“An Atheist believes that a hospital should be built instead of a church. An atheist believes that deed must be done instead of prayer said. An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death. He wants disease conquered, poverty vanished, war eliminated.”
Some time ago I came across this quote on a friend’s Facebook page attributed to Madalyn Murray O’Hair. The person who said this was an American atheist activist who is arguably most remembered for her involvement in ending official Bible readings in American public schools in 1963. It grabbed my attention so I started to reflect on this well known quote. I could not help but think that if we broke down this definition perhaps ironically we would find that there are some Jesus values embedded in O’Hair’s definition of what it means to be an atheist.
In this series of Finding Jesus Among Atheists blogposts, I have been exploring the four aspects of O’Hair’s reflections of what it means to be an Atheist and how they might actually be Jesus’ values. As a word of caution, it should be noted that O’Hair’s reflections are a generalization of what it means to be an atheist. So this definition may or may not fit well with different atheists.
(Part 1 can be read here.)
2. An atheist believes that deed must be done instead of prayer said.
Prayers are great. I really appreciate them when people pray for me. However, there are times of crisis when offering prayers don’t seem to cut it. For example, when I was arrested and spent a night in jail late last year, most of my christian friends responded that they will pray for me and my wife and that was it. Meanwhile a lot of my Anarchist friends offered practical support in my time of need. They offered to sit with my wife while she waited by the telephone for news about me in this terrifying ordeal. Others offered to cook meals for us in the following days and took me out for coffee. It was shocking to see how people responded. It seems that the cliche ‘I will pray for you‘ offers Christians a convenient way to be caring but without actually doing anything about the need. I am reminded of Zygmunt Bauman’s brilliant observation from his book Liquid Love in which he writes how mobile phones allow people to stay in touch while at the same time conveniently allows people to stay apart. In light of his observation, it could be said that for lots of Christians prayer conveniently allows them to care for others but without actually getting involved or do anything about the need.
The writer of the book of James writes in the opening chapter how real religion involves looking after orphans and widows in their distress as well as keeping oneself from being carried away by the world. In the context of the passage, the writer of James was writing how listening to the Word while doing nothing about it does not make one a spiritual person. Interestingly he does not say that prayer, fasting, singing special songs, etc makes one a spiritual person. It seems that for James real religion involves getting involved in the lives of others and getting our hands dirty. We can see from Jesus’ life that while he did spend time doing activities such as praying and fasting, he spent much of his time getting his hands dirty by getting involved in the margins of life. After all, love isn’t love unless it is demonstrated in some meaningful way for the other.
At the same time, this definition of an atheist is quick to dismiss the power of prayer. Numerous research has shown how prayer can be a powerful tool such as how those who go into hospitals with heart problems fare significantly better when being prayed for compared to those who weren’t prayed for. Furthermore there are times when performing good deeds doesn’t get the job done even when we have done our best. As human beings, there is a limit to what we can do in the natural. Prayer gives us that opportunity to connect and ask the Divine to do what no person can do.
Sometimes I wonder if we pray because we don’t want to take responsibility for the problems that we face and instead let Jesus do all the hard work. It is akin to making a huge mess in the kitchen and leaving it to our housemate to clean up because we are too lazy to do it ourselves and that we are too lazy to really care about those who are around us. I guess it is down to human nature. We selfishly don’t want to get too involved in people’s lives and so we resort to cheap one liners as a response to their problems. Since God is a relational being, he often works in partnership with humanity to see prayers answered. Perhaps as Pete Greig says in his book, Red Moon Rising, we should be careful what we pray for as we might end up being the answer to the very prayers we pray. While we should embrace the role of prayer, we need to be willing to step up and get our hands dirty. Anyone can talk the talk but not everyone is willing to walk with others in their moment of need. Perhaps Jesus is patiently interceding for us, waiting for us to embrace the call to live out the kingdom in tangible ways?
In the next blogpost in this series, we will be looking at the third aspect of Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s defintion: An atheist strives for involvement in life and not escape into death.
[Edit: Part 3 can be found here.]
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