Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Our common mortality, our human responsibility"

In a moving piece titled “Atheist’s prayer” by Jug Suraiya, I was especially struck by this bit:
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.


  1. Anon: nothing "curious" about it. I removed the post - not because I had rethought anything that was said in it but because it seemed inappropriate to have Google searches leading to it at this time. (Which is why I've also removed your comment now! Again, stay on-topic please.)

  2. "I understand the abstract “praying” Suraiya refers to: “true prayer”, as he puts it. "

    In which case I wish you'd explain it to me, because I don't. If you don't believe in supernatural agency, what's the point of praying (or hoping for the best?) - it's the mental equivalent of twiddling your thumbs. Surely as an "avowed atheist" Suraiya should be trying to accept the rational fact of our helplessness, instead of masking it in a lot of sentimental twaddle.

  3. Falstaff: not that I should presume to "explain" something to someone as self-assured as yourself, but here goes: I don't think "hoping for the best" is at all incompatible with "accepting the rational fact of our helplessness". In a poignant sort of way, I think they go together.

    Also, if you DO believe in a supernatural agency, you wouldn't need to hope for the best, would you? You'd simply pray as hard as you can and expect that it will work. Or find a way to rationalise that it's all for the best even if it didn't work.

    ...instead of masking it in a lot of sentimental twaddle.

    I don't see too much sentimental twaddle here, actually. Thought it was quite a balanced, restrained piece coming from someone who'd just lost a close friend in a horrific manner. In fact, knowing what I do of some of the kneejerk anti-intellectualism in Indian media circles, I think Suraiya will get a certain amount of flak for even saying things like "as an avowed atheist..." or for his "blasphemous" dissection of prayer-as-roulette, instead of writing an outright sentimental piece in keeping with the mood of the time.

    Incidentally, if you want to read a genuinely sentimental piece (and one that I can't claim to understand), see this.

  4. Jai,
    Thanks for the link on the suraiya piece. I think it's possible to look at his prayer as simply a means of desperate hope or wishful thinking & that can be completely removed frm any any religious or supernatural dependence. Am gald too that there's no righteous anger or pious denunciation of our police/politicians in his piece.

  5. I don’t know Jai, but for me, believing is god is less of getting your prayers answered but more that things are not random… it’s like life is a rather cool movie where every incident, every experience will add up… in opposed to “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
    I am not sure for whom will it add up to, and what it will add up to… but it has a meaning.

    Btw, I have often wondered about the world and my perception of it… and if you look at it like that I think you start to wonder as much about the question “who am i?” and “what is this world?” as about the question “who is god?”

  6. Jai, I think that man is a victim of his circumstances. People have turned up and exclaimed the immense shock they got after Mumbai mourned its dead. There have been prayers and I have seen many so called agnostics or atheists suddenly whimpering and seeking out God when things don't go right.

    Sticking to one's convictions is the true test of Valour , I have never been a Non-believer although I don't wear my belief on my sleeve. Believing or not believing is a personal choice however if faced with danger or hopelessness a person turns the other way round than it speaks of a feeble mind.

    Also 'Falstaff' is right when he discusses about 'Abstract Prayer' , the whole conecpt of belief is abstract. God itself is an abstract concept so if you pray to an 'abstract force' it is praying to God.

    Why did the prayer happen when a close friend passed away? Please understand, I am not criticising but trying to understand the whole philosophy. It is quite alike some utterly biased and shameful coverage of the 'Taj ' where one renowned journalist kept repeating the death of 'Sabina Sehgal Saikia' as a personal loss of a friend. Conveniently forgetting that sixty people had also died at CST which she forgot and had to be reminded by a sombre 'Shyam Benegal'.

  7. Neha: that's an interesting way of putting it, though personally I lean towards randomness.

    God itself is an abstract concept so if you pray to an 'abstract force' it is praying to God.

    Shwet: Many religious people (including some who think of themselves as only moderately religious) wouldn't agree with this - anyway, I was talking about those who believe prayers are answered by a personal God. Even atheists can pray, abstractly, to the power of human goodness (or chance, or whatever) without it being incompatible with their disbelief in a Higher Power. Or maybe "pray" is just the wrong word to use in this context, because of all the associations it carries.

    Also, I don't see anything wrong with emphasising a personal loss at a time like this (rather than being detached enough to keep the "big picture" in mind). Most of us would react exactly the same way if we lost a loved one in this tragedy, and in a case like this even a journalist giving a quote on a news channel should be excused from "saphead objectivity". (Though of course it would be nice if similar space could be given to sound-bytes from the relatives of the CST victims.)

    I think it's possible to look at his prayer as simply a means of desperate hope or wishful thinking & that can be completely removed frm any any religious or supernatural dependence.

    driftwood: that's what I thought too.

  8. Jai: I agree with you on even 'atheists' praying to the common power of Humanity and goodness , being moderately religious in no way means one is cynical of atheists. Different occurences in one's life even a man's journey from childhood to adolescence shapes his beliefs so one should not be condescending on that point.

    Regarding your mentioning of the 'Loss of a personal friend'. I agree with this point that one has all the right to mention it however if you had looked at the said coverage for some time , than it was disgusting that the name of the celebrity critic was mentioned by the Journalist time and again every time the focus shifted to Taj. This included an interview with a relative of hers who was of the viewpoint that she would be alive as she had the innate ability to communicate.(I couldn't understand what that guy meant with such a Ludicrous statement) It is a tragedy that she could not be saved , however the whole thing was juvenile media coverage and not objective sensitivity that this channel claims.

    Why nobody went to the CST victims , some of whom lost their sole breadwinners? Were these children of a lesser God. Have we as a nation become so self centered and myopic that sufferings of even lower or middle class Indians does not register? This whole coverage happened due to the fact that the so called 'Elite' of the country were targeted. As the same Journalist lovingly cried about the devastation of 'Taj' one of the iconic landmarks of Mumbai. Yeah ! what about the tearing of the so called resilience of the people?

    It is not the tearing down of Iconic landmarks but the seemingly callous indifference to such attacks , whether they are targeted at 'Icons' or not.

  9. Jai: Hmmm...I suppose it's all relative - I agree that compared to the piece you link to the Suraiya article is a miracle of lucidity and insight. But I can't help comparing it to, say, the response to 9/11 from people like Sontag and Weinberger. I guess I also felt like he really had just one paragraph's worth of things to say, and he ended up padding the rest - what was with all the 'how does prayer work' stuff if the point is that prayer doesn't work at all? It's not the sentimentality I object to as much as the rambling.

    Also, self-assured, moi? No, no - don't you know that taking an extreme, provocative stand on every issue that comes along is a sure sign of insecurity?

  10. Falstaff: you have a link to Sontag post-9/11? I recall reading it at the time - but perhaps not carefully enough given all the clutter at the time - and haven't seen it since.

    And why can't you be a wishy-washy fence-sitter and insecure (like me)?

    Why nobody went to the CST victims...Were these children of a lesser God?

    Shwet: the answer, as we all know, is an unfortunate Yes.

  11. J'wock: Not to the longer essay that I was thinking about - the one that was included in At the Same Time (Picador 2007). But see here for a shorter version, as well as a bunch of other op-ed pieces on the subject.

  12. Jabberwock, thanks for linking to the column. I mean the second one. Often, I wish that India will have it's own Onion and am happy to see that Business Standard is filling that void. Even in a time like this, one needs to laugh.
    I wish you had been able to see the true point and not call it genuinely sentimental.

  13. dhoomketu: I might have been inclined to see it that way, but I know the writer in question. No Onion, this!

  14. "I used to be an atheist, until I realized I had nothing to shout during blowjobs. "Oh Random Chance! Oh Random Chance!" just doesn't cut it…."
    Robert Anton Wilson said that. I think that's the difficulty with the word 'prayer' too!