Many people have written to me saying how much they appreciated the few words I opened the Daily Paradox with after the Christchurch mosque shootings. Some have asked – kindly and without rancour but with genuine interest, I think – how I could say that ‘believers and non-believers offered thoughts and prayers…’. It seems curious to them that someone who has no faith in a Deity or other benevolent power beyond our understanding could be saying a prayer.
Indeed, it is strange, something of a paradox, in fact. I put it down to two things. First, a lack of faith doesn’t mean a lack of hope. Since young, I have thought that hope was a much ignored virtue. Some are blessed with a strong belief. Do I think they are the fortunate ones? Not necessarily, because the paradox of faith is that the faithful are always searching for the truth. Even Good Pope Francis says that. They believe but that very fact means they don’t know. You cannot ‘believe’ something you ‘know’. That is a matter of dictionary definition.
Searching means that you have not found but are hopeful that you will. Thus hope is a great virtue. It predicates no dogma, simply wish. (I have often found those wishing for a better world are the ones most determined to bring it about.) But how can someone who doesn’t believe, but hopes, say a prayer? To whom do they pray and about what? That seems a difficult one to answer. But actually, it isn’t. Just as they wish or hope there is some form of Divinity, greater power or after-life so their prayer is nothing more than a wish or hope that what they ask for another will be granted.
To whom is this prayer addressed and how can it possibly be effective? No difficulty thinking that it is addressed to whoever or whatever is the (hoped for) greater power. If that power exists it can choose to answer – or not – the prayer delivered to it. If it doesn’t exist, something the most erudite scientists find difficult to comprehend, especially in light of the complexity of DNA, then the prayer goes into the ether, along with all other good and noble thoughts to make a body of honour to the mysteries of the human being. Honouring humanity is the best way to improve it.
How can a prayer to nobody or nothing be effective? And here is the mystery. Even if all the beliefs and hopes are wrong, even if the concept of prayer is misguided, an act of prayer still has a profound effect on the one who says it. It changes outlook, behaviour and aspirations of the most hardened atheist and the most dogmatic unbeliever. For believers, prayer may be the raising of the heart and mind to God.
For all of us it is a kind thought followed where possible by a kind action.
That’s why unbelievers pray.
And that’s why their prayers are as effective as anyone’s.