Law in Contemporary Society

Actions Speak Louder Than Words

Prayers of Healing

While CNN has become more of a gossip rag than a news source, I must admit that I read it often. At the bottom of stories it has place for people to share their thoughts on a story, much like on our wiki. One thing that I have noticed over and over again on reading stories of tragedies are repeated comments from readers that they think whatever has happened is the most tragic thing they have ever read and they will pray for them, sometimes “every night.” Rather than thinking that the sentiment is nice, this irks me to no end.

Why this bothers me

I’ve been reflecting on why it is that this makes me want to yell in frustration and have come up with a couple of options. (1) They aren’t actually doing anything to help these people. (2) They don’t realize this, so they not only aren’t helping, but they get the warm comfort of thinking they are. (3) I’m not even making the effort. (1) and (2) bothered me for a long time. I don’t deny that there these may be good, caring, people who want to reach out and help. I am frustrated by the means through which they try to do that because the quality of caring for others and receiving personal satisfaction from helping others is a good one. The means they choose, however, are disappointing. While I am not ready to stand up and renounce god, I am comfortable in my belief that these heartfelt prayers do not go beyond the minds or perhaps the bedroom walls of their originators.

Sunday (or Saturday) Morning Rituals

There are obvious holes in my self-righteous anger. But I do not believe one of them is that a lot of these people would be unable to provide actual help that would turn into food and shelter. Meaningful help does not need to come through economic gifts or even huge time commitments. American must collectively spend (hundreds of) thousands of hours in houses of worship each year. If instead of sitting on benches in palaces for an unseen, self-proclaimed jealous god, people gathered for habitat for humanity, for soup kitchens, for city harvest, for thousands of other community help projects, there would be a lesser need to send up our prayers at the end reading the daily news.

I am not saying that religion is evil. In fact, I believe that religion is a good thing—it reinforces the desire to help others in need, fosters community, and much more. But when the religious focus on prayers over deeds, religion loses its function. It becomes only conspicuous waste for the faithful, who have more than enough faith to spread around, who believe their faith is enough to make a difference. I realize that praying as a community can foster the bond of religion, and praying by oneself can also be a way of enhancing this bond between the community and, if you so believe, with god. But the goal of bonding with the community (and god) does not seem like an end in and of itself, but a means to achieving a common purpose. When praying becomes an end, religion, in my eyes, has failed.

  • Of course, this assumes a particular view of the functional purpose of "religion," which is not necessarily shared by the people whose behavior is irking you. As a description of why you are irked, it has some explanatory value, but only to the extent that one believes you are committed to the rationalism that is being displayed. In that case, you are irked at people for not being rationalists about belief and functionalists about the organization of their lives and opinions. If, however, one considers you too to be human, not merely the stand-in for a rationalist intellect, the situation grows for complicated. Pure functionalism exists in Judaistic responses to religion more easily than it does in, say, Buddhist or Islamist thought. But even given that this is your home culture, it seems in context that the essay is more about your own uncertainties than your certainties, more about asking what religion could do in your life than about what it does in others.

  • This is oddly in tension with the topic of your first paper. "Where's the empathy?" one might well ask. How other people experience their lives is being met here with impatience and repressed hostility, rather than understanding. For myself, knowing as I do that the universe has never for one billionth of a nanosecond of my lifetime contained a god of any sort, and never will during any other lifetime of any organic entity no matter how short or long, people's religious experience seems no more irritating or troublesome than people's experience of art, music, cuisine, or chemical stimulants. I don't share your view that "religion is a good thing," anymore than I think law or marriage or family are good things. They are, and that's where the complexities begin. Being irked seems like being on the verge of a category error, certainly a failure of empathy, somehow.

Problem (3)

The third identified reason that the CNN-prayer-offers may bother me is because, after being frustrated by others, I am doing no more myself. I know not yet what to make of this. I am in an awkward phase of rejecting religion and prayer as a good in and of itself and figuring out where that leaves me. Part of the problem I have with religion is that it seems to orient people’s minds around death rather than life. The idea of salvation has many times been rushed upon slaves and the poor as a means of comfort—the fruits of the afterlife will be greater for the suffering in this one. The idea of praying for victims does not stand too far off from this in my mind. In either case, people are comforting themselves with fantasy—fantasy of an afterlife, or fantasy that they are actually helping people in the world without ever lifting a finger (or at least without lifting more than two hands to the sky).

When religion is focused around a house of worship and not in the world outside the Eruv, it is no longer a tool for life, but one for death (or an afterlife, if that’s your thing). Maybe this was useful during medieval ages where the majority of the population lived in filthy impoverished conditions; maybe it is still useful in some parts of the world. The world of most of my fellow CNN readers, however, calls for a religion of life. I don’t think we need to flock from churches to Howard Roark’s temple to the human spirit—I’m not ready to throw aside thousands of years of culture and heritage—just yet. But I for one am on a quest to find a congregation that does not practice in a house of god but in the world of men.

  • Tikkun olam, the wish of every left-wing Reconstructionist in every upscale leafy suburban temple. So you've ruled out becoming a Buddhist?

  • I think the best route to an improvement here is to step back from the argument (how many ways can I find to explain what people should be doing instead of what they are doing?) to the description: people believe in the power of prayer. Why do they? What do we learn about people from this observation, without making judgments about religions?

-- EllaAiken - 15 May 2009


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r5 - 08 Jan 2010 - 22:46:35 - IanSullivan
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