PZ Myers is disappointed. There’s a massive oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, BP is incapable of stopping it, as is the federal government, and the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida (and soon on to Georgia and the Carolinas) are being coated in a chocolatey rainbow of crude oil. This is bad, and there’s nothing that people who live in these areas can do about it, so there’ve been occasional calls for folks there to get together and pray.
Now it’s indisputable that PZ is unhappy with all of that, but he seems somewhat more vocal in his unhappiness with the people praying than he is with the oil, BP, etc. I find that odd, but here’s his explanation for being against calls for Gulf residents to pray:
A few people have written me saying I should go easy on those Christian praying for the Gulf — it’s harmless, they say, it’s just building social bonds, etc., etc., etc. Well, la-de-dah — they’re delusional. I don’t just mean the people praying, but also those making excuses for them. Somehow, it’s OK to pretend that the Baptist getting down on his knees begging God to stop the oil isn’t really asking God to stop the oil…he’s just engaging in a social ritual to soothe his psyche, and we shouldn’t disturb his emotional equilibrium.
Now all of this is kinda indisputably true. There’s good evidence that, while prayer does nothing for a person being prayed for, it does reduce stress and have positive physiological effects on the person praying. It’s indisputable that coming together as a community is an important way that people react to collective tragedy, and a call to collective prayer is the way that our society has traditionally urged people to come together. And it’s hard to dispute that times of tragedy are not moments where people are looking for innovation in how they’re urged to join together.
Thus, while a call to prayer does nothing specifically for me, I appreciate the call for collective community action, and I understand why (given the lack of any effective physical action for the community to take) prayer is the action urged. It won’t stop the gusher and it won’t stop the destruction of Gulf wildlife, beaches, and economies, but it will ease some of the heartache and give communities some relief from the strain they’re feeling. And that’s a good thing.
But what does PZ say about all that?
Bunk. Believers believe. Quit pretending that they’re all really just faitheists, because they’re not.
Now I don’t know what people wrote to PZ, but nothing I said above has anything to do with theism, faitheism, or whatever else. It’s about how people in a society deal with collective tragedy. And yes, part of the reason that a call to collective prayer is the default way to bring folks together is that a vast majority of Americans are theists, and think prayer might somehow have some physical benefits.
They’re wrong about that last bit – based on all available evidence – but it is psychologically beneficial to them, and won’t do any additional harm to the Gulf. So why not let them pray in peace? Why make a fuss over it?
If the objection is that they should come together as a community, but not to pray, then that’s a fair point. But a) I don’t see any harm in their praying, b) beating up on the victims of BP’s avaricious indifference seems like misdirection, c) I don’t see PZ suggesting an alternative way to call them together. The last, of course, is the most unfortunate.
You’re Not Helping has been on a roll lately about that latter point, rightly criticizing various folks who criticize such calls for prayer without offering any alternative. While I think YNH has lately become less helpful than they used to be, their highlighting of the work being done by Mississippi Atheists, and of opportunities to donate to ongoing Gulf efforts by groups including the Audubon Society and Unitarian Universalists, certainly do help. If you want to help folks out in the Gulf, those are good places to start.
There’s a broader point here than just beating up on PZ or whoever. Most people attend church for a lot of reasons, and many of those reasons are self-reinforcing. Someone who goes to church with no particular views on theism (pro, con, or agnostic) could well keep attending church because they enjoy the community, want to take part in the volunteer activities organized by the church, want to take advantage of the church’s daycare and other social services, etc. They may adopt some sort of theism in order to fit in. Over time, they associate theism broadly and the church’s brand of theism in particular with the good works, generous friends, and deep community ties that they’ve found in the church.
If atheists want to wean society away from religion, there needs to be an alternative pathway. There need to be communities of non-theists who are as generous with their time and friendship, as committed to building ties and supporting the larger community, as selfless, as church communities can be. Churches play a huge role in the community lives of smaller towns, and of many neighborhoods within big cities. People might join for reasons with nothing to do with theology, and unless there’s a nontheist structure that can parallel that role, nontheism will have a hard time replacing or even making headway against, theism.
If the best that national nontheist groups can muster in response to the Gulf Gusher is “don’t pray about it,” I fear for the message that sends. Churches, synagogues, mosques, and other religious organizations are all happily sending aid and volunteers to help the Gulf cleanup, to support out-of-work fishing families, etc. That outreach doesn’t speak for or against theism philosophically, but it’s a great way to bring people into the fold of religion, or at least to keep them there. Local nontheists are certainly doing their part, and I’d be surprised if their members weren’t participating in community prayer gatherings. They know that the gatherings are about how the community will survive the crisis they’re facing more than they’re about prayer. If only nationally prominent atheists could get on that same page.