Prayer is often seen as a form of theft, a guilty misappropriation of another's hope. But far from being an act of stealing, a zero sum game in which one must lose for another to gain, prayer, true prayer, binds us together in our common mortality... If prayer is at all a theft, it is an embezzlement from God of our human responsibility for each other, a solidarity unmediated by any power, earthly or heavenly.One can anticipate a certain kind of mind wilfully misinterpreting parts of Suraiya’s column (see the full piece) to mean that an atheist has been so shaken by recent events that he has had to turn to God; to prayer as it is conventionally defined. But despite the restraint exercised in the piece, his real meaning comes through: that the world might possibly be a better place if people accepted responsibility for their own actions – for their own power to spread happiness or unhappiness – and left God out of the picture, or at least allowed Him to focus His attention on non-earthly matters.
I understand the abstract “praying” Suraiya refers to: “true prayer”, as he puts it. (Another, more prosaic way of describing it might simply be “hoping for the best”, though this is of course too bleak and arbitrary for many people.) But the other kind of praying, the one where you credit a selectively munificent Higher Power for paying special heed to your prayers and allowing you or your loved ones to survive a disaster that hundreds of others didn’t? Not too impressive in my view, and not particularly sensitive or moral either (which is ironical when you consider that millions of people wear their religiosity as a badge and think of it as synonymous with being “good”). It also reminds me of the Argument from Incomplete Devastation on the humorous “Proofs of God’s Existence” website:
(1) A plane crashed, killing 143 passengers and crew.
(2) But one child survived with only third-degree burns.
(3) Therefore, God exists.
A personal aside here. I try not to be a militant, soapbox atheist, at least in my public dealings with people (you can be whatever you want to be inside your own head), but one exception occurred two years ago, during the Noida kidnapping case. A friend, usually quite self-possessed, became so overwhelmed when news came in that the little boy was safe that she began a monologue about how fervently she had prayed for his release. “I just know that if you pray hard enough for something, someone up there will listen to you,” she said. “If you pray with all your heart, you’ll be rewarded.”
Now this is the sort of thing I’m perfectly willing to hear and filter out of my mind when said a single time – long and hard experience inures you to it – but then she repeated the sentence in exactly the same triumphant tone. And then repeated it again. Such is the blissful self-absorption of the religious mind at these times that even a normally sensitive person won’t think about the wider implications of what she’s saying: that her prayers somehow counted for more than the equally fervent and desperate prayers of millions of other people who weren’t safeguarded from personal tragedy. Including other parents, in other times and places.
Anyway, this went on for a couple of minutes and I began to feel a red haze building up inside my head. Since I’m no good at head-butting people, I eventually just got up and walked out of the room, seething. Later, having calmed down, I was embarrassed about my reaction, and I also came to appreciate that my friend’s own over-the-top response was mainly an outlet for her visceral relief. But the smug conviction that can come out of religious belief - and how it can breed insensitivity towards others' tragedies - still left an unpleasant taste in the mouth.
End of aside: here’s Suraiya’s piece again. Meanwhile we will continue our abstract prayers for Mumbai’s victims, and for other victims of the past and the future.