In the wake of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan some 36 hours ago and the countless lives lost, there have been the inevitable offers of prayers for lives lost. This kind of thing is a knee-jerk reaction to any natural or man-made calamity becoming so commonplace that it has ingrained itself in the collective Western consciousness as a necessary stage in dealing with such disasters. To me, the offer of prayers is misplaced if not something worse.
I say people’s prayers are misplaced as the sender is making an enormous assumption about the religious makeup of Japan. Coming from the at least nominally Christian West, these prayers are undoubtedly meant to be answered by a Judeo-Christian deity. However, Christianity is an incredibly small sect in Japan, representing at best 3 million of Japan’s 127,000,000 citizens. By birth record approximately 90 percent of Japanese are Shinto-Buddhist. In reality more than 70 percent of Japanese do not identify any religious membership, while two-thirds don’t believe in any god. Given these numbers requesting assistance from Jesus’ father would at best be at best an empty gesture.
At worst these prayers can be viewed as a tremendous insult. Those that are aware of the religious makeup of Japan could, by appealing to the god of the Abrahamic religions, be rightly viewed as patronizing. In a sense they’d be saying “since your gods/irreligiousness failed you, MY God will step in and save you”. It takes a certain amount of pompousness and irrational certitude to make such a claim – even if implicitly – during a tragedy of this scale – or at any time for that matter.
Believe me, I do understand the impetus behind people’s prayers for the safety of the innocent victims of our imperfect earth are well intentioned even if they are misplaced. I also understand that the origin of the feeling, the need to create some sort of cosmic solidarity in an irrational world, stems from an impulse not far removed from the genesis of religion itself. However, given yesterday’s events is it not time we take a step away from the visceral notions that led us down the same road seeking to deal with random events with irrational explanations?
Of course, it doesn’t end there. People’s supplications aren’t merely irrational, they are also inconsistent. In the most narrow sense their appeal to God is a tad late. The immediate damage has been devastating enough and no amount of supernatural intervention can restore the lives already lost. If their’s was a just god, she/he would have intervened before this disaster happened and prevented the deaths of what appear to be thousands of innocents.
Taken even further, their god, creator of this imperfect planet with its cooling surface, molten core and shifting tectonic plates would, if given the credit that three Abrahamic religions primary texts attribute to him, bear responsibility for his faulty design. But their lord and creator is supposed to be all-knowing and all-powerful, so inevitably many will be forced to admit that the events of yesterday were all part of some sort of opaque divine plan.
People should understand that if they are in fact true believers their supplications aren’t nudging a benign entity to protect the survivors of yesterday’s horror. They are in fact begging a cruel and despotic overlord (a supernatural Moammar Gaddafi if you like) to cease his self-amused torment of a multitude of innocents. Understanding that this is the inevitable conclusion of the myth they believe in is the key to coming to terms with the true nature of their faith.
In the end I’d hope that those offering their prayers to the victims of yesterday’s tragedy would have the capacity and willingness to consider in some depth what they are asking and understand the unavoidable conclusions they should be making about their faith soon after the word “prayer” slips from their mouth. Of course I wouldn’t bet on it. And I certainly won’t pray for it.