Are you there God? It’s me, Incredulity.
Many times throughout the school year, our entire staff gather for prayer. We gather for prayer at the beginning of the year to ask God for a safe and healthy school year. We gather each morning to ask God to watch over us during the day, and keep us from harm. We gather at the end of the school year to ensure horrible and tragic events avoid us during the summer, enabling us all to come back to classes in the same condition in which we left. We pray a lot, asking God to keep us, our loved ones, even the entire world, clear of death and unhappiness.
Yet, year after year, prayer after prayer, loved ones around us are injured, become sick, and die for little or no reason. Still, we continue to pray.
For a long time I thought we prayed because of a true belief in God and Her abilities to affect change in our lives, cure the sick, and allow athletes to prosper in sport (Note, I use the term ‘we’ because while I don’t believe in prayer, I sometimes find myself pretending to pray that the group stops praying). The other day, however, I noticed something, a quite subtle something, that changed my earlier assumptions regarding why my colleagues pray.
Recently, we gathered as a staff, as we often do, to pray for everybody’s general well being. During this time, there is usually a moment set aside where members of the staff and faculty are able to speak out the name of a loved one or family member who they wish to receive our prayers.
On this day, somebody asked us to pray for a family member who had recently passed away. It was a particularly sad moment for everybody in the room, and we all felt incredible grief and sadness for this person.
The leader of the group waited for a moment, then spoke aloud asking God to welcome the person into heaven, and asked that we as a group pray for the person as they begin their new life living with Jesus.
Upon that final phrase of the prayer I could see many of my colleagues, whom I consider to be quite devout, become slightly uncomfortable. It was as if the words did not sit well, but they were forced to continue being polite and reverent during the moment.
The signs of their uncomfortableness were subtle. For some, it was a visible facial gesture, or an awkward shift of their body weight. Others took a long deep breath. Many anxiously played with their hands.
As I looked around the group during this moment I realized something that I had taken for granted. These people were uncomfortable because they really do not believe the deceased person for whom we were praying was actually living somewhere in the clouds with Jesus.
Generally, when my colleagues talk about religion, it revolves around unspecific notions about God being good and God working through us via some vague cosmic telepathy. This is the extent of the specificity they are willing to present in their religious beliefs.
Yet, here they were confronted with an actual hard truth about what happens after death, spending eternity shooting the shit with Jesus atop some puffy cumulus cloud, and deep down their body language suggested the Kool-Aid was not sitting well.
It was a brief moment that said so much about many of the people with which I work. In some way it was quite sad, watching an intelligent, confident group of individuals, many of which are good friends to me, struggle to accept a core truth of their religion as a silly implausibility.
As a skeptic, it was also a reassuring moment. This was a glimpse of doubt from true believers revealing itself. Any of us who has participated in the skeptical movement know that change does not happen overnight. Perhaps the next generation can turn doubt into true skepticism.
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