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

21 responses to “The National Day of Fear and Desperation”

  1. Ombuds

    Steve, I have to disagree with the tone of your article. I see far too little “..compassion, optimism..” in this particular piece.
    To be an atheist and/or humanist, ought not to mean the derision of all prayer as “an admission of the desperation of our people.”
    To pray, sometimes, is to share in a unique fashion what it means to be human… on many levels!
    For all the secular and non-secular “believers” that comprise humankind, I’d like to think that the exercise of prayer carries a meaning quite a bit more profound than the hollow, fear-based exercise you describe here. I fear this reasoning could be evidence of the loss of some folks personal exchange with the great unknown. It is a great cause for concern for me; prayer is a manifestation of the deep discourse of the subconscious.
    Naturally, religion poses many threats to reason, especially when it is in relationship to social politics… but I don’t have to tell you that! I like to believe in a force more generative, more human than either faith or reason: EMPATHY. Prayer, for so many, is an exercise of empathy, and not of naked faith alone. It is a meditation of deep and penetrating substance. For me, it is an experience conducted in the presence and guidance of the God of my understanding. It is quite a personal relationship, certainly beyond reason but not divorced from it. I cherish and hold closely to this experience, reflecting on life as a child of of a living God.
    “To love another person is to see the face of God.” -Jean Valjean
    If you have the time, check out this link:
    Blessings Steve,

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  2. jrceegal


    I have to agree with the above commentary. 
    Why is their no tolerance for others in your views?  I am certain that in the calendar year there are other days that do not pertain to you or that you do not recognize…  you are not a Mother so it is not a holiday that refers to you  ( it does refer to your Mom and if you are married with children than it refers to your wife as well..just not you directly) may not have served in the military so Armed Forces Day may not have meaning or be  relevant to your life…should these days not be recognized either?  I know I sound facetious, but I just cannot grasp the lack of tolerance for other people that has been shown.  Nobody is saying you have to pray…or buy a Mother’s Day gift or give your Administrative Assistant flowers on that day…it is just a day that recognizes a specific thing…..    National Hug Day is January 21,2013…hug someone or don’t …it is your choice…

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    1. holyhell kelly

      This isnt about holidays that do or not not pertain to you.  its about  the constitution.  i feel like I’m banging my head against a wall.  Can everyone please stop and read the constitution.  This document is what allows you to pray 365 days a year without the government stepping in.  The same thing that protects you, also protects everyone else.  By endorsing one religious view, you are closing out everyone else.  Again, please read the constitution.

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  3. DogDiesel

    I’m no church goer but your trying to impose your view on others by denigrating their beliefs. You must not be a very tolerant person. Do you have any evidence that there is no God? At least the believers of God have some historical writings to support their beliefs. Your only evidence seems to be that it makes no sense to you. I’m not saying your beliefs are right or wrong but have a little tolerance. As a side note, it’s a little tiring listening to quotes by Roger Williams being stretched to meet one’s own agenda. Forced worship??? Where? 

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    1. holyhell kelly

      please read the constitution.  National day of prayer is unconstitutional.  Why do you need one day a year to pray anyway? to you need to be reminded?  If you are offended then you have not studied the constitution.  By making all religious and non religious people equal, we are upholding the constitution.  The president backing national day of pray is telling 38% of the country “oh well” and giving credibility to the right wing zealots fighting to end women’s rights and stopping progression of gays rights.  All these battles are lead by religion.  The moment we stand up for the constitution and remove religion entirely from the public forum, we can move on as a tolerant, loving society. 

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    2. jgardner

      All due respect DD, it’s not up to the atheists to prove the negative, but for the theists to prove their God does. Additionally, I imagine you would agree with me that 1 book authored by many people over a long period of time, many claiming inspiration by the God the book is written about, does not a primary source make.

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  4. skwerl

    Since when did “tolerance” become equivalent to “embracing”….? To tolerate something means to live alongside it peacefully. Tolerating something doesn’t mean having to like it, respect it, or promote it.
    For what reason does the President need to promote prayer? Does the United States get brownie points with God for the most prayers during the year? Anybody who wants to pray is free to pray at practically any time and place in this country.

    “Hands that help are far better than lips that pray.” I think Ingersoll said that. I tolerate your prayers just fine; I just think they’re silly and a waste of time. If God is almighty, he already knows what you want before you say it.

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  5. DogDiesel

    “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.”
    “Praying for a miracle is the ultimate wish for a quick fix, a lottery ticket for the soul.”
    I admit you got me. Can you cite these studies of prayer efficacy? Please tell me how a national day of prayer endorses or embraces a religion?

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    1. jgardner

      “how a national day of prayer endorses or embraces a religion?”
      Not to keep picking on you, but the endorsement is in the word –
      1. a devout petition to God or an object of worship.
      2. a spiritual communion with God or an object of worship, as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, or confession.
      3. the act or practice of praying  to God or an object of worship.
      4. a formula or sequence of words used in or appointed for praying: the Lord’s Prayer.
      5. prayers, a religious observance, either public or private, consisting wholly or mainly of prayer. 

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    2. RI Progressive

      Here is a link to a news article about the ineffectiveness of prayer:
      “Praying for other people to recover from an illness is ineffective, according to the largest, best-designed study to try to examine the power of prayer to heal strangers at a distance.”

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  6. funny

    Funny! Just FUNNY!

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  7. funny

    As a devote agnostic -I hate labels but i guess that’s what I am. Can we have a debate, tax payer to payer?

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  8. skwerl

    DogDiesel, here ya go:

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  9. DogDiesel

    Sorry, as someone who is not religious, I can’t debate the efficacy of prayer but I sure can tolerate others religion and would never denigrate their beliefs. I don’t agree with the President’s call for a national day of prayer only because just like celebrating Cinquo De Mayo, it’s all politics. That being said, when we start removing crosses from war monuments, I think we’re stretching endorse and/or embrace beyond it’s real meaning.

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    1. jgardner

      “That being said, when we start removing crosses from war monuments, I think we’re stretching endorse and/or embrace beyond it’s real meaning.”
      On that point you and I are in complete agreement. The cross on the monument is honoring the religion of the fallen soldiers (they were Christian). I can’t see how that’s the State endorsing Christianity. It’s no different than in Arlington Cemetery putting the Star of David above the graves of Jewish soldiers.

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    2. skwerl

      Have you seen the recent video on Youtube about the three year old girl who already claims to hate Jews and wants to kill infidels? Are you tolerant of this? You would never denigrate those beliefs? I’m simply curious.

      As for the cross in Woonsocket, I’m also in agreement with JGardner. If it was a memorial to *all* veterans, I would have a problem with it.

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  10. Sully

    Who cares?

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    1. skwerl

      If you don’t care, please move along and find something to care about. Your two cents is not necessary if you have nothing useful to contribute to either side of the argument. Buh-bye.

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  11. Suburban Soliloquist

    If we must have a national day of reflection, how about a National Day of Deep, Contemplative Thinking? Or just, A National Day of Contemplation. Do you think that would also convey “an admission of our desperation as a people?” Do you really need we need to worry about admitting it? ;)

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  12. Suburban Soliloquist

    (Oops–“think” we need)

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