Thoughts and Prayers

What happened in Las Vegas was awful. And social media went off on its usual unhelpful tangents.

My social media bubble is kinda  middle-class liberal, but because of my background I have a number of friends who are evangelical Christians. My group memberships tend to reflect my atheism and varying degrees of mockery of organised religion generally and Christianity in particular. It’s a fascinating balance to try and maintain.

So the first posts I actually saw on the massacre were from the cynics once again lambasting the religious for their “thoughts and prayers” posts. The logic is that thoughts and prayers achieve nothing practical for those who have lost loved ones or been injured.

There is no statistical evidence for the efficacy of petitionary prayer – i.e. prayers that ask for stuff (as opposed to worship, meditation and other types of prayer). If there were, Christians the world over would be publishing in science journals and ambulances would drive to churches rather than hospitals. So in real terms, the cynics are right: thoughts and prayers are of no practical use for those caught up in these terrible events.

The implication is that a person should do something or shut up; that “thoughts and prayers” are a way to convince yourself you’ve done something to help without actually doing anything to help.

I get the sentiment. But it feels vacuous. Are these cynics doing anything to help apart from criticising the religious? And are the religious really all doing nothing? And does “thoughts and prayers” really mean actual thoughts and prayers? For many, I’m sure it does. But this expression is also one of solidarity, of standing together and being on the side of those in need.

No, this isn’t the same as actually changing the ridiculous gun laws in a state where having an arsenal capable of killing dozens and injuring hundreds is a right while the medical care needed by the victims is a privilege. It is not the same as actually going there with medical supplies or sending money for those without insurance. But is this also a bad thing, expressing solidarity? America is an awfully divided nation right now – “thoughts and prayers”, even if only as an expression of empathy, go a long way to re-establishing the unity so desperately needed.

I think neither is true. I think in many cases the religious express their “thoughts and prayers” simply to identify as religious on social media and the cynics attack them for doing so for much the same reason; parading their atheist credentials. The expression “thoughts and prayers” is therefore also divisive as much as it is an expression  of solidarity.

Maybe we need to find another phrase, but then we’re off into the realms of political correctness so much-hated by the right. Personally, political correctness has always been synonymous with politeness to me. It means adjusting language so as not to cause unintended offence. The keyword there, of course, is “unintended”. If your intent is offence – and mine often is – by all means choose the language that’s up to the job.

Are there other phrases? What about changing profile photos, like the rainbow-background avatar on Facebook that implied solidarity with the LGBT community? In this case imagery went far beyond what words alone could achieve – at least few enough words for the average post. Then there are slogans. Je suis Charlie and the like. Those worked well too. But what of some universal statement of solidarity? Could there be such a thing?

Probably not.

But here’s an idea: communication is not about parsing statements to extract literal meaning. Never has been. That’s why, despite what my grammar Nazi friends insist on telling me – and I confess to being at least a grammar fascist myself – there actually is no consensus on the use of the apostrophe. When I read “thoughts and prayers”, why don’t I assume that the person is expressing positivity and solidarity with people who are suffering instead of assuming they are praying to avoid action while assuaging their conscience? And even if they are, so what? Does that make them bad people? Why don’t I go with what I know about the person and their personality, and if I don’t know them, assume the best?

There is so much about the nobility of the human spirit that gets lost on social media. It’s about reducing important concepts to memes, about stereotyping and about cheap shots at others’ expense. Social media has undoubtedly changed the nature of human relationships, and I generally view these changes as positive. But isn’t it a sad indictment that at the very point where we could express our joint humanity to greatest affect – standing shoulder-to-shoulder (another overworked phrase) with those suffering outrageous atrocity – we instead choose to nit-pick at words?

I’m an atheist, and still I offer my heartfelt thoughts and prayers for the families of the dead and those alive and suffering as a result of the awful events in Las Vegas. I stand with you. Thoughts and prayers.

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