Text originally posted to “The Seeker” Chicago Tribune Religion blog here and here. Members of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation are supporting a “Choose to Act” initiative this May 2 as our response to the declared “National Day of Prayer,” and we would love for EVERYONE to join in – post your good deeds that day on our Facebook page or on Twitter as #choosetoACT.
To pray or not to pray is a very personal choice, exactly the kind of personal religious decision that has no place in official government pronouncements. A National Day of Prayer that calls on “all Americans” to talk to a god is clearly establishing religion (in preference to non-religion) in a way that excludes secular Americans. The question is: what should our response be?
I once had a congregant ask me to pray for her cousin who faced a breast cancer relapse. I responded, “I have a better idea – give me her phone number and I’ll call her. Talking to her to lift her spirits and make her feel less alone and more cared for will do much more for her than talking to anything else.”
The Humanist world has recently sponsored a counter-program – the National Day of Reason, which celebrates the power of the human mind to understand and improve the world. After all, there is something illogical about prayer. As the late comedian George Carlin pointed out in 1999:
The Divine Plan. Long time ago, God made a Divine Plan. Gave it a lot of thought, decided it was a good plan, put it into practice. And for billions and billions of years, the Divine Plan has been doing just fine. Now, you come along, and pray for something. Well suppose the thing you want isn’t in God’s Divine Plan? What do you want Him to do? Change His plan? Just for you? Doesn’t it seem a little arrogant? It’s a Divine Plan. . . .
And here’s something else, another problem you might have: Suppose your prayers aren’t answered. What do you say? “Well, it’s God’s will.” “Thy Will Be Done.” Fine, but if it’s God’s will, and He’s going to do what He wants to anyway, why … bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me! Couldn’t you just skip the praying part and go right to His Will? It’s all very confusing.
If prayer is a form of meditation, a way of expressing one’s deepest hopes and wishes, an experience of self-centering, all well and good. But expecting that our desires can transform the world without our effort to realize them is neither practical nor realistic nor helpful. We should heed the lesson of the great 19th century freethinker Colonel Robert Ingersoll: “Labor is the only prayer that Nature answers; it is the only prayer that deserves an answer — good, honest, noble work.”
I have a better idea than a “National Day of Reason.” While reason is certainly a worthy value to celebrate, the secular counterpart to “Prayer” is not “Reason;” it is “Action.” Where the more religious would pray to solve a problem, Humanists know they must#choosetoACT to make a difference. If the event were a “National Day of Doing Good,” where those who wanted to pray could pray, and those who preferred to do good deeds could do that, then it would truly be an opportunity for everyone to participate in uplifting our nation.
Many Humanist and Humanistic Jewish organizations have done just this – sponsoring blood drives and community service events on that day in May or the following weekend. On a day intended to encourage people to hope that the world gets better, to lessen human suffering, we use human power to actually make the world better and to help others in a real, tangible way. Giving blood is a good deed that only people can do for each other, and a problem that prayer alone will not fix. You can provide food to a food bank, donate a dollar with your coffee purchase, or innumerable other small deeds of human goodness.
Indeed, for a Humanist, the only being that truly answers your prayer is another human being helping you, or yourself. Frederick Douglass, the former slave, is supposed to have said, ““Praying for freedom never did me any good ‘til I started praying with my feet.” If people choose to pray, that’s fine for them. But don’t just pray – choose to ACT!
And, as Rabbi Hillel said, “if not now, when?”
Members of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation are supporting a “Choose to Act” initiative this May 2 as our response to the declared “National Day of Prayer,” and we would love for EVERYONE to join in – post your good deeds that day on our Facebook page or on Twitter as #choosetoACT.