The National Day of Fear and Desperation

Each year the President of the United States signs a proclamation encouraging all Americans to pray on the first Thursday in May, a national religious ritual first formalized by Congress in 1952. This year, that date falls on May 3rd, and both President Obama and Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee have declared their support for the National Day of Prayer. To the millions of Americans who do not believe in prayer or the constitutionality of state endorsed religion this annual ritual is viewed as un-American, blasphemous, or some combination of the two.

As Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams once noted, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils.”

Putting aside for the moment the legal and religious arguments against the National Day of Prayer, let’s ask one simple question: Does prayer work? The answer, at least according to those who have actually sought to study and measure the efficacy of prayer is no. Study after study shows that people who are prayed for do no better in recovery than those who are not. Even those who believe in the power of prayer, despite all the contrary evidence, sometimes quip, “God answers all prayer, but sometimes the answer is ‘No.’”

So if prayer has no measurable effect on the wellbeing of our nation, why do we still insist on a National Day of Prayer, despite the insult the event hurls at millions of believing and non-believing Americans? If we are going to issue proclamations encouraging all Americans to engage in what has been scientifically shown to be an ineffective waste of time, why not declare a National Day of Homeopathy? Or hold a nation wide Bigfoot hunt?

Obama’s proclamation from 2011 quotes President Abraham Lincoln’s recollections about prayer, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.  My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for the day.” Lincoln shepherded the country during its most desperate hour, and was more sorely vexed than any other President in history. Note that Lincoln was driven to prayer only when circumstances overwhelmed him and wise council was scarce. Here was a man pushed to the absolute limits of desperation, and in his time of weakness, he found solace in prayer.

I can understand the feeling of being alone, desperate and trapped by circumstances, and I can understand the appeal of and the emotional need for prayer under the most dire of circumstances, but I would argue that America, as a people, as a country and as an ideal are not in so desperate a position as to need a mandate driving us all to our knees to implore a mythological being for some sort of miracle. We are better than that.

It was not the power of prayer that threw the yoke of British rule off the backs of the colonists in the days of the Revolutionary War. It was the blood of heroes, the strategies of generals, the genius of diplomats, and the vision of Enlightenment ideals that did so. WWII was not won by the hand of God but by the economic, scientific and military might of the United States when it finally entered the war. And when humans walked on the moon, prayers were certainly issued, but it was the mathematicians and scientists, running millions of calculations and experiments, that got our astronauts safely to our nearest celestial neighbor and back.

Praying for a miracle is the ultimate wish for a quick fix, a lottery ticket for the soul. We all want something for nothing, but the truth is that nothing worth having is free, and nothing worth doing is easy. In the throes of an emergency all the prayers in the world are as nothing compared to the efforts of one rescue worker or doctor. As founding father Benjamin Franklin once said, “Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.”

The United States is facing some real problems right now, but none of these problems are going to magically solve themselves, and no God is going to burst forth from the heavens to deliver us. What is needed is for Americans to embrace the ideals of reason, compassion, optimism and action. What is needed is for Americans to roll up their sleeves and get to work fixing the problems our country faces with the power of their minds, the strength of their muscles and the love of their hearts.

The National Day of Prayer is simply an admission of our desperation as a people. Through its celebration we tell each other and the world that we are out of ideas, that we are desperate and lack wise council. Each year on this day we fall to our knees as a nation and loudly exclaim that we have given up, and we need a miracle. Meanwhile the rest of the world builds and innovates, making us feel ever more inconsequential, creating spiraling and negative feedback that reinforces our desperation, a desperation that can only be met by more prayer. We become prayer junkies, always looking for the next quick fix, always looking for that impossibly rare thing called a miracle.

We do not need a National Day of Prayer and we never have. We need to get to work.

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Steve Ahlquist is an award-winning journalist, writer, artist and founding member of the Humanists of Rhode Island, a non-profit group dedicated to reason, compassion, optimism, courage and action. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of any organization of which he is a member.

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"We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” - Elie Weisel

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor." - Desmond Tutu

"There comes a time when neutrality and laying low become dishonorable. If you’re not in revolt, you’re in cahoots. When this period and your name are mentioned, decades hence, your grandkids will look away in shame." - David Brooks

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