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.

Māori official in New Zealand’s Coast Guard insists that prayer to a god is the key to reducing drowning

January 13, 2022 • 10:45 am

This very short article appeared in Waatea News, which I gather is a purveyor of news related to the Māori of New Zealand. (It also runs, I believe, the country’s only Māori radio station.) I’m putting it up for one reason, and then we’ll get a break from the Kiwis and the iwi for a while.

First, a short answer: why am I banging on so much about Māori “ways of knowing”, codified as  mātauranga Māori? The answer is simple: this set of “ways of knowing” may (and likely will) be taught in New Zealand science classes as co-equal to modern science. And I happen to be a big fan of New Zealand, so it saddens me to see this happening. New Zealand is, after all, by and large an enlightened land, but this is a huge exception.

I’m under no illusion that it can be stopped. Jacinda Ardern’s government is too keen to look inclusive, as are many New Zealand academics.

And there’s nothing wrong with inclusivity, but when you want to “include” in science class a mixture of legend, oral tradition, philosophy, morality, creationism, and, yes, a few bits of genuine knowledge, and parade the mixture as “equivalent to modern science”, then I get angry. Keep your damn hands off science! In fact, this same debasing of science is happening in the U.S., and for largely the same reasons. Sometimes I’m glad I’m retired.

And now we see, in this article at least, not just a justification for prayer, but a claim that praying is the key to keep people from drowning. And it’s made by an official of the NZ Coast Guard. I am not making this up. Read and weep:

Here’s the entire article. I’ve put the interesting bits in bold:

The top Māori manager at Tautiaki Moana Aotearoa – Coastguard New Zealand – says traditional practises such as karakia (prayer) could hold the key to New Zealand’s horrific drowing [sic] toll.

Kaihautū Māori, Pererika Makiha, says the Māori god of the sea, Tangaroa, has the final say when it comes to swimming in his domain.

More than 30 people have lost their lives in rivers, lakes and seas over the summer holiday period. Coastguard and its volunteer rescue crews provide the primary maritime search and rescue service in the country.

Pictured at a special ceremony held by Te Arawa iwi to gift a Māori name to Coastguard late last year are – from left to right – Water Safety New Zealand kaihautū Rob Hewitt and chief executive Daniel Gerrard, and Coastguard chief executive Callum Gillespie and kaithautū Māori Pererika Makiha.

Karakia are the way people – children as well as adults – communicate with the gods.

Makiha says there were numerous kinds of karakia – some are still recited today for activities such as gathering kaimoana (seafood) and the sport of waka ama – and reviving those rituals of old could be a way to help keep people safe in the water.

In other words, we don’t need more lifeguards—we need more prayer.

Okay, it’s one thing to realize that prayer is futile since there are no gods to importune, and we also can accept that prayer by itself can constitute a calming form of meditation. But it’s another thing altogether when a big Māori official (in the Coast Guard) proclaims that if you pray to Tangaroa, drowning deaths will decrease.

You’d think the guy would be embarrassed to say something this ludicrous, but it may be his form of  mātauranga Māori.  If this is “knowledge”, give me ignorance. I worry that the numinous aspects of  mātauranga Māori will indeed nose their way into science classes in NZ. And will PM Ardern stand up against them? Don’t count on it!

Besides, are there now going to be “god wars” in schools, pitting Jesus or Neptune against Tangaroa?

UPDATEReader Williams Garcia, in the comments below, called attention to this article in RNZ (I think that’s “Radio New Zealand”), and the article is not a joke. Click to read:

Yes, Māori, despite the claim of a Māori coast guard official that ” traditional practises such as karakia (prayer) could hold the key to New Zealand’s horrific drowing [sic] toll,” drown at a disproportionately high rate compared to non-Māori, and a researcher has been given money to study this.

Now we have four possible causes, some of which may interact (I’m assuming this is a real statistical difference, but it hasn’t yet been shown; see below):

  1. This kind of prayer, directed specifically at a Māori deity, doesn’t work.
  2. Māori aren’t praying enough. (But then the drowning rates would be no higher than that of other people.)
  3. Māori may be around water more, as researcher Chanel Phillips suggests, and if drowning is a fixed percentage of immersion for all people, the Māori may drown more.
  4. A tentative explanation given by Phillips, which involves oppression:

One of the few existing reports on this topic suggested it might be because Māori, who had a strong cultural connection to water, no longer had access to traditional knowledge and tikanga associated with water safety, she said. [But prayer is supposed to be better than water safety!]

“Do we still have the knowledge that our tupuna had prior to colonisation, and do we still have that matauranga around being safe in the water and around our cultural connection to water?

“Maybe our high drowning rate could reflect the disconnection or severing of that relationship.”

First, of course, one has to do the statistics, and I can’t be arsed to see if the difference in drowning rates between Māori and non-Māori is statistically significant. But I’m sure someone will do them for us.


Big new British monument to answered prayers

September 13, 2020 • 8:45 am

As Britain races towards secularism faster than the U.S., the faithful are making their last stands. One such stand is this Mobius strip of a memorial slated to be started next spring in Coleshill, near Birmingham. As this article in The Times explains, it’s to be called “The Eternal Wall of Answered Prayer”, and it’s huge. (Of course, an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayer would be much, much larger!)

Click to read; it may be paywalled, but judicious inquiry will yield you the document:

Here’s how big it is:

At 169ft tall, the monument will be just a few inches shorter than Nelson’s Column in London but almost three times the height of the Angel of the North, Anthony Gormley’s 66ft-high steel structure in Gateshead, Tyne and Wear.


It’s a big ‘un!  It was envisioned by Richard Gamble, former chaplain of the Leicester City football club, who had a revelation to build it.  He began a crowdfunding campaign had an international competition to design it, and then crowdfunded the construction. It’ll contain a gazillion answered prayers (actually, about a million).

Each brick in the wall will be associated with a Christian prayer and feature a unique code that can be read with a smartphone app. Visitors can use their phones to learn about the prayers individuals feel were answered, as well as the personal stories behind them. For bricks out of reach, the app can zoom in on a map of the monument.

Gamble, 51, and a team of volunteers have been collecting people’s testimonies online since 2018, noticing a surge in messages during the pandemic.

“Until this year it had been a small trickle,” he said. “But then it started accelerating. During lockdown it went mad.”

They need £9.35 million to finish it off, but, you know, God will provide; all you have to do is pray. So far God has prompted the faithful to ante up nearly £6 million. And you can submit answered prayers here.

It’s curious that God decided to answer more prayers during the lockdown (were more people were praying?), but the one prayer he didn’t answer was “God, please make this pandemic disappear.” But of course He works in mysterious ways, and one of those ways is killing off lots of innocent people.

The article gives examples of some of the prayers that will appear on the bricks:

The apparent miracles people have shared range from the dramatic to the mundane.

One person wrote about how their baby daughter had been rushed to hospital with a brain haemorrhage but survived and is now a healthy five-year-old. A doctor told a story about how, after 20 minutes kneeling in prayer, he and his team were sent a delivery of personal protective equipment that had been cancelled. Others also talked about mending difficult relationships and overcoming serious illnesses.

At the other end of the spectrum, one person explained how they had managed to have an “impossible meeting” with a dentist while suffering a swollen gum during lockdown.

“God is sooooooooooo good! He listens to our hearts’ cry,” they wrote.

But God is also sooooooo bad! He’s killed a million people in this pandemic, and he could have stopped it. At any rate, there’s been some discussion about “inclusivity”—not racial inclusivity but religious inclusivity. Not all religions are Christian, so they’ll be an exhibit inside about how adherents to other faiths pray.

I still think the humanists should build an Eternal Wall of Unanswered Prayers nearby, but to make its point it would have to be larger than this one, and that would cost too much.

h/t: Dom, Jez