On Prayers for Paris | Vol. 3 / No. 2.6

A perspective on Paris | Photo: NASA
A perspective on Paris | Photo: NASA

Pray for Paris if you like, but don’t let that be all you do.


I don’t normally post on Saturdays, but my thoughts on yesterday’s attack on Paris were too long for a Facebook post, and definitely too long for a meme, so here I am.

On my Facebook wall this morning, there are a lot of people using a filter to superimpose a French flag over their profile pictures, a lot of people using the hashtag #PrayForParis, a lot of people saying that the people of Paris are in their thoughts. There are also, having the exceptionally insightful friends that I do, people reminding us all to contextualize the tragedy just a little. One friend and colleague reminds us all to add others “to the last 24 hours of carnage: 43 Shiites murdered in Beruit yesterday, and more than 200 wounded. 26 Shiites murdered at a Baghdad funeral yesterday and at least 46 wounded.” She reminds us that “‘Muslims’ aren’t killing ‘us.’ Fundamentalist militants are killing people of any and all religious traditions.” By some estimates ISIS has killed over a hundred thousand Muslims in the past few years.

And I would add to that they’re killing people of no religious tradition as well.

I also have friends who are telling me not to pray for Paris, but to fight the religious ideologies that give rise to these kinds of extremism.

At times like these, I very much want to blame religion. Religion has been used for thousands of years as a smokescreen for hatred, an instruction manual for discrimination, a justification for mass murder and war. But I do not believe religion is the problem, at least not specifically. If religion did not exist, I believe we would find other, equally irrational reasons to kill one another. Religion is a red herring, just one of many excuses we’ve come up with for advancing our own interests through violence and the subjugation of others.

And religion is just one of many factors — politics, unequal wealth distribution, cultural differences — that have come together to create the current chaos that is the ruination of so many lives. We are all to blame for Paris, religious or not, just as we are all to blame for Beirut, for the existence of ISIS, for the never-ending killing in the Middle East. Our society’s past actions helped create the world in which this happens. Our inaction is our complicity.

But we all believe these things are too big to change. Perhaps that’s why we pray. Prayer is, as one of my atheist friends has called it, something a person does to make themselves feel as though they’re doing something, when they can’t think of anything more productive to do. And what could any of us do to prevent another Paris? I don’t know. I don’t have an answer for that.

I won’t tell you to pray or not to pray for the people of Paris or Beirut or Syria. But I will tell you to do something ever so slightly more substantive, either instead of or in addition to praying, and that is this: learn.

Go read about the history and the politics of the conflicts that are taking place now. Spend a few minutes trying to understand what would create the kind of ideological radicalism that would drive people to kill perfect strangers. Try to wrap your head around the socioeconomic factors that leave people so bereft of hope that anyone with a half-assed ideology of intangible superiority can take advantage of them and turn them into walking, talking weapons.

You could do worse than to start with this interview with Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl, author of The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam from the Extremists, but there are other places to start. You could pick up a copy of a comparative religion textbook and try to understand the similarities and differences between all the world’s religions. You could pick up a history textbook and start to understand how we got from the collapse of the Ottoman empire to the fractured state the Middle East is in today.

Above all, more important than prayer, more important than your profile picture or your status updates, what is most important in this world is empathy. And the desire for knowledge is the beginning of empathy.

Pray for Paris if you like, but don’t let that be all you do.


Richard Ford Burley is a writer and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as an editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and techno-futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.

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