To Pray or Not to Pray: Is That the Question?


by Barry King, 28 November 2015

After the recent terror attacks in France, the instinctive response of people of faith all over the world was to pray for Paris, and to encourage others to do so. For others, who consider religious faith problematic, the response was different: “Don’t pray for Paris”. The subtext to those opinions was clearly: religion is part of the problem, so it can’t be part of the solution.

The first of those responses (prayer) has deep historical roots. Thoughtful people will wonder about the second: is it a new idea, or has it been tried before? If it has been tried before, what were the results of the earlier trials? Hearing news of the Paris attacks, many of us remembered John Lennon, who wrote 40 years ago: “Imagine…no hell below us, above us only sky.” John identified the objective of that dream as “..all the people living life in peace.” Clearly, if John were still among us, he would have been among those saying, “Don’t Pray for Paris”.

John Lennon lived entirely in the 20th century, and terrorism remains, so far, one of the most important issues of the 21st. However, if you ask a historian what is meant by the phrase “the reign of terror”, without specifying a place or time, she will almost certainly say: Paris, 1793-1794. I just googled that phrase and found confirmation. And she would not be assigning the word “terror” to the tactics of that period inappropriately: those terrorists chose the label for themselves: they called their tactic “la Terreur”.

Would the French revolutionaries of that period have said “Pray for Paris” or “Don’t Pray for Paris”? Let’s ask Diderot himself. He made his view of the interaction between church and state clear: ”Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” Robespierre held a similar view, until he met the fate Malcolm X met later: his advocacy of violence led to his own violent death, at the hands of his fellow revolutionaries. Napoleon, as the embodiment of the inevitable imperial form of the French Revolution, expressed his distaste for European Christianity by pretending to convert from atheism to Islam, for an audience of Egyptian Muslims. Napoleon was just being Machiavellian, but they still believe it in Egypt (which demonstrates how important mere words can be) and in fact, on his deathbed Napoleon said "the Mohammedan religion is the finest of all". I’m guessing that Napoleon, if he had a facebook account, would also be among those who post “Don’t Pray for Paris”.

So, the idea that religion is part of the problem, so it can’t be part of the solution, was not invented in Paris in 2015. It was widely held in Paris in the 18th century, and earlier, and elsewhere. Empirically, what are the results? Diderot was singing the lyrics of “Imagine” centuries before Lennon wrote them down: did his song and his dream result in the people of Paris being able to live their lives in peace? Unfortunately, it did not. The fatalities from the French reign of terror version 2015, motivated by religion, so far number less than 200. The fatalities from the French reign of terror version 1793-1794, motivated by atheism, numbered around 40,000. John, it’s a lovely idea, but I’m afraid there is not much evidence that it will work.

In Ethiopia, late 1970s, the revolutionary atheist Mengistu said that religion was part of the problem and could not be part of the solution, so he killed Haile Selassie (a man of faith, ask the Rastafarians) and murdered tens of thousands of religious Ethiopians, typically charging the families of the dead for the cost of ammunition used in the execution.

Other 20th century opponents of prayer include Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. Some would add Hitler, but their evidence is a bit weak. Hitler was more of a pagan, than an atheist. Pagans generally do not object to prayer.

John, do you really believe that imagining no religion will result in people living their lives in peace? It would be great if it were true. The work of peace-making would be so much easier than it actually is.

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