It’s Not Enough to Say That Thoughts and Prayers are Not Enough

It’s Not Enough to Say That Thoughts and Prayers are Not Enough

Critics of standalone thoughts and prayers are obliged to both provide and act on a real alternative

Among the atheists I know, the range of opinions on the Second Amendment spans from one end to the other. 

There is, however, one aspect of the gun-control debate where atheists are solidly united, and that is in the opinion that “thoughts and prayers” are meaningless as a response to gun violence. 

Many religious people also now agree with that opinion, especially those who advocate for stricter gun laws only to get nothing from their elected officials except clichéd lip service to thoughts and prayers. 

I was forced to rethink my disdain for that phrase on Sunday morning, August 4, as I read about a 24-year-old local man in Dayton, Ohio, who, just a few hours earlier, had killed nine people, injured 27, and traumatized countless more when he opened fire in a popular bar in the city’s entertainment district. 

I went to college at the University of Dayton, and my time there couldn’t have been happier. 

UD is a Catholic university, and one of my most treasured college traditions was Sunday Mass in the UD Chapel. 

My treasures obviously lie elsewhere now, but that’s what immediately came to mind as I was reading that horrible news. 

It was around 9:30 in the morning, and I thought of the people who at that same moment were heading to the chapel for 10:00 Mass, the very service I never missed as a student. 

The massacre had occurred just two miles from the chapel, so hearts were no doubt very, very heavy. 

Mine sure was, and I felt glad to be free of the belief that, for me at least, talking and singing to the invisible guy was a good use of time. 

A few weeks later, I received the latest issue of the alumni quarterly. It’s wonderful to visit the campus every few months on the pages of UD Magazine (the first magazine I ever worked on). 

But I’m turned off by a lot of the content because I have no interest in reading about a faculty or alumni accomplishment when it’s packaged as a snapshot of their faith in action instead of the result of their efforts. 

The cover story of that recent issue is a collection of statements from ten UD community members about the shooting. 

Some of them have a personal connection to the disaster, and one was there that night. I was not the least bit surprised that the article’s introduction mentioned the strong faith of all ten people. But it turned out that only four of them had anything religious to say. 

While it would be foolish from a fundraising perspective for a Catholic alumni magazine to not have a religious angle, I was especially disappointed by this particular implication that everyone in the article is religious. 

To be fair, the editors may know that all ten are, in fact, religious. In their further defense, writing about something that defies description is an impossible task bound to offend someone, with or without spiritual talk. 

Since the shooting, Dayton has been on my mind more than it has been in a very long time, and I can never think about that place without remembering how different things were when the blueprint of my moral outlook was designed around a commitment to Christianity. 

Now that Dayton is also on my mind almost every day, the idea of “thoughts and prayers” and the idea of “thoughts and action” have been sitting next to each other in my head for a while. 

At some point, it occurred to me that without suggesting a concrete action to take the place of the prayers, “thoughts and action” might as well be “thoughts and more thoughts.” 

Critics of standalone thoughts and prayers are obliged to both provide and act on a real alternative. My actions here have taught me that there is scant research on how to curb gun violence. 

The studies that do exist show that the vast majority of gun deaths are suicides and that domestic violence kills far more people than mass shootings do. 

I’m no expert on any of this, and I have no lofty illusions about being any kind of lifesaver, but I do know that I’ve been far more productive since I no longer put any sort of religious faith into action and instead put my faith in real action itself.


Pamela Whissel
By Pamela Whissel
Editor-in-Chief, American Atheist Magazine

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