(This is an article for next week’s QMessenger, QMSU’s fortnightly paper: www.qmsu.org/qmedia)
The world according to Johann Hari is a sweeter place. This month, at the AHS Convention in London, he took a few minutes of a speech on religious privilege to rail against the #prayforJapan hash tag on Twitter which has recently gone completely supernova. Two weeks ago, he came under attack for a tweet which criticised those praying for survivors of events in Japan. ‘Don’t pray for Japan, #donateforjapanhere’, he said. ‘Other humans will do a lot more than a fictitious supernatural being.’ For believers, praying for help from God (or, equally likely, the Flying Kitchen Ornament of Doom) can, I imagine, be comforting. It may feel like you are helping. But praying, short of making you feel better, has no value. Donate, too.
If you believe in God, you presumably believe in his omnipresence as Creator of the Universe and, at the very least, in his omniscience and omnipotence. The Epicurean paradox nicely shows this as an impossibility:
‘Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?’
The point is that if God were able to prevent the earthquake in Japan and chose not to, then we have a serious moral problem. Is God right? Are thousands of deaths acceptable if they are part of His plan? Alternatively, if He was not able to prevent it then how can He be the master of fates, of time and space? If He cannot control events like this, why pray for His help? The only justification for prayer alone is self-gratification or delusion.
For believers, I have no doubt that praying to God may allow them to feel as if they are communicating with Him, that He is listening to their hopes and compassion and they may hope that, in His mercy, He will protect the people of Japan. However, there is no empirical proof that prayer achieves anything short of a boost in comfort for the person praying. If God exists and if He listens to prayers (spoiler: He doesn’t), is this the kind of God we want? One who will only be satisfied by calls for Him to act, one who causes an enormous natural disaster and waits for pleas for mercy, one who kills thousands of innocent people and who will only be placated if he trends on Twitter.
It is a little rude to call those who pray idiotic. But even those most steadfast in their faith, most devoted in their religious convictions, cannot truly believe that prayer and prayer alone will aid intervention. It is also a little childish to be so sneering towards those who choose prayer as action. However, such apparent churlishness serves to illustrate a point: the immunity that religious ideas, actions and institutions are afforded in our society allows them a unique and dangerous opportunity to cause an immense detriment to that society. Whether it is the primacy of prayer, the intolerance of homosexuality or the cover-up of institutional paedophilia, religions having been getting away with too much for too long. More should (and will) be done to redress this balance, but we can start by making appeals to common human interests – not false deities.
The earthquake in Japan was a natural disaster which can be explained by plate tectonics, by geological research, by the natural order of things; by empirical, rational proof. And survivors can be saved not by divine intervention – not by the late entrance of a lackadaisical/capricious fool/bully – but by humans. Equipment, volunteers, aid, administration, dedication, hard work, compassion and the base values of humanity will help save hundreds, if not thousands, of people. Pray if it makes you feel better. Dance a salsa, kill a pig. Do whatever feels like helping. But donate, too.
To give to the Red Cross’s Japan Tsunami Appeal, go to http://www.redcross.org.uk/Donate-Now/Make-a-single-donation/Japan-Tsunami-Appeal