I went to bed last night with news breaking on the BBC of the latest atrocity in Paris and awoke this morning to radio news and newspaper headlines full of the appalling details.
It didn't take long for my Facebook newsfeed to be full of related posts both from friends of faith asking for prayers for Paris and posts from friends of no faith. The picture above is from the latter group.
I am always struck how such responses from both perspectives are inadequate.
Let's start with people of faith: "Pray for Paris" I am urged.
It's a serious question and at it's heart lies the conundrum of intercessory (asking for) prayer: what's it for and what does it say about my understanding of God? What does "pray for Paris" actually mean? Am I suggesting that God hasn't noticed such trauma and needs nudging into action? That's a preposterous idea, surely? As if God, if He exists - and I know that's a huge "if" for many people - isn't aware. Surely that goes against the belief systems of all Theistic faiths.
In this approach intercessory prayer becomes my wish list. "Dear Santa, could you fix it for me that ......"
Accepting then, that people of all faith groups believe God is All-Knowing and All-Loving what do I need to ask for, and am I not wasting my breath, if not my emotional energy in such an unnecessary process?
Well, I'd contend that I am not.
We are always told that prayer is a dialogue and if I don't take time to listen, (as very often in my rush to get my list out in the open), it isn't: it's a monologue. In my bit of the dialogue I am not making God aware of anything other than my own understanding of the situation. There is a meme that does the rounds on social media from time to time that goes like this:
Change the concern to fit the situation and to my mind you have the missing part of the dialogue. I am aware that there is an issue; I believe something needs to be done; why am I making the assumption that the "doing" should be done by someone else? What is my responsibility? What should I be doing having recognised a need?
To me intercessory prayer is a dangerous strategy for the person of faith because it makes us aware that if we want to see change we need to be part of it and it bothers me that in some quarters prayer is seen as an end in itself and if it is an end in itself are we not guilty of the worst piety?
As a rider to that I'd also ask "Why Paris?" as in why just Paris? I've been a bit queasy at the number of Facebook French flags that have appeared over the last few days. How does that gesture look if viewed from, say, Beirut, Baghdad or Homs? What's the sub-text? Only European "Christian" lives matter and need a show of solidarity? A Paris event happens in Syria and Iraq every day.
Now to my Atheist friends: firstly, get a grip. Some of your posts are so hate-filled you should be ashamed - not just those which deal with Islam but those which deal with the phenomenon of religion in general. I may have to block some of you. What also strikes me about posts from my most vitriolically Atheist friends is their misunderstanding of faith, or perhaps their certainty that people of faith believe things which, actually, they don't. Why am I surprised that Atheists misunderstand or deliberately misrepresent religious faith?
If that's what you really think religion is about I'm not at all surprised you have no time for it.
The picture at the top is a great example. It is a graphic I would have used it myself in other circumstances were it not for the speech marks around "prayer". What's that all about? Has this particular friend perceived my own misgivings about the piety of having said I'd pray for something? What's the overt message in that graphic? Prayer's a waste of time. Get on and do something useful! As I've outlined I think that's a misunderstanding of the nature of prayer.
What I do notice in the responses of my Atheist friends is often an anger - to my mind, a misdirected anger - about responsibility. "Why didn't God intervene to stop this dreadful act?" At a stroke the eight terrorists in Paris become demoted to bit players in the drama with their responsibility downgraded. We are angry primarily at God and while I understand the argument to a degree, it's not one I accept. No one is responsible for what happened in Paris but the eight terrorists and their helpers and backers.
Because He isn't interventionist people don't believe in God, seems to be the bottom line and I think that's deeply problematic. It's problematic because it takes away all human responsibility for moral failings. In this scenario God is seen as a sort of Mary Poppins figure who comes along with a smile, a song and a spoonful of sugar and puts everything right, clearing up our messes. If that's the sort of God people want I'd have to ask where they draw the line. So genocide and terrorism need divine intervention to stop them but, say, a bit of cyber-fraud can be left alone? What about careless driving? Political and financial corruption? Where does the intervention end?
I believe it's all or nothing. If God intervenes once to stop an immoral act, then surely he must intervene every time and if he does, how do we ever learn moral responsibility? If Mary Poppins God is always there to sort things out why do I ever need to worry about my morality? I can do as I please in the certainty that there will be no unpleasant consequences to my actions.
To go one stage further with this argument there are those who assert that if God exists he needn't clean up behind me because He has it in His power to stop me ever making wrong moral choices.
In this scenario God becomes the eternal puppet master forever pulling my strings, or I become a robot only pre-programmed to do good. Where then is my humanity? Surely my humanity is characterised by my ability to choose to do good or evil and that, of course, has potential consequences. If I have free moral choice, who is ultimately to blame when I get it wrong?
So, Atheist friends, I ask you, which would you prefer? Mary Poppins God or Programmer God?
Clearly then, I don't subscribe to the doctrine of an interventionist God and I don't think among people of faith that I am unique in that position. However, people who claim no faith are often taken aback by that position, assuming that our faith IS in an interventionist God.
However, I have a rider to that position: all the major faiths have a strong moral element and we believe that down the ages there have been key people who have grabbed the attention and imagination of their people and set out in clear terms what our moral responsibilities are to our neighbours. Those moral positions have become central to our various faiths and subsequently subsumed into our civil codes. We can't claim ignorance. We know the difference between right and wrong.
That's my view of God's intervention. How often do we need to be told?
There are wicked and dangerous people out there and they should be held to account but I can't accept the narrative that it is religion that is at the root cause. If that were the case we would only see such acts perpetrated by those claiming religious allegiances but that is clearly not the case. Can you imagine a set of circumstances where someone would say, "Look at those mad Atheists at it again with their drive-by shootings, their meth-driven excesses and genocides." No. Me neither. The wicked and evil are out there in all walks of life with their various agendas of opportunism, greed, power-hunger and a complete disregard for the sanctity of human life: they corrupt and destroy whatever they touch whether it be in the secular or religious realm and they subvert religion and politics to their causes.
It is, as one Atheist friend has been at pains to remind me, the role and responsibility of all people of good faith (and I don't here mean religious faith) to challenge them with words and actions.
How we respond at this point is the key. Will we respond with prejudice, fear and the isolation of the other in our society, or will we unite with generosity, empathy and compassion towards our beleaguered Muslim friends and neighbours and say, "We stand with you. Not in our name"? Let's be clear: part of the agenda of the terrorist is to cause a backlash; one that enables them to perpetrate the myth that there is a war against (in this case) Islam.