Last weekend during a football match in the UK between Tottenham Hotspurs and Bolton Wanderers, a young player, Fabrice Muamba, aged 23, collapsed to the ground, suffering a cardiac arrest. It looked very bad for the boy. To fans of English Football and the game worldwide, it brought back memories of other tragic losses, such as Marc Vivien-Foe. I expected the worst as medics worked on the lad. Cameras scanned the crowd, showing shocked, tearful faces.
As the boy fought for his life, people around the world were called on to pray.
Amongst my atheist and agnostic acquaintances, prayer is often considered with some derision, if not outright disgust. It’s seen as a way to do nothing while seeming to do something. It’s seen as empty. If there’s nobody there, who is everyone talking to? And if they’re talking to nobody, isn’t that worse than doing nothing?
In some respects I see it that way. Praying to do well on a test, to find one’s car keys, for the rash one contracted to heal, etc. The schism that must take place for someone to assume god would want to do those things and at the same time let millions starve to death every year can make a mockery of the concept of prayer.
But there is another side to it, and it’s to that side that I think we, as non-believers, should lean.
At times like that, when something terrible has happened in our view, we are often powerless to help or to do anything. We are half a world away, perhaps. Or we are in the crowd even, but we can do nothing. The medics have it under control, or at least under as much control as can be mustered. By intervening ourselves, we would only do harm.
Yet emotionally we are moved. We are social people. We often feel each others’ emotions. We are affected by the fortunes and misfortunes of others; not directly, to be sure, but we can identify with others and know to some extent what they are feeling.
That moment we each approach in whatever way we understand the world at that time. For me, it was just to think on Muamba’s struggle and hope that the medics and doctors would get the lad through, that his family would not lose him. For myself, I didn’t need to appeal to someone greater than myself. It was enough to have compassion in my heart, and to know that if the tables were turned, others would have compassion on me and my family.
It is not all that different for those of faith. They know that personally they can do nothing to aid the situation. But they too care. They too want to see the boy recover. So they participate in the only way they can. They pray. Whether they are really invoking any god is immaterial. They, as people, are focusing their thoughts and energy on this stricken young man. That is really only a positive thing in my book. Perhaps my friends and I can be too harsh sometimes on the practices we ourselves have left behind upon taking a more rational, limited view of the universe. Sure, I think we’re right. But that doesn’t change the fact that these people, otherwise powerless, are giving of their own thoughts and emotions in the hopes the young man will recover. They are giving the best of themselves, because there is literally no other thing that will help other than staying out of the way.
So perhaps their prayers aren’t as much for the stricken lad as they are for each of them. They want to show caring and solidarity. By expending their own energy and time on the issue, they do that. We should probably give them a little more room to do that without taking arrows.
Now, I suppose I still do take exception to the prevalence of “see, prayer works” as Fabrice recovers. “Thank god” dots the headlines over and over again, when it should be “thank doctors and hundreds of years of accumulated medical expertise.
We may wish to have that semantic discussion one of these days, but for now, we ought to give people a little more space and let them pray. If nothing else, it might be helping them to cope with an unexpected emotional trauma when they only wished to watch a simple game of football.