When I’m not bothered by prayer

In the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan, there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction, with a great many messages of support flooding twitter and facebook. Included in this was the hashtag #prayforjapan.

There was a bit of a reaction against this, including one of the most ardent atheists around, @pzmeyers of the excellent blog pharyngula. I’m sure I didn’t see all of the relevant conversations, but this got me thinking about when and how to challenge religion appropriately.

To discuss this sensibly, I have to have a couple of working assumptions, and in those instances where these aren’t correct, the argument is different.

I’m going to assume that this was meant positively, that those using it were expressing the same sentiment as anyone else saying ‘our thoughts are with you’ or ‘good luck’. I don’t believe in luck as such, but use the phrase as a short hand to express my hope that things go well. There is a possibility that it was being used cynically as an opportunity to preach, but I can’t believe this to be the case in the vast majority of instances.

I’ll also assume that people didn’t use a hashtag on twitter instead of donating to appropriate charities. In fact, I’d imagine that it would increase donations if anything, but that’s based only on idle speculation.

I’m also going to assume that the prayers and best wishes are aimed broadly. The idea that Christians might mean it to relate only to other Christians would certainly be anathemic to those Christians I know.

I accept that my experience of Christians may be a small and unrepresentative sample – I live in a relatively bohemian city in England, rather than Bible belt America.

Given these assumptions, I’d disagree with pz picking up on the hashtag. It seems that pz was unhappy that people were being asked to take part in a religious observance that wouldn’t do anything. This is another instance of religion pushing its agenda onto others, and defining the appropriate reaction in its terms.

In many circumstances, I’d agree with pz. There should be no religious agenda in schools, humanist posters should be allowed in the tube, and medical ethics should be discussed by medics and ethicists. Religion should not get special treatment.

My problem is simply with how this was approached this time. People were trying to express sympathy for those dead or suffering, and chose to do so in the way that they found most meaningful. Therefore, when you attack that expression, it looks a lot like you are attacking the message of support and camaraderie they were sending.

My fear is that you risk setting back the Gnu Atheist cause by attacking a good sentiment at a particularly tense time. People of all religious orientations will be alienated, making the case harder to make. That’s not something I wish to see happen, as a self-identified atheist. I’d like to see greater harmony between social groups in a liberal secular society.

I think we need loud mouths like pz, Dawkins and Hitchens to press the case, but we need to be careful not to appear too arrogant, insensitive and dickish.

All that said, this collection of facebook posts is disgusting, and any ire directed at this sort of behaviour is well founded.

Oh, and the Red Cross seem to be the charity of there moment, donate here.

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