Thursday, November 16, 2017

On prayer, again

So we've had another couple of spree shootings, both by people without any ties to terror organizations, but with apparently significant mental and emotional problems. Neither shooter could legally own guns. The first was in a church in Texas on November 5, and 26 people were killed. Naturally, many people began to pray for the survivors and the families of those who were killed. Out came the knives. Rather than link to some of the venomous statements, I'll just summarize and sanitize them: "The people in the church were already praying and it didn't stop the massacre. Why do you think more praying will have any impact. Instead of praying (read: stop praying), try doing something instead."

Now I discussed this before, but one point I didn't make is that this kind of objection only works if we assume that God is some kind of mechanism, and praying to him automatically (or at least, in significant proportions) produces the desired effect. But of course, this contradicts the actual religions of the people doing the praying. God is a person, a mind, with free will. We can't make him do anything. This certainly creates an issue, which is commonly called the problem of evil, but that doesn't account for the condemnation and malice directed towards those who pray. This quote by C.S. Lewis gives a good summary of why asking whether prayer works is basically a category mistake.

But there was another issue that struck me in the aftermath of the Texas shooting. It has two parts. First, a few days beforehand, on Halloween, there was a terrorist attack in New York, where a man, claiming to be acting on behalf of ISIS, drove a truck over a bunch of pedestrians, killing eight and injuring a dozen more. The man called out the takbir, "Allahu akbar" (God is greater, or the greatest) which is a very common phrase in Islam, stated during all kinds of things, good and bad. It has, unfortunately, become strongly associated with terrorism, as terrorists say it when committing their atrocities. The takbir is a prayer, although it's not a petitionary prayer -- that is, it's not specifically asking God for something, but is instead praising him. And for days afterwards, there were several opinion pieces in the media defending this prayer, trying to separate it from its association with terrorism (examples here, here, and here). Fine. But this created a sharp contrast. When a Muslim prays while committing an act of horrendous evil, his prayer is defended. When Christians pray after a horrendous evil has been committed against them, their prayer is condemned.

Second, a few days after the Texas shooting, on the anniversary of the Presidential election, people in several cities who were, shall we say, displeased with the results, congregated to scream at the sky. That's pretty darn close to prayers offered in the aftermath of a horrendous evil, and I suspect (though I can't prove) that most of the people who engaged in this activity were those who would defend the takbir and lambaste the Christians praying.

The point, which I hope is obvious, is that there is some pretty severe hypocrisy going on by those who condemn Christians for having the audacity to pray after a horrific event. The Texas shooting was sandwiched between two events which provoked radically different responses from the same people. 1) Evil man cries out to God while committing his evil, 2) Christians cry out to God after evil man commits evil against them, 3) people congregate to cry out to God because of the political situation in the United States. If you're only condemning the second case, you're not being consistent.

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