Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Prayer as a Weapon

In a recent post, vjack describes the act of schoolyard "prayer circles" and how they are used to attack non-fundie children.
The children start calling you names and hurling insults at you. If you happen to be Jewish, you will hear things that would make neo-Nazi's proud. You are a sinner. You are going to burn in a lake of fire. You will rot in hell. They form a circle around you, holding hands to make sure you can't easily escape. They tell you that the only way you can save yourself is to accept Jee-zuhs. They begin praying around you loudly to "save your soul."
I have never been a prayer circle victim, thank reason. My school was full of good ol' southern Baptists, but I doubt there were more than two or three really fundie families in the whole school.

Socially, what exactly are these prayer-circle attacks? Are they some kind of fundie-centric bullying? Some kind of misguided attempt at an intervention? I'm trying to figure out what the childrens' point is. Are they just trying to be mean? Are they trying to convert their target, as if to say, "Hey, all you have to do is say 'yes, I accept jesus' -- it doesn't matter if it's the truth or not -- and you can be mean to the next kid with us!" Does it matter?

Because deep down, all they are really doing is highlighting one of the great inconsistencies of religion -- specifically, of prayer. Theists, at least those that believe in an active, personal god, believe that if you pray to him/her, your prayers will be answered. They are quick to gloss over the 'unanswered' prayers, and point out the 'answered' ones, to maintain evidence that their god really has listened to them. In reality, the answered/unanswered ratio is exactly what you would expect from chance. If you pray for the sun to rise on time tomorrow morning, then your prayer will almost certainly be answered. If you pray for a second moon to appear in the sky tomorrow night, your prayer will almost certainly be ignored.

A good example of this, as noted in Dan Barker's wonderful song, "Nothing Fails Like Prayer," are those who pray for lottery winnings. If god answers prayers, and people pray to win the lottery, then why are the odds for winning the same as are predicted by statistics? A theist might reason that it is because everyone has prayed for their ticket to win, therefore everyone has equal odds for god to have chosen to answer their prayer. So why pray in the first place?

(I should also point out not everyone will have prayed to win, as there would be plenty of atheists and lazy theists with tickets. Prayer suggests a tendency for devout theists to win the lottery, but this is not the case.)

The use of prayer as a weapon in a good illustration of the paradox of conflicting prayers. Imagine two opponents, an attacker and a victim. Both religious. The attacker prays, "God, please help me smite this person!" and the victim prays, "God, save me from this person!" No matter the outcome, one prayer will be answered and one prayer won't be. The victim either gets away or he doesn't -- exactly what would happen without prayer.

So, again, what's the point? Emotionally, I believe it is similar to rooting for a sports team. As long as there are no bets going on, what do you gain from your team winning? You enjoy the victory vicariously, and get bragging rights over your friends and co-workers that rooted for the other team. Prayer offers exactly the same benefits. If your prayer is answered, you get a vicarious high from feeling "the touch of god" in your life. And you get to feel superior to non-believers and the un-saved. It is similar to people that keep rooting for a losing team, knowing that they're bound to win some day, people keep on praying, too, knowing that their prayer is bound to be "answered" some day.

I think this is why it is particularly satisfying for theists to bash non-theists. There is no conflicting prayer. It feels like a victory by default to them -- a sure win.

So, to answer my own question, I think it's just about the bullying. There is no attempt at conversion, because the goal has nothing to do with victim. Just like doing drugs isn't about what's best for the cocaine. The prayer circle attackers are using the victim to achieve an artificial high.


Katie said...

Of course it's just bullying! Let's face it--kids can be mean. And if kids grow up in a home where Christians are good and everyone else is bad and going to hell, it's logical that religion would become a way to bully other kids. I'm sure these kids are also told again and again that people who aren't Christian need to be saved. Do these kids really understand what they're saying? I highly doubt it. They're just repeating what they hear at home and at church and exploiting it the same way kids will exploit any difference. It's terrible, it sucks, but it's not really surprising.
What does surprise me is that I never experienced it. I was asked if I had been saved, but I didn't even know what that meant until I was in middle school! I always just stared at whoever asked and they usually answered the question for me--"Oh, you're nice, you must be saved!" In retrospect, that's a really shitty answer and a poor reflection on the understanding of morals and religion--were these kids being taught that "good" and "nice" are exclusively Christian traits?
Oof...I think this might be running a little long for a comment. Please check out my new blog, though!

Anonymous said...

I think this is why it is particularly satisfying for theists to bash non-theists. There is no conflicting prayer. It feels like a victory by default to them -- a sure win.

I think you may be giving that thought process too much credit. I think they do it because they truly believe they're doing God's work. If God appeared before me and said that they are right, then I would gladly choose Hell over worshiping such a tyrant.

I saw an episode of 3rd Rock from the Sun years ago. Tommy was on the basketball team, and his team was praying before the game. He noticed that the other team was praying and said something to the effect of "Why are we praying if they're praying? Is our god more powerful than their god?"

You know what has always gotten to me? People where we grew up thanking God for a "good hunt." Yes, because you prayed, God gave you the ability to kill more deer. Are people really so self-centered to think that God would care about their hunting trip enough to intervene?

I'll step away before this turns into a blog post :)

Anonymous said...

Katie: "were these kids being taught that "good" and "nice" are exclusively Christian traits?"
Yes. Remember the the first post from Atheist in a Minivan we read about the oldest possum writing that essay? Her teacher told her something to the effect of "you aren't atheist. You show a lot of generosity, which is a Christian moral."

So... yes! For the most part, believers think nonbelievers are immoral heathens. And they apparently don't grow out of it!!

David W. said...

I think you may be giving that thought process too much credit. I think they do it because they truly believe they're doing God's work.

I think the big difference between prayer circles and honestly just trying to do God's work is the group mentality involved. A child can confront another child about God on a one-to-one basis, and it's a balanced experience. When you have to group together, and capture the target in your circle, then you're seeing an experience not unlike a hunter/prey relationship.

This was one of the main themes I got from "Lord of the Flies." An outsider can be tolerated on a one-to-one basis, but when you are grouped together against them, the group takes an anima of its own, and becomes a cruel and driving force, pushing the actions of the group far beyond what any single person would do.

Travis said...

OK, fair enough. I think that there's at least a twinge of wanting to do God's work (for whatever reason) but then the mob mentality comes into play and it turns into total harassment.

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