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Prayer Vigils! Why???? December 30, 2012

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Questions, Rants.
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve seen many blog entries posted about the shooting in Newtown, and most of the things I would say about it have already been well discussed by other bloggers.  But the one thing that kept jumping out at me was that churches would hold “prayer vigils” for the victims and their families.

Newtown Vigil

This is probably a good opportunity for me to discuss my opinions on “prayer” in general.

I see two things going on with prayer: first, what the believer thinks is happening, and secondly, what is actually happening in the real world.

Prayer wheel

Wailing wall


When an individual prays, they often say they are talking to god, or listening to god, or asking for god to do something, or trying to understand what god wants them to do, or connecting with the divine, or some such.  I don’t think any communication with a god is actually occurring, but that does not mean that there is nothing beneficial happening for the individual.  What I see actually happening is that the person is focusing their mind, tuning out outside distractions, and often concentrating on repetitive actions and thought patterns.  In other words, meditation.


I think meditation, in any form, can be helpful.  In our hectic society, it’s great for a person to take a few minutes to still the clamor of everyday life.  It’s kind of a reboot for the brain.  If a person finds that meditating helps them function better, I’m all for it.  As long as they are not pretending that they are causing changes in the world outside their own brain, or using it as a substitute for actually doing things.

But what about vigils?  When there is a tragedy, Christians often respond by holding this thing called a prayer vigil.  They gather in groups for a long period of time, often overnight and usually outdoors.  They light candles, sing songs, and spend lots of time talking to their invisible friend.

From a real-world point of view, I get this.  I really do.  When a random tragedy strikes, we are shaken as individuals and need the reassurance that we are part of a supportive social group.  Having a special gathering, and doing things together like singing and lighting candles can help us feel better.  It’s the same reason I think we gather for funerals instead of grieving privately.  Humans are social animals, and our response to major stressful events is to do group activities that reinforce the strength of our social support network.

What I don’t understand is what believers think they are accomplishing with prayer vigils.  Even when I was a believer, this seemed a totally pointless activity and I never participated when I could avoid it.

If someone I loved had been killed or injured in some disaster or tragedy, and some church miles and miles away said they were going to help me by holding a prayer vigil, would this help me in any way? Certainly not!   I’d tell them to get up off their knees and go do something real instead of the colossal waste of time and energy involved in a “vigil”.

There are real world things that can be done to help, and I’ll use the Newtown shooting as an example.  In that case they could:

  • Donate money to the families to cover medical and funeral costs
  • Donate blood, which won’t help the victims directly, but which may save someone else’s life
  • If they actually knew one of the people affected, contact them and, in addition to offering sympathy, ask if there is anything they could do to help them right now.

And to keep this kind of thing from happening again:

  • Donate time and/or money to push for more sensible gun laws
  • Donate time and/or money to push for better care of the mentally ill.
  • Donate time and/or money to push for better prevention of bullying in our schools.

Prayer vigils don’t do any of this; as far as I can tell prayer vigils don’t actually do anything for anybody except those participating.

So here are my questions for believers:

How is praying outside in the cold with a candle any better than praying indoors?  Why would praying in a group be more effective than the same people praying individually in their own homes? If you pray for longer does god take your prayer more seriously? Does god listen harder when you light candles?  (And, for Catholics, does god pay more attention to the prayers of those who are fiddling with magic beads?)

And – how is it that you think holding a prayer vigil counts as helping???

***UPDATE – Jan 10***

And…here they go at it again:

Please Join the Interfaith Moral Action on Climate in
“A Pray-In for the Climate”
in front of the White House


So what are they trying to accomplish? From a blurb I was sent about this:  “A gathering and vigil to ask the President and the nation to find strength and wisdom to steer us away from the Climate Cliff.”  So they’re not actually asking god to fix the climate problem (which would seem to be the obvious answer if you believe in an omnipotent god who answers prayers), they are gathering to pressure the government into taking action.  So why don’t they just call this what it is:  a “protest”?  Oh, no, this has to be a “vigil” because somehow that’s more effective than a protest.  Sheesh.




1. myatheistlife - December 30, 2012

Reblogged this on myatheistlife and commented:
Here are some good words about prayer and helping others. If you want to accomplish good in the world, you’re better off trying to do something that doesn’t require you to be on your knees with your hands folded, ignoring the real world.


2. Hausdorff - December 30, 2012

Great post, your thoughts on prayer mirror mine pretty closely. It would be so much better if everyone praying for Sandy Hook instead did something actually useful, even if all they did was donate $5. But many of these people seem to be happy to just pray and feel like they did something.


3. the chaplain - December 30, 2012

On the day of the shooting, my Facebook page quickly filled up with prayer requests and the like. With each such post that appeared, I got increasingly angry, perhaps unreasonably so. I kept thinking, don’t just pray about it; do something useful. After I’d had some time to process my own grief and anger, I realized that the prayer thing was the fundogelicals’ way of processing their grief. I signed petitions for gun control laws, etc., and maybe some of them did too (once they got up off their knees). What really annoyed me was that several of the prayer posters followed up with crap about the second amendment and admonitions to keep our hands off their guns since law-abiding gun owners and their guns aren’t the problem. But, how many shooters were law-abiding people until the moment they fired their first shots at people? I agree with you that prayer doesn’t move any deities to action. In addition to the communal support prayers derive from vigils, I think they derive some sort of psychological comfort from believing that their deities are ultimately in control of things and will make it all work out okay in the end. I find that psychological component disturbing, because it enables believers to absolve themselves of responsibility for actually doing anything to address the social, health and cultural issues that cry out for attention.


4. cag - December 30, 2012

I would ask the christians:
If your god is in control, then things are unfolding according to the plan. Why would you want to alter the “perfect” plan? If your god is not in control and fails to answer prayers (such as your prayers after Columbine to stop all future atrocities) then what worth is your prayer? How many christians have prayed for an end to children starving to death, without effect? How is your life with prayer any better than mine without prayer?


5. Sallye Hardy - December 31, 2012

Actually I find that most people who are ‘doing things” actually are often people of prayer… centering themselves, listening for wisdom and guidance and allowing their own spiritual energy to be moved from within to other. Agreed it may be hard to explain… but you might want to visit Larry Dorsey’s works on prayer and Duke University’s … no matter how much you disagree with the ills of organized faith, including its language and practices… its hard to argue with a practice that the majority of people even in this country say they believe in and practice EVEN if you and I understand it. I don’t understand air but i really enjoy and benefit from breathing.


cag - December 31, 2012

Sallye, in the USA, according to The Pew Forum 4% of the population define themselves as atheist or agnostic. In that light your observation is not very surprising.
Is it Dorsey or Dossey? No matter, there are other studies that contradict the studies of your apologist.


6. Mike - January 7, 2013

Well said my friend


7. Arkenaten - January 21, 2013

Yes, it’s all silly nonsense, is it not?

Chap comes across a Jewish fellow standing in front of the Wailing Wall and asks:
“Any luck getting through to God?”
“No. Like talking to a wall.”


8. SirTJ - January 22, 2013

Oh, that’s a good one.


9. LeoPardus - January 30, 2013

Might one think of prayer of this sort as a way to absolve oneself of responsibility to actually DO something? Actually doing something takes a good deal of time and dedication. Praying takes only a matter of minutes and then you’re off the hook because god is supposed to take care of things after that.


ubi dubium - January 31, 2013

Hey, LeoPardus, glad to see you here!

So how does a prayer vigil fit into that? Instead of taking the time and dedication to actually do something, they are taking time and dedication to do the thing that’s not helping at all. Maybe they are absolving themselves of guilt for not helping by showing that they’re not helping really hard.


10. the frogman - March 17, 2013

You neglected to mention one of the major benefits of prayer and one that is even more powerful when the prayer is public or when held as, for example, a vigil: community bonding. If they aren’t talking to God, who are they talking to? When a prayer is voiced in front of others, or when many people gather to join together in individual prayer, the message doesn’t need to reach God’s ears to be effective. And by effective I don’t necessarily mean that the purported object of the prayer is achieved, but rather that the prayer builds and strengthens the community of believers.


ubi dubium - March 18, 2013

I think I touched on that, at least partially:

When a random tragedy strikes, we are shaken as individuals and need the reassurance that we are part of a supportive social group. Having a special gathering, and doing things together like singing and lighting candles can help us feel better.

From the leadership’s point of view, they are strengthening their community. From the participant’s viewpoint they are reassuring themselves that they are part of that stable community.

But there is still a disconnect from all this to what the believers say they are doing. If someone is participating in a prayer vigil, and you ask them why, they will never say “We are gathering to publicly pat ourselves on the back for how pious we are, and to reinforce our group identity.”


the frogman - March 18, 2013

You’re right. The magic doesn’t work if the trick is revealed. “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”



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