Attempting to defend ‘thoughts and prayers’

The rapid succession of shooting tragedies has resulted in people realizing that the phrase ‘ sending our thoughts and prayers’ has become so routine in public discourse. As a result, the instinct of politicians to say they are sending their ‘thoughts and prayers’ to the victims of mass tragedies has started to come in for considerable well-deserved scorn as it is becoming seen as merely a cost-free way for politicians to act as if they care without having to take any action. Ridiculing it out of existence, so that politicians hesitate to use that trite phrase, may be a good way of getting some actual action.

But Brandon Ambrosino thinks that that it is unfair to pick on that phrase and say that it is useless because it doesn’t work.

First of all, how is prayer supposed to “work”? What does “success” even look like when we’re talking about prayer? How quickly does success have to “happen” after the initial prayer for it to count as a result of the prayer? It seems like this accusation is informed by a very elementary notion of prayer: Unless we get something (say, a red lollipop) almost immediately after praying for it, then we can’t say the prayer worked.

Instead, many of us see prayer the same way that St. Therese of Lisieux sees it: It’s “a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, it is a cry of recognition and of love, embracing both trial and joy.” If this is what prayer is, then every prayer — insofar as it gets us to pause in the midst of tragedy, take a breath, and remember that the future is still coming to meet us — “works.”

But he then immediately undercuts his own argument by saying that sending prayers should be the spur for action.

Another problem with the “Don’t pray; act!” accusation is that it fundamentally misunderstands the relationship of prayer and real-world action. There’s an apocryphal quote attribute to Pope Francis (and if he didn’t say it, it definitely sounds like something the Jesuit would say): “You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That is how prayer works.” He said something similar in a July 2013 address: “Prayer that doesn’t lead to concrete action toward our brothers is a fruitless and incomplete prayer.”

“Prayer and action must always be profoundly united,” he concluded.

But that is what critics like me have been saying. that it is not the phrase itself that is at fault but that it is used as a substitute for action. If prayer leads one to act, then fine, but it is the action that is important and that matters. If prayer does not lead to action, it is useless.

In the case of individuals who know the victims but have no power to actually do anything, to send their thoughts and prayers to the victims of tragedies can be viewed an expression of concern and solidarity. But for people who have the power to act to prevent such tragedies to merely send their thoughts and prayers is a cowardly evasion of their responsibilities.


  1. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    The real questions are these:

    If you skip the prayer step and move directly to feeding people without any delay for godly invocations, do the people you feed receive less nutrition? Do they suffer more continuing hunger? If you do an experiment where every other meal involves a prayer in the back room by the staff of an agency that needs the hungry and every other meal does not, but all recipients of food are told before each and every meal that staff did pray, does it make any difference at all?

    If you pray for the hungry then don’t feed them, the effect is not every bit as frustratingly incomplete as when you feed the hungry but do not pray for them. Putting prayer and action on equal footing this way is exactly what leads people to believe that prayer without action must be doing good since action without prayer clearly does good.

  2. Holms says

    People that are, say, fed by a religious charity are exactly as cared for as those that are fed by a secular charity. Prayer helps only those that do the praying.

  3. maxx6 says

    It amazes me how so MANY people believe prayer accomplishes something.
    Does TRUTH never matter?
    Prayer has been shown to work the same rate as chance or less. In other words IT IS FAKE. Just like your god. Just like your silly scriptures.

  4. busterggi says

    “how is prayer supposed to “work”? What does “success” even look like when we’re talking about prayer? How quickly does success have to “happen” after the initial prayer for it to count as a result of the prayer?”

    According to believers prayer is supposed to work by god hearing the prayer’s requests and granting them in a way so they matter.

    If you pray for someone to get well from a medical condition that would work by them getting better (ignoring all actual medical treatments) rather than dying. If the person dies the prayer didn’t work.

    If you pray for a troubled marriage to work out (ignoring all counselling treatments) rather than the couple splitting up. If they split up then the prayer didn’t work.

    If you pray for a parking place becausse you can’t find one the first drive through the lot but you continue driving around until someone leaves and youcan take that spot then the prayer didn’t work -- what, did you think the cars had been permanently installed in the spots.

    Seems pretty easy to me.

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