Does Uvalde need prayers? Tish Harrison Warren says, “Definitely”

May 30, 2022 • 9:20 am

Tish Harrison Warren may be the lowest-hanging fruit in the New York Times op-ed section, but what I wonder is why the paper wants low-hanging fruit. At some point, a NYT executive must have thought, “Hey, we need religion to draw more readers—but not that old-timey, fundamentalist religion. We need a more Sophisticated form of faith from someone who can offer balm to our readers without making explicit and foolish statements about faith and its verities.”

And so they hired Anglican Priest Tish Harrison Warren. She surely fills the bill, doling out bromides and anodyne sermons every Sunday. In fact, her tendency to equivocate about her beliefs while trying to console semi-secular readers often gets her into the marshy hinterlands of theology. Her column this week is about why Uvalde, Texas, site of the latest mass school shooting, must have its prayers. 

The answer to Tish Harrison Warren’s question below is “Definitely!” What is maddening is her absolute refusal to discuss whether prayers actually work. That is, are they heard and acted on by God, or do they simply act as an aid to comfort and meditation?  I’m pretty sure, knowing what she’s written previously, that she thinks God really is Up There with an ear cocked, and heeds the importuning of his flock. But that raises a second question, which she also ignores: “Why did God let Salvador Ramos kill 19 innocent people and two good teachers?” Was this necessary to allow Ramos to have free will? (She’d probably say “God’s ways are mysterious”, in which case I’d respond, “Well, if you know so little about God, shouldn’t you stop extolling Him?”)

Read for yourself by clicking on the screenshot:

Warren and sixteen other clergy convened in Uvalde soon after the murders, though it’s not clear whether they were invited or simply hied themselves to the town to offer their spiritual wares.

After paying proper lip service to the fact that the “thoughts and prayers” trope is foolish, Warren nevertheless goes on to clearly imply that prayers are more than just helpful aids to meditation, but serve as a form of social glue. And indeed, I have no objection to people believing foolish things if it offers them group comfort—so long as they don’t impose that view on others. As Christopher Hitchens said (see below).

“[Religion] is their favorite toy. . . . I’m perfectly happy for people to have these toys, and to play with them at home and hug them to themselves and so on, and share them with other people who come round and play with the toys; and that’s absolutely fine. They are not to make me play with these toys. I will not play with the toys. Don’t bring the toys to my house; don’t say, ‘My children must play with these toys’. . . I’m not going to have any of that.”

This short clip is well worth watching.

Now Hitchens is talking more about clerical “bullying and intervention” than peace and the solace of the tribe, but Warren’s columns in the NYT are surely intended to proselytize and intervene, promulgating the falsity of religious faith.  She doesn’t write just for herself! And indoctrinating children in that faith—even urging them to participate in prayer—is surely a form of child abuse.

In fact, Harrison definitely implies that prayers for the dead in Ulvade are somehow helpful in fixing stuff. She quotes other pastors:

Sam Garza, a pastor and youth worker at First United Methodist Church, told me, “If people just say ‘thoughts and prayers’ or put something like that in their Facebook” profile and then don’t give another thought to Uvalde, then, he said, “that’s not helpful.” But he says, prayer spurs action. “In prayer, we find needs,” he said. If people pray that “Aunt Tilly’s transmission” needs to be repaired, he prays for that, but then, he said, “we also need to help her with her transmission”: to find and pay for a mechanic.

Yes, but does prayer really spur action among those (even believers) who don’t pray, or is the act itself form an impediment to action? It may well be that those who pray indeed do more to help control guns than those who don’t (I find that unlikely; the opposite is probably the case), but there’s an uncontrolled factor here: the personal qualities of those who pray. At any rate, given that the biggest opponents of gun control in the U.S. are those most likely to pray, I find the discussion disingenuous.

Here’s an experiment: for a group whose transmissions have crapped out, have four groups of people as an experiment (this is similar to the heart study described here):

  • One group doesn’t pray for the transmission repair, and the car isn’t taken to a mechanic
  • One group does pray for the transmission repair (presumably through blind intercessory prayer), and the car isn’t taken to a mechanic.
  • The third group prays for the transmission and it’s taken to a mechanic for repair
  • The last group is taken to a mechanic and there is NO prayer.

I’m guessing that the results of the third and fourth group would not only be the sole efficacious ones, but wouldn’t differ in the rate of fixed transmissions. After all, experiments show that intercessory prayer simply doesn’t work in accomplishing what’s prayed for, though it acts as a form of solace and a source of community for many. It also, as we see clearly in America right now, acts as a form of division and an inspiration to hate and ostracize others. Prayer is a psychological technique, not a way to ask for divine help.

And this is another problem with Warren’s latest screed: she echoes another pastor from Texas who says, “The church should stay out of politics.” Well, yes, it must if it’s to reap its tax advantages, but what happened in Texas won’t be fixed—or helped—by a bunch of prayers. Political will and action is what is needed. Which would you prefer: a bunch of liberal Christians praying for the shootings to end, or a bunch of liberal citizens working on gun reform? I guarantee that the latter will work just as well without the former.

Here’s what the Texas group prayed about, which brings up the last question:

Then [local Baptist preacher] Gruben opened the floor for anyone to pray. The prayers kept coming and coming. The pastors prayed together for around 40 minutes, many weeping. They prayed for comfort. They prayed to be filled “with love, compassion and grace.” One prayed, “Let us know when to speak and when to be silent.” Many chimed in, “Yes, Lord.” “We pray for the peace of our city.” “Comfort the brokenhearted.” “There is not one thing that has happened that has shaken your throne.”

WHAT?  Not shaken his throne? The throne is not only shaken, it’s battered to pieces! What has happened is that God allowed 21 people (19 of them morally innocent children) to be butchered by a shooter.  Does this not raise questions about the nature and beneficence of God? Of course it does, but the cognitively impaired ignore them. The solution, say the believers, is not gun control, but Jesus—presumably a prerequisite for gun control. As Warren writes:

I asked Barboza, “Do we need better gun control?” He replied, “We need Jesus.” It is “the presence of God that changes hearts,” he said.

. . .Right after we talked, a couple named Pam and David Wong approached the police line, holding a large green wooden cross. They wove their way through throngs of media people, trying to find a spot to place it. A law enforcement officer took the cross and laid it in front of the school sign.

The Wongs are volunteers at a church in Conroe, a town five hours away. Their church works with homeless people, giving them dorm space in the church building. They told me that formerly homeless men made the cross. On the back was a message for the community of Uvalde, explaining that the cross was meant to be “a reminder that Jesus cares and loves you all very much. We are all praying for you.” Pam Wong told me they had driven to the school because “we wanted them to know that they are not alone.”

Now that’s very strange. It is the very people who tout their God most strongly who impede moral reform: the people who stalled the Civil Rights Movement and gay liberation (and now abortion, which Warren opposes). God was there the whole time since the 1960s, but hearts were changed not by an imperceptible deity, but but secular realization that equal treatment of people mandates civil and gay rights. (See Steve Pinker’s last two big books.) And didn’t God start effecting this change before slavery? Why did God allow millions of Africans to be dragged into horrible servitude? Was that his divine plan?

Well, if you’re open-minded, the evidence at hand suggests that God does not “love you very much”. After all, by not lifting his hand, he brought unspeakable tragedy to 21 people and unspeakable grief to their loved ones. Not to mention the unvoiced grief of millions of enslaved people.

I needn’t go on, for the low-hanging fruit has been plucked. At the end of Warren’s confusing and poorly written but well intended piece, she reaffirms that although many things are contradictory and confusing, the power of prayer is not:

Uvalde is grieving and heartbroken. Some want a revival. Some want mental health services. Some want gun control. But every single person I talked to agreed on one thing: They could use your thoughts and prayers.

I don’t think she talked to everyone in Uvalde.

32 thoughts on “Does Uvalde need prayers? Tish Harrison Warren says, “Definitely”

  1. Colin beat me to it… a believer praying to their god thinks they have done something about what upsets them. Plus if prayer doesn’t work, it’s not their fault. They’ve handed the problem off to the Big Guy.

    Meanwhile I have a stack of unread books and Blu Rays still in their wrappings. Now that I have them I no longer feel so motivated to actually read or view them….

  2. In a word: Marketing. The Wong’s (for one example)are doing what they can to capitalize on this moment. Certainly, there are plenty of examples of religious organizations doing “wonderful acts of charity” that help folks in times of crises. Sooner rather than later, however, one need not dig to deep before it becomes blatantly obvious these groups (small and “humble” as they may be) would like to “expand their flock” and have more sheeple to fleece. Religious organizations are Big Business here in the U.S. and they enjoy their tax-exempt statuses to the extreme extent that their Dark Money begets Darker Money to any politician who’ll do their bidding.

  3. It may help the victim’s families to know people are praying for them. That may have to be enough though I am as sure as I can be that God is not listening. I agree with what you wrote but understand there are people that do not and some of those need immediate comfort. Despite acknowledging that benefit for those grieving I would not offer my prayers because I don’t pray (even metaphorically).

  4. It’s been said that prayer is like masturbation: it might make you feel good to do it, but it does absolutely nothing for the person you’re thinking about.

  5. We can all disagree on what steps should be taken following the Uvalde shootings, but we can all agree that prayers are worthless and the opposite of doing something.

  6. I was able to watch on of the press conferences which was shown on the BBC’s 24 News channel. You guys need gun control this is the only thing that is going to work. Praying is useless. You need political action which doesn’t seem to be forthcoming.

    We had just one school shooting here in Dunblane Primary School in 1996 and we then changed the gun laws to make it very difficult to own any sort of gun.

    Our police are not armed which shocks some Americans but it is true.

    Incidentally there was an 8 year old boy in the school at the time who took cover and was unharmed. Today he is a famous tennis star Sir Andy Murray.

  7. On Sunday morning the NRA held a prayer breakfast in Houston before the end of the convention.
    Presumably they thanked Jesus for AR15s and the hope that we can minimize mass murder thru
    increased gun sales.

  8. Scientific studies show that prayer doesn’t work. That said, it is comforting to some people to pray and it is comforting to others to be prayed for. So it’s a soothing balm, and has value to some. Why do clergy always show up when there is tragedy? It’s how they make their living, how they gain publicity, and how they rise to prominence. They probably believe what they’re preaching and they probably sincerely want to help, but surely part of the motivation is the attention they get. Attention and recognition are powerful motivators.

  9. If someone wanted to pray to their deity to help them find the strength within themselves to take real action to help prevent future such events, and so on, and to pray for “guidance” about what the best thing or things to do is, I could say THAT might even be useful, if only as a kind of self-hypnosis/autosuggestion, as with other prayers for self-improvements of some kind; they might actually be useful sometimes. On the other hand, intercessionary prayers don’t even make sense WITHIN the context of religious belief, certainly not if your deity is supposedly omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent (in which case, why would It need reassurance that Its throne has not been shaken??? That’s just weird).

    1. To your first point, I’m reminded that Thomas Merton said that prayer is practicing the presence of God. Mind you, I believe neither in God nor in the efficacy of prayer, so I like your terms “self-hypnosis/autosuggestion.” To your second point, you forgot one of the “omnis:” omnibenevolent. Adding that omni only strengthens your point. Indeed, as I like to say to believers, praying for this, that, and the other is evidence of lack of faith.

      1. I’m reminded that Thomas Merton said that prayer is practicing the presence of God.

        Gawd I dislike these evasive post hoc rationalizations for prayer not doing anything.

        “Please, please God, heal my child from brain cancer. I’m begging you!”

        Child dies.

        “Oh, did we look like we really wanted God to do what we asked? Why would you think we REALLY wanted God to spare my child? Nah, really we were just sort of communing with God.
        He’s gonna do whatever He does….”

  10. What of those on the other side praying that the gun-grabbers don’t git ’em?

    Does the Good Lord Almighty count heads when deciding on whose half to intercede among those who petition Him with prayer? Or maybe He checks their records for church attendance? Is it sola fide or can good works help one earn God’s ear? Does He hear the prayers of members of the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879 and ignore those of the heretics belonging to the Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?

    1. What of those on the other side praying that the gun-grabbers don’t git ’em?

      Their prayers were answered with a favourable SC decision in 2008. It must be like a sport — everyone gets to play, but some play it better than others. No one has figured out the prayer to ward off hurricanes, but that does not mean there isn’t one.

      Isn’t there a story in the Bible (the real one, not the Christian one) about a prayer competition to set a pile of wood on fire? Or were those prayers to different gods?

  11. Excellent point (applies to prayers in general, especially before football games), and I love the allusion!

  12. “At any rate, given that the biggest opponents of gun control in the U.S. are those most likely to pray, I find the discussion disingenuous.”

    Yes, that is my gripe. It would be great if prayer caused action — indeed it might for some individuals in some circumstances. But there are definitely people who are not going to do anything no matter what, and they are likely to be sending prayers. In that case, prayer functions not as a stimulant but as an opioid. And public prayers (i.e., public displays of self-righteousness) make the effect even stronger.

  13. “And Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen.” Mark 21:21 (italics mine)

    When I was 8 or 9, I was into magic big-time. Besides spending hours practicing sleight-of-hand in front of mirrors, I spent hours praying that the magician’s wand that I kept under my pillow at night would turn into a real magic wand by morning. It never did. I took this as prima facie evidence that I wasn’t praying hard enough. It never occurred to me to take it as evidence that prayer was a waste of time.

    Childish naivete aside, the point of this little morality tale still holds: until we figure out how to measure the quality of prayer, I don’t see how we’re going to determine whether prayer is effective.

    1. …until we figure out how to measure the quality of prayer, I don’t see how we’re going to determine whether prayer is effective.

      I am not sure what you mean by ‘quality’. One approach to estimating the success of a process is by measuring how reliably it achieves its objective. Usually we begin by trying to determine if there is any effect at all. If there isn’t, one may go on to ‘explain’ it: until we figure out how to measure the quality of goat sacrifice, we can’t tell if it is effective; until we figure out the quality of raindance we can’t tell if it is effective; until we figure out the quality of chanting we can’t figure out if putting a virgin on a boat and sacrificing her to the raging sea is going to work.

      Therefore another important question is if we expect it to work at all. For example, does it depend on the existence of a divine entity?

      Do you have any evidence to say that prayer has worked at all?

      When it comes to miracles, maybe Uri Geller was better than Jesus.

  14. … how to measure the quality of prayer …

    Well, Gary, to paraphrase Portia to Shylock:

    The quality of mercy prayer is not strained.
    It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
    Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
    It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.

    See? Eight or nine year old Gary may have just been straining too hard over the magic wand beneath his pillow. 🙂

    1. “Eight or nine year old Gary may have just been straining too hard over the magic wand beneath his pillow.”

      Dang! I coulda been a contender! I coulda been somebody!

  15. I never click on Tish’s column – thankfully PCC(E) does that for us. (thx PCC).
    I can’t stand the cloying, treacly nostrums based on intellectually embarrassing Bronze Age fairy tale nonsense pitched at me. By Tish or any of the fairy tale believers. I find it insulting. And a bit depressing that a large number of people actually take it seriously. Adults!

  16. I’ve come to think of mass shootings in the US as natural disasters and prayers don’t stop storms. The growing number of guns in circulation are like CO2 emissions, though perhaps harder to control. Politicians, lobby group and citizens cry out about the problem or lament the impossibility of controlling them. We know there will always be another hurricane season and we know that some combination of gun saturation, mental health and social ills will lead to new shootings.

    It’s tragic and I hope the community will be comforted when the president shows up to tour the area, comforting survivors, offering aid and lamenting the loss to life and property but just like tornadoes, I know the president’s visit will do nothing to stop the phenomena. Until the US tackles their addiction to guns, we can expect more “shooting storms”. Anyone chanting “never again” about Sandy Hook, the Las Vegas shooting or Uvalde is just making noise, shouting into the void between political poles. Uvalde is like the witch in the The Wizard of Oz, it’s very sad that a shooting storm just dopped a house on that school. Tragic for the families and community but nothing can be done, storms happen and prayers won’t help.

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