposed to do anything other than remind the praying person that God is an “eternal presence” and that there will be “eternal life.” So, I guess prayer is just a reminder to the believer that God is the ultimate protective sky-daddy. 

The column continues: “I prayed that God would comfort the families of the fallen.”

Here’s where I have a big problem. It goes back to the definition of God, where it is claimed to be omnipotent, omniscient and omnibenevolent. First of all, if God is all those things, as most Christians believe, why are prayers even necessary? Isn’t God maybe ahead of the curve on who may need comforting in times of hardship or disaster? You think you need to remind him via your prayer to comfort those who are grieving? 

God: “Thanks, David! I almost forgot! I was busy changing the outcome of a basketball game because somebody prayed for that.”

Of course, God (the omniscient) must have known this murderous rampage would happen, yet did nothing to stop it. Why? So, God will allow the murder of these innocent people, but then, with a little prodding from prayers, comfort those who are grieving (because of the massacre he allowed)? Ugh. 

Thinking this way seems both extremely egotistical on the part of the believer (“I have the power to tell God something he may overlooked”) and goes against the very definition of the all-knowing God (who apparently needed a reminder to comfort the grieving).    

On we go: “But the specificity of the prayer is much less important than its existence.”

Here, French is saying it doesn’t necessarily matter what you are praying for, but rather the fact that you are praying is really all that matters. I’m starting to get lost in all these variables.

And finally, he writes: “God have mercy, we ask.”

Again, it seems as though he is asking for God, who allegedly has a divine plan, to potentially alter it to give mercy to those who need it. Well, what if God’s divine plan was to not give mercy? Is God gonna change its mind because a few people prayed? And, doesn’t God allegedly know the thoughts of every single person on Earth? So why is prayer even necessary then? He already knows what you are thinking. A separate prayer is just overkill.

While it seems I’m picking on this columnist specifically, I’m mostly just using his arguments (which are pervasive throughout the Christian community) to try to figure out why people pray or what they expect from it. 

It still doesn’t make sense to me. 

PJ Slinger is editor of Freethought Today.