I’ve felt a heavy sadness this week that I fear is only bound to intensify in the coming weeks. Events in Paris in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks continue to dominate the news cycle. When there is a break in the coverage, it seems it’s only to introduce another tragedy unfolding elsewhere in the world. Syrian refugees are still washing up to shore, both dead and alive. At least 27 are dead in the Mali massacre. Kidnappings continue in the Philippines. Palestinians and Israelis are still killing each other on a daily basis.
Closer to my current home in China, Uighyr separatists, unable to procure guns, rampage through train stations, slashing passengers with long knives. Chinese authorities are accused of retaliating indiscriminately, shooting dead anyone even remotely associated with the attacks.
More violence promised by all parties.
Even if terrorism didn’t exist, we would still have a 24/7 news stream of police violence, child abductions, grisly murders, school shootings, and other mass killings to look forward to. No need to wait for the evening news or even look for a television – headlines are pushed to our phones round the clock. Videos so gruesomely violent they’d make Dante puke appear in our Facebook newsfeed. Anyone trying to change their profile photo to show solidarity with victims of extremism would need to log on hourly.
It is clear that secularism – a worldview that espouses the furtherance of human welfare through rational solutions – is, if not altogether dead, certainly mortally wounded. Every time a terrorist or religious zealot takes a life, he emboldens others to join the madness, and elicits vows of revenge from those who worship a slightly different god. Even those who might in other times consider themselves moderates are found shouting threats at city hall or proposing internment camps.
It’s enough to make a secular humanist cry. I’m sitting at an airport in Beijing, waiting to board a plane home for the holidays, yet my heart is heavy. With all the terrible things happening in the world, even the Pope is having a hard time enjoying the season. How can we sing ‘Peace on Earth’ when it seems the world is on fire? What can we do in this time of troubles?
We can pray.
I’ve heard it said that an agnostic is someone who has a nostalgia for God, and I know I am guilty of this sentiment. I’ve explored the topic before, and I’ve decided that it is difficult to escape the old ways of thinking. I’ve been criticized for posting #prayforparis and #prayforsyria on my blog and other sites. So be it.
However, perhaps I do need to clarify what kind of prayer I’m talking about. It is not the prayer of the zealot – the one who shouts ‘God is Great’ as he guns down the innocent. I do not propose a fatalist’s prayer, the sort of ‘God’s will be done’ sentiment so prevalent in our major religions. I am certainly not in favor of the Samsonite prayer – let me kill all my enemies even if it’s the last thing I do. And I long ago abandoned the wishful prayer, the one that expects a magic man in the sky – so oblivious to our sufferings thus far – to suddenly make everything ok.
Instead, what I suggest is to keep these events close to our hearts and uppermost in our thoughts. When I say ‘prayers’ for someone, it means my heart goes out for them, that I want things to work out for them. I can’t look at someone with stage IV cancer who’s asked me to pray for them and say, “I don’t believe in prayer,” even if I don’t in the conventional sense of the word.
There is enough heartlessness in the world. I know there is no God – because even a fallible human such as I would stop these heinous events if I could – how could a perfect being do otherwise?
Obviously we must do more than pray – we have to punish those who’ve broken the law, root out those who fan the flames of hatred, and – if we can – eliminate the causes of such mindless violence. But while we’re stunned, hurting, at a loss for words let alone solutions – could it hurt to pray?