The following is a commentary in an ongoing series of “Reflections” by John Mill. John Mill is the radio persona of Ronald Bruce Meyer and can be heard on “American Heathen.” “The American Heathen” Internet radio broadcast is aired, live, on Friday nights from 7:00pm-10:00pm Central time on ShockNetRadio.com
I’ll Pray For You
A Reflection by Ronald Bruce Meyer
They say it when they think I need a little extra good luck. They say it when they’re wishing me well – or wishing me ill. They say it when they think I’m headed for trouble. They often say it when they learn I’m an atheist. What do they say? “I’ll pray for you.” This is John Mill and I’ve been getting a lot of prayers and blessings lately. So either I must be headed for hell – or I’m headed for heaven. Go figure!
I heard that Monday, September 20, 2010, was declared "Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day." Hitchens, of course, is Christopher Hitchens, the 61-year-old, award-winning journalist, and author of “God Is Not Great,” who is suffering from terminal esophageal cancer.
Hitchens skipped "Everybody Pray for Hitchens Day," of course. In fact, the Hitchens’ response to those praying for him is the same as mine: “Thanks, but no thanks.” Don’t waste your effort. And it makes me recall an event from over 100 years ago that I read in an interview with Robert Ingersoll.
The newspapers had reported that Ingersoll was suffering from voice trouble. For a professional public speaker, what in his time was called an "orator," this was a serious problem for Ingersoll. But preachers read the news with glee and remarked on it in their sermons, saying it must be the judgment of God for Ingersoll's blasphemy. I don’t know if you remember a time before Facebook, video games and Blu-ray, but such was the shortage of leisure options in the 19th century that people actually read sermons for entertainment!
Not only that, and most unforgivably, people would skip church on Sunday and pay the equivalent of $25 in today’s currency to hear Ingersoll insult the holy book of Christianity! Imagine! Anyway, Ingersoll replied to the preachers in a subsequent interview. He said that although his throat is on the mend, he completely understands God’s judgment on him for his blasphemy. If he were God, said Ingersoll, he would kill him if he couldn’t answer him!
So Hitchens is being prayed for: some wish Hitchens ill, some wish him well. Hitchens is realistic enough to know that he might have another five years, no matter how much people pray for him. Or against him.
When you think about it, how can prayer succeed? If we’re talking about asking a supernatural being to change nature, we’re asking for the natural world to become less natural, for our understanding of the reliable, rational laws of nature on which science relies (and daily life, for that matter) to become unreliable and irrational. If a god or supernatural being or überforce can be persuaded by intercessory prayer, prayer by somebody for somebody else, aren’t we dictating human desires to superhuman powers? That’s more than a little absurd!
Nothing fails like prayer. And at best, prayer is a leisure activity, a self-indulgence for people with time on their hands. My suggestion is this: Please don’t pray for me. It won’t do me any good and it may do me harm: if I’m clutching my chest in pain, I hope nobody stops the EMT and says, “Wait, let’s pray first!”
"Hood an ass with reverend purple," wrote Jonson, "so you can hide his two ambitious ears, and he shall pass for a cathedral doctor."