Okay, it is time for me, once again, to put on my “naive religious person” hat and wonder why on earth people get offended over the stupidest things.
It has nothing to do with the recent decision to ban cross memorials for fallen state troopers in Utah because it allegedly is Christian proselytization forced on innocent motorists driving down the highway. That was a bit outrageous, and those judges should have their heads examined. The cross isn’t a Mormon symbol, and both the folks who erected the monuments and the troopers to whom the monuments were dedicated were Mormons. The cross has come to mean “grave marker” just as much as it symbolizes Christianity. For more information on that, see the related links below.
No, the subject of this post is one of far greater concern to me. Vjack of Atheist Revolution has written a post decrying prayers being offered for Christopher Hitchens’s recovery from cancer. He discusses why prayer, in this specific case, is offensive, then treats the broader issue of why prayer in general is offensive.
Obviously, Vjack and I disagree strongly on the efficacy of prayer. I don’t want this post to turn to that subject. Joshua Rasmussen, who has offered some assistance with my project to update answers to Why Won’t God Heal Amputees and God is Imaginary, is busy researching that very topic and it will be addressed in detail shortly.
Instead, let’s focus on what prayer is to the Christian. Prayer is a two-way communication between the Christian and God. Admittedly, many times it appears ineffective when applied to the circumstances surrounding one’s life and only seems effective at centering one’s priorities and (in many cases) altering brain chemistry to speed healing. Since it’s a two-way street, it is equally useful for discerning God’s will for the life of the penitent.
Additionally, God wants us to pray. The example of prayer is the Lord’s Prayer that Jesus gives us in Matthew 6:9-14. In this template, the penitent only asks for what he needs, not what he wants. This indicates, as do other verses on prayer, that God happily grants what we need. However, God sparingly (if at all) grants what we want.
Need and want are very important to distinguish from one another. My two-and-a-half year old daughter can make this distinction. Whenever she’s doing something she’s not supposed to do, once I catch her, she informs me that she “needs” to do it. If my two-and-a-half year old can make this distinction, then I would assume adults trying to critique prayer can, too.
That means I was disappointed when I first read proof #1 over at GII, since the anonymous author (Marshall Brain?) fails in making that distinction, taking verses on prayer and misusing them to turn prayer into a free-for-all, ask-for-anything-and-God-grants-it strawman argument.
None of this precludes asking God for what we want. God may not grant our every desire, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to ask for it. Intimate relationships require a certain vulnerability. We should open all of our hearts to God when we pray, and that means asking for what we desire.
If enough people are praying, how could God refuse?
That said, why can’t the atheist think of this prayer as a peace offering? Prayer is important and central to the Christian’s spiritual life. Hitchens is a very outspoken critic of all things religious. Religious people, especially the Christians he repeatedly derides, are praying to God for mercy for Hitchens. We are praying that he live longer. He might convert to Christianity, he might now. Personally, I think he is being used by God mightily right where he is. His criticisms force believers to think critically about their Christian faith, and undoubtedly edifies as many (or more) believers as he wrests away from the faith.
Taking offense to this reveals that atheists seem to have a bit of a grudge. Why the bitter axe? We believe we are helping Hitchens, whether the atheist believes this or not. We are trying to show him the charity he lacks in dealing with us–that is, we’re living out our faith and praying for the healing of one of the faith’s greatest enemies. If it is offensive, perhaps it’s because this example of “turn the other cheek” flies in the face of the usual atheist claims of Christian hypocrisy. They believe that Christians are hypocrites who don’t really believe what we claim or ever practice what we preach. When this shining counterexample surfaces, they express as much outrage as they do when an example of Christian hypocrisy surfaces.
We’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Atheists constantly point out when we don’t live out our faith–and they seem to take perverse pleasure in doing so. But, when we do live out our faith (Mt 5:44), they take deep offense.
- Federal appeals court says highways crosses are unconstitutional (cnn.com)
- Utah highway patrol crosses violate US Constitution (telegraph.co.uk)
- Utah Memorial Crosses Struck Down By Court Of Appeals In Denver (huffingtonpost.com)
- “Cross” Cultural no more: Appeals Court Rules Against Utah Memorial Crosses (beliefnet.com)
- “Court Strikes Down Memorial Crosses in Utah as Unconstitutional” and related posts (catholicexchange.com)
- Prayers abound for cancer-stricken atheist (knoxnews.com)
- Prayers For Christopher Hitchens (douthat.blogs.nytimes.com)