The hearts of all compassionate Americans go out to the victims of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Our prayers, though, are a different matter.
A rising percentage of Americans do not worship, whether because they do not believe in the divine or because they simply choose to express their grief in other ways. In light of this reality, it is inappropriate for President Obama and Connecticut Governor Dan Malloy to ask Americans to pray for the victims of Sandy Hook.
It may seem petty to dwell on such a seemingly-small matter at a time when so many are mourning the loss of their children and/or loved ones and it goes without saying that any offense taken at the words of a few politicians is dwarfed by the immense grief that so many affected by this tragedy must be feeling.
However, as citizens of a nation that prides itself on inclusivity and religious tolerance, it is not proper to inject theology into a tragedy that saddens all Americans, including those of us who do not pray, or even believe in the existence of God.
As countless politicians and pundits have remarked, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School is a national tragedy, one that fills us all with sadness. Therefore it is inappropriate and insensitive for anyone, much less the President of the United States, to request that we “all” pray for the victims of said tragedy.
To be sure, encouraging prayer as a response to a national trauma is a custom that derives from the best of intentions. It would be paranoid to believe that the state is pressuring atheists to partake in rituals that they do not believe in.
Yet, President Obama’s tearful speech to the nation culminates in a request that we all pray for the victims of Sandy Hook. His words no doubt derived from the best intentions, but as an atheist I could not help but feel the sting of their implication.
That is, those of us who choose not to pray are somehow not a part of the national grieving process and, if so, only as an afterthought. By extension, our secular empathy, the offerings of sympathy that we believe derive from our common humanity, are somehow inadequate.
The point of this editorial is not to criticize President Obama or Dan Malloy. On the contrary, they deserve to be commended for their touching words of comfort at such a difficult moment. Furthermore, any politician, celebrity, public figure, or citizen would likely invoke the power of prayer as a matter of custom, if nothing else.
Nevertheless, in a country that claims to respect all religious beliefs, it should be incumbent on our political leaders to avoid imposing theism on a secular society that is home not only to Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus, but also atheists, agnostics, and other breeds of secularist.
It is one thing to ask us to pledge our allegiance to a nation under God. The term “God” is subject to many interpretations (indeed, to many of the founders, it represented deistic notions that would be anathema to contemporary religious folk). Praying, on the other hand, implies belief in a higher power that is responsive to human action. Asking skeptics and non-believers to engage in religious rituals, even for the comfort of others, is not only insensitive to them; it also undermines the very notion of prayer, which is meant to stem from the deeply-held convictions of the believer.
We all mourn the tragic loss of innocence that occurred in Newtown, Connecticut last week. But for many Americans, prayer is not a part of the grieving process, and it is important that this fact does not go unrecognized.