Prayer and gun control: A shot in the dark

Listen to this article

There’s nothing wrong with prayer. In fact, one could argue there are some proven benefits, in the same way that there are proven benefits to owning a flattering — and figure-distorting — mirror and a good pushup bra. But even if there’s a listening deity on the other end, the benefits remain mostly psychological.

Prayer doesn’t change circumstances; it changes how you process them, and how alone you feel. In essence, prayer is that “private speech” (aka: talking to yourself) that we engage in a lot as children, and then slowly grow out of. Naturally, we still tend to process our thoughts aloud to some extent, only to get embarrassed when someone catches us mumbling — or ranting — as we fold laundry.

Daily News CoverDespite that lurking self-consciousness when speaking aloud to ourselves, prayer remains a strange phenomenon precisely because many are of the opinion that someone else is listening. And that someone has a divine plan, a bestseller, and special helpers on hand. (So … Dr. Phil in the sky?)

After the mass shooting on December 2nd in San Bernardino, some people pointed out that hey, God doesn’t seem to be the best listener. Twitter lit up with people responding to a headline from the New York Daily News, which simply said: “God Isn’t Fixing This” and gave an apt summary of the dead, injured, and traumatized in California.

Sooner than you can say “Politicize this,” everyone was talking about the Republicans sending their ‘prayerful’ tweets while the Democrats used the event as a platform to talk about gun violence.

Now that it’s been a few months, it’s easier to weigh the issue without feeling the weight of life lost dragging all our senses into the muck.

Argument: We need some dumb, unfounded faith in some things — but not when it supplants either action or reason. In many preventable tragedies, it supplants both.

The same God who apparently comforts us after a burglary is the one who allowed them to waltz on into the house and rob us blind. I’m sure an alarm system would help. The same God who “protects us” from a natural disaster that killed our neighbors is the one who, well, decided that they just weren’t needed on Earth any longer. Of course, they had a much older house. The same God who let your friend die of cancer before getting their driver’s license somehow preserved your life after a serious accident because He “has a plan” for you. Nevermind that your friend had “plans” to go into the medical field.

I know many people who believe in an involved deity and yet feel compelled, in some sort of commissioned and messianic fashion, to involve themselves in the betterment as part of their faith. I know them because they’ve helped me at times, in ways that I couldn’t have helped myself or afforded had I attempted to find a professional. They are instruments of God’s work, and they believe that finding joy in helping others is the greatest expression of faith.

I beg to differ.

Isn’t the joy of helping others in and of itself supposed to be a sign that you have officially graduated to a higher level of appreciation for the world and your fellow inhabitants? And, if so, why is that such a difficult thing to admit and acknowledge? If you cannot even acknowledge a good trait simply because acknowledging its existence in yourself would be pride, then isn’t that the worst kind of pride there is? You are, essentially, overemphasizing your own significance in the grand scheme of things — which is exactly what religion is supposed to rid you of: A grandiose sense of self and self-satisfaction.

Personally, I stopped writing, “I’m praying for you,” in cards of encouragement or sympathy long before I stopped believing that prayer was communicating with someone else. It felt less genuine than simply writing, “I’m thinking of you,” because one implied some form of noble action being taken while the other admitted that I was helpless to actually do much but inform them that I was thinking of them.

Consider for a moment the particular brand of pride, the ethical value our society in particular still assigns to having faith in “something greater” than yourself — and an unspoken sentiment that this “something greater” should be deistic. Why should believing or not believing in something for which there is no set standard of proof (go ahead, try to get an entire congregation of supposedly like-minded churchgoers to define the god in which they believe) be treated as an indication of good or bad character?

The two San Bernardino shooters undoubtedly prayed before committing mass murder.
The two San Bernardino shooters undoubtedly prayed before committing mass murder.

It’s the same kind of preferential treatment given to people who are naturally prone to being extroverted, as if they are friendlier than that kind yet reserved introvert. Really, its apples and oranges. People are motivated by different sources, different reward systems, and different beliefs.

No, believing that prayer changes you or allows you to cope is not a bad thing. It is as honest as telling someone that they have been on your mind. But believing in the power of prayer, period, as some sort of force that you can use in place of real action, is as effective as hoping not to get wet while failing to carry an umbrella. If you get caught in a rainstorm, you don’t claim that you were drenched because you didn’t “hope” hard enough, but because you either failed to take preventive measures or had bad luck (a broken umbrella, unpredictable skies, you name it).

Fortunately, even the most devout people don’t usually believe this. That’s why they look before crossing the street instead of praying for a safe crossing. That’s why they wear coats instead of praying for imperviousness to the cold. That’s why they research their districts and tell their children not to talk to strangers rather than praying for a safe neighborhood and positive role models.

It ought to be the same with public policies on matters of public safety, whether it’s in preventive or punitive measures. No matter what your position on guns or prayer, even acknowledging that there is a problem to be solved with something besides words of comfort and magical thinking is a start. If it’s a cultural shift that takes place, one that takes the pride out of gun-ownership in the same way people might take the pride out of blind belief, it seems like a decent first step toward progress. That’s a shot worth taking.