In the last two days the entire western world has been reeling from the horrific terrorist attacks on Paris.
In response, twitter has seen hashtags like #PrayForParis and #Prayers4Paris trending as people far and wide join hands to stand in solidarity with the French people (even if “standing in solidarity” often consists of little more than a retweet).
Not surprisingly, the last two days have also seen several atheists take the opportunity to write critiques of the call to pray for Paris. For example, Jonathan MS Pearce (the “Tippling Philosopher”) expresses his sentiment in the article “Pray for Paris…? Seriously? Think about it!” Jonathan then proceeds to present two arguments against the causal power and value of prayer.
In this article I’m not going to critique Jonathan’s arguments, not least because I’ve addressed these types of issues in the past. (See, for example, my article “God’s meticulous providence and the prevention of evil.“) Even more importantly, there is a voluminous and highly technical literature discussing these issues. Neither Jonathan nor myself is going to provide the last word on this ongoing discussion.
Instead, I want to point out that the tactic of targeting calls to pray for Paris strikes me as unwise and counterproductive. The reason is because it involves the opportunistic insertion of partisan analysis when communal solidarity is required.
To begin with, I frankly find it quite distasteful when folks use the immediate wake of a crisis event or a moral horror in order to further their religions or irreligious agenda. And this applies to Christians as much as atheists.
For example, ten months ago Paris was reeling from another heinous terrorist act. At the time, people around the world tweeted #JeSuisCharlie in support of free thought and the freedom of the press. Imagine if, a mere day or two after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, a Christian apologist had written an article insisting that atheists should not tweet #JeSuisCharlie because they allegedly lack a basis for objective morality, including the very values they profess in support of the press and free thought.
That action would strike as being in extremely poor taste, a regrettable instance of an apologist attempting to insert a partisan analysis into a crisis moment where we need mutual support and comfort. In like manner, when I see atheistic apologists inserting their partisan analysis into the present crisis moment, I have an equally negative reaction.
And this leads me to the core issue. At times like these, we need to join together as a human community in order to reassert the common values which we share. And one way we express communal solidarity is through our particular cultural and intellectual backgrounds. Thus, those of us who are religious will express solidarity and support by calling for folks to “Pray for Paris”. Others will express solidarity and support by calling for “Peace for Paris” or declaring “I stand with Paris.” The expressions of solidarity may differ in reflection of different belief systems and cultural backgrounds, but the commitment to tolerance and the open society remains the same.
Thus, while we have different belief systems, this is not the time for us to snipe at the way others express the sentiment of solidarity: “Prayer doesn’t work!” “Atheism can’t promise peace!” “Why would you stand with Paris?!” Instead, this is the time to extend charity to others as we focus on those things that unite us.
Atheists may not all agree on the value of prayer. But that’s not really the point. It should be enough for them to agree with the underlying spirit of solidarity and compassion to which such imperatives call us all.