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How ‘thoughts and prayers’ became so polarizing after mass shootings

People at a prayer vigil at the Joy Metropolitan Church hold hands on June 12, 2016, after a fatal shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. (Chris O’Meara/AP)
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Editor’s note: During his address to the nation Monday morning, President Donald Trump twice offered his prayers to the families of the victims of Sunday’s massacre in Las Vegas. But as common as it is to offer prayers in times of tragedy, it has also become common for people to criticize those prayers as empty gestures. For instance, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), an advocate for tighter gun control, tweeted Monday: “To my colleagues: your cowardice to act cannot be whitewashed by thoughts and prayers.” This article was originally published on June 14, 2016, two days after a gunman killed 49 people in an Orlando nightclub. It was the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history until Sunday night when at least 59 concertgoers in Las Vegas were killed. 

A U.S. congressman boycotted the House’s moment of silence for the victims of the Orlando shooting massacre, saying the symbolic gesture doesn’t honor the victims, it “mocks them.” “The Moments of Silence in the House have become an abomination. God will ask you, ‘How did you keep my children safe?’ Silence,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) tweeted in one of a series of tweets.

A similar sentiment was echoed by the Dalai Lama, who was in Washington on Monday for a talk about ending violent conflicts at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He began by asking for a moment of silence for the Orlando victims, but when the silence was broken, he warned that prayer without action would not bring about real change.

“Without action just sit and prayer, prayer, prayer,” he said. “I’m quite skeptical.”

The Tibetan monk made similar remarks after the November 2015 Paris terrorist attacks, when the hashtag #PrayForParis spread across social media.

“We cannot solve this problem only through prayers,” he told a German newspaper. “I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

GRAPHIC: How lawmakers responded to the Orlando mass shooting

The trend of publicly offering prayers for victims of mass tragedies has been panned by some as a too easy — even insincere — display of empathy in absence of real action. The New York Daily News famously plastered a front page with the words: “God Isn’t Fixing This,” calling out Republican lawmakers who tweeted their plans to pray for the victims of the San Bernardino attack.

With each new mass shooting and terrorist attack, some people are offended by the public display of faith without some accompanied tangible effort to quell the violence or support the victims. But others say offering prayer remains a way to find meaning in a senseless act; to offer something when it feels like there’s little else to do. It’s intended to provide solace.

Why I light candles after tragedy

The viral use of the hashtag #PrayforOrlando was immediate Sunday. It might not have a practical effect, but it can create some sense of solidarity. Seeing a social media network filled with the same condolence serves as a reminder that as human beings, we’re in this together.

Philip Yancey, author of “Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?,” said those public displays do provide comfort to the afflicted.

“I was at Sandy Hook after the shootings there, and Virginia Tech, and Columbine, and Mumbai, India, and I know well the comfort that comes to survivors of tragedy when they know that people around the world are praying for them. That’s one thing all of us not directly involved can do,” he said. “A healthy body feels the pain of the weakest part, and prayer is a form of love that expresses our solidarity with those who suffer.”

But some argue that such prayer is more about self-soothing than offering anything meaningful.

Stand-up comedian Anthony Jeselnik, known for addressing provocative and uncomfortable subjects, has a special on Netflix called “Thoughts and Prayers.” In it, he takes an especially hard line, skewering people who publicly offer prayer after a tragedy.

“The people who see something terrible happen in the world and they run to the Internet. And they run to their social media … and they all write down the exact same thing: My thoughts and prayers,” he said, in a mocking tone. “My thoughts and prayers with the people in Aurora, my thoughts and prayers with the families in Boston. … Do you know what that’s worth? F—— nothing. Less than nothing. You are not giving any of your time, your money or even your compassion. All you are doing is saying, don’t forget about me today. … Don’t forget how sadz I am.”

That’s a particularly harsh assessment, but there is a deeper truth — that prayer alone, even for secular people, has become the default response to a tragedy. In the absence of knowing what to say, or how to help, people are desperate to feel like they’re doing something. Promising to pray, whether or not there is follow through, feels like at least some form of action.

“I think it helps the person giving the prayer,” said Clay Routledge, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University. “There’s a self- focus component; we know that when people see things in the world that threaten their sense of meaning or stability, it causes this existential anxiety: Is the world meaningless? It’s a way to recalibrate, there is some broader meaning.”

In his academic research, Routledge has shown that the more people feel as if life’s meaning is threatened, the more they turn to supernatural support.

Which is why the most cynical interpretation of people offering prayers after a tragedy is that they are trying to comfort themselves.

Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at Santa Clara University who has studied the relationship between religion and health, agreed there is a certain “egoism” to the offer of prayer, particularly if it’s not followed up with some kind of practical support, as the Dalai Lama talks about.

“Give me all the prayers and support you want, but I need you to help me live in a safer community, and you’re not doing anything to help me,” Plante said. “If I need a ride to the airport, all your prayers aren’t going to get me a ride. It’s this disconnect between the support needed and desired versus what is offered.”

Read more:

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