Monday, 15 February 2016

How (Not) to Pray For Richard Dawkins

The Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, recently got itself into a bit of a Twitter spat.

In response to the news that scientist and author Richard Dawkins had suffered a minor stroke, the Church’s official Twitter feed announced:

Praying for Richard Dawkins and his family

The message was deemed insensitive and ignorant by many on Twitter, and the Church was widely accused of smugness or even sarcasm, ‘trolling’ the famously-outspoken atheist and opponent of organized religion.

An equal number of Twitter users defended the Church, as did the Church itself. The Rev. Arun Arora, the Church’s communications director, issued a statement that the criticism of the tweet ‘stemmed from a misunderstanding of what prayer is’, adding that he would indeed be praying for Dawkins as well; ‘It is the very least I can do.’

You’re welcome to jog over to Twitter and read the comments (which, this being Twitter, runs to well over a thousand).

Much of the Twitter debate has revolved about the Church’s right- indeed, its duty- to pray for Dawkins. The Church’s raison d'etre, they argue, is to pray for those in need;

Some of it argues that the criticism of the Church is just another attempt to forcibly remove religion from public life;

Some of it is a back-and-forth argument about the efficacy of prayer;

Others point out what they see as the insensitivity of praying for someone who has so often made clear their contempt for prayer itself…

There are strengths and weaknesses in all of these debate points, but I don’t think any of them are the central issue.

The important issue for me is not the Church’s prayer, but the Church’s public announcement that it was praying.

It’s a small distinction, but I believe it’s a vital one.

In the account of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, Jesus makes clear that public prayer, or the public announcing that you are praying, is not only unnecessary, but uncalled for:

When you pray, you must not be like hypocrites who love to stand and pray in the assemblies and at the street corners, being seen by others. 
Truly, I say to you, if that is what they want, then that is all they shall ever have.
But when you pray, go into your room, shut the door, and pray to God who is in secret. And God who sees in secret will hear you.
And do not heap up empty phrases as the unrighteous do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for God knows what you need before you ask him.

In the age of mass communication, Jesus’s words can seem utterly confusing and counterproductive… which might be why so many Christians simply ignore them. Not let people know what I’m doing, especially when I’m doing something good and righteous? Are you insane?

Evangelism-the idea of openly and practically communicating the message of the Kingdom of God- is so central a tenant of the Christian faith that doing so at every opportunity, by any means available, and as publicly as possible is seen as an intrinsic good, a ‘no-brainer’.

But Jesus seems to be tempering that desire with a certain caution, an admonishment that our desire for public display of religious devotion might actually spring from other desires, less positive and darker…

He also seems to be trying to convey the goodness and benefits of private religious practice- benefits that are always in danger of being beaten into the ground by Christianity’s penchant for very public witness. The desire to ‘get the message out’, to ‘be seen and heard’, to ‘show the world our faith’ overwhelms all concerns of deference, sensitivity, and grace.

This is why Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount remains such a radical declaration. Prayer, fasting, and acts of charity are all put into the realm of stuff we just shouldn’t bring up:

Put simply, if you’re tweeting that you are praying for someone, you’re missing the point;

If you post to Facebook what you’re giving up for Lent, you’re missing the point;

If your church posts photos on its website of the youth group working with Habitat for Humanity, you’re missing the point.

I realize that this idea will horrify some Christians. ‘How will people know we’re Christians if they don’t see our good deeds?! People need to see the love of Christ in action!’

They do need to see our good deeds… but there’s no need for us to announce that we're doing them.

It’s not up to me- or anyone else- to pass judgement on the motives behind the Church of England’s tweet. But I can think of several instances in my own life when someone informing me that they have been, or will be, praying for me has come not as a comfort but like a smack in the mouth- condescending, judgmental, or point-scoring.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus seems to be saying, just get on with praying; talking about it just puts the whole exercise at risk…

And who knows? There might be instances when not praying for someone at all might be- just might be- the better option, the more Christ-like option.

Taking part in a public debate in 2011, author, journalist, and notoriously trenchant critic of all religion Christopher Hitchens related an experience from his treatment for cancer:  

I’ve had very involved in my care a great American, Francis Collins, who is the director of the National Institute of Health, and who has helped me sequence my genome- amazingly- and possibly find a cure for an individualized mutation from which I suffer.

Francis is probably one of the most devout believers I’ve ever met. In fact, I’m lucky to be his friend because of the religion debate. He’s a very sincere and devout Christian.

And all he does is say he won’t pray for me…

And on that, we have one of the nicest armed truces it’s ever been my pleasure to observe.

Collins chose to place the beliefs and feelings of a dying man above- or at least on an equal footing- with his own.

He chose to avoid utterly the dangers of public use of religious piety to which I think Jesus was referring in Matthew 6- pride, hubris, self-importance…

Beyond even that, he abandoned the petitioning of God on Hitchens’ behalf altogether- as though God is dependent on us to tell him to get to work, or needs us to specifically inform him of what needs to get done…

Collins obviously deemed the contribution of his considerable medical expertise to Hitchens’ life as sufficient enough.

That, to me, was an act of true and genuine faith.

For Christians living in the age of the smart phone, social media, and the ‘selfie’, I think it’s a type of faith we might want to cultivate…


  1. I think the C of E's motives pure, but OURS should be Dr Dawkins' well-being above any sectarian turmoil..

  2. The Church of England and other organised religions (decent ones, for that matter) can only pray for the sick and distressed people; they cannot cure them or relieve their distress. If the religions become mean and vindictive, even in offering prayers, then the free thinkers and opponents of religion such as scientists in medical, biological, physical sciences should withdraw their services from the religious adherents and see if their prayers alone come to anything! Taking advantage of sciences and then condemning scientists for not sticking to religion and blindly following it is despicable, to say the least.