A pattern has emerged in the wake of terrorist attacks which should induce exasperation in any serious humanist. The long list of cities which have till now topped-off the tired hashtag, “Pray for ___________,” seems futile at best and insulting to victims of mayhem and death at worst. The Almighty (presumably the one who all these Twitter prayers are directed to) does after all have a plan, and most religions—notably the Big Three Monotheisms—are in agreement on that point. A happy medium between the theist and the atheist might be to agree on this: no one ever said the Almighty’s plan was a good one that did not necessitate a great deal of needless suffering. If there is in fact a plan, we can further speculate that prayer (aside from expressing one’s own love of a god) is fairly useless. As the great George Carlin once said:
“What’s the use of being God if every run-down schmuck with a two dollar prayer book can come along and fuck up your plan?”
I alluded to this impulse to “think and pray at someone” in a previous piece, but felt it might be worthwhile to revisit. The act of prayer is at once entirely unable to affect specific change and extremely potent when it comes to building a general feeling of moral outrage among swathes of people—and on a global scale. (This is thanks in large-part to platforms like Twitter.) As someone who comes from one of the more “prayerful” parts of the world, I implore you take it from an Arab and former Muslim: prayer does not help anyone and its only function is to give you a warm and fuzzy feeling inside and, en masse, its primary function seems to be to exacerbate existing partisan tensions. While large groups of people praying essentially vocalizes and perhaps even manifests the political will of the faithful, it is ludicrous to believe that praying for a victim of a terrorist attack, as one would do for a sick person, can have any impact besides making the one doing it feel better about tragedy. On this point, the comedian Doug Stanhope artfully (and exasperatedly) asks his audience: “Could you do less?”
I do not mean to say that we should not pray—I realize that for many people this is comforting and natural. However, I can say that commoditizing prayer and grief, often within less than 5 minutes of a deadly terrorist attack, can seem tired. Doing this also forces us to choose which lives we value more than others and, as we have all seen when terrorist attacks happen within the same news-cycle, it can put you in the uncomfortable position of having to choose which country’s flag to overlay on your Facebook profile picture.
Talking about tragedy to friends, on Twitter, blogging, or what-have-you are all acceptable and, and, I would argue, necessary to move our culture and civilization forward. The point is that offering prayer to an uncaring god who literally allows the murder of innocent people five minutes before you saw the hash-tag appear on Twitter. This seems to suggest that the Tweeter is missing the point entirely.