Religion & Spirituality

To pray or not pray? The Richard Dawkins Prayer Affair

richard dawkins prayer
The latest row involving Richard Dawkins has set me wondering about the ethics of prayer. In case you missed this particular storm in a theological teacup, Richard Dawkins had a stroke. The Church of England prayed for his recovery. In the ensuing Twitterstorm, someone suggested that – given Dawkins’ famed atheism – the CoE was trolling RD.

I’m not concerned here with the question of the efficacy of prayer, an issue often punched out in the Theism vs Atheism ring, except to say it’s important to remember the act of praying assumes there’s some point to it. What I’m concerned with is a question neglected in mainstream western thinking about religion: under what conditions is it right to pray for others?

First, some context. The Church of England has a long tradition of praying for others, whether they’ve asked for it or not. Attend any parish service and you’ll find a portion dedicated to praying for particular people – generally members of that same parish – who are sick, recently bereaved or otherwise in need. Then, in descending order of proxmity, prayers are offered for those who are going through difficulties in wider society and those in the world’s trouble spots. While couched in general terms, prayers name particular people and places and, in asking for healing and peace, seek divine help in bringing about a particular outcome.

The Christian practice of prayer requests extends across denominations. Most, including the Catholic church, respond to prayer cards in the church or requests sent by email, asking that a priest intercede on their behalf or that of someone else. In Lebanon, it’s common to find shrines hung with petitions in physical form such as baby’s romper suit, soliciting the saint’s help in healing a child or bringing about a pregnancy.

Praying for others is an important part of faith-in-action in the evangelical tradition, both in the form of healing prayers performed with the person and remote, non-consensual prayers that those who are not, in the petitioner’s opinion, on the right path, find ‘salvation’. It is perhaps this particular approach that points up the issue of about consent most clearly. Does prayer in these instances ‘do no harm’ as Peter Omerod, writing on the Dawkins prayer affair in The Guardian, argues? Or, in seeking to impose the will of the petitioner on the object of prayer, do they overstep an important boundary?

The pagan tradition – by which I mean nature-based faiths and the ancient spirituality of shamanism – has a very clear answer to this question. Healing work (the shamanic cognate of prayer) which aims at bringing about a particular outcome for someone without having gained their consent, even for the betterment of their health – is unethical. Susan Mokelke, president of the Foundation For Shamanic Studies, explains: ‘It is unethical because each person has the right and the responsibility to decide what to do in matters of his or her own soul. Each person has the right to choose their path without interference or undue influence.’

‘Permission means the express, informed consent of the client for a specific individual or group to perform shamanic healing or divination – including the consent to disclose any information about the client,’ she continues.

The stringency of Mokelke’s stipulations derives from the very strong sense, in shamanism, that such work has a real effect on the world. It’s a spiritual practice with a practical focus. I’m struck by how close this insistence on informed consent comes to best practice in contemporary healthcare, and also by how common sense the advice is; as anyone who has experienced misguided meddling knows only too well, human understanding of the needs of a particular person or situation is limited, and interfering can have unintended consequences.

The shamanic code of ethics also highlights the spiritual aspect of the injunction against non-consensual prayer/healing: the recognition that we don’t have access to the bigger picture in which the prospective object of our prayers lives – a recognition that can also be known as spiritual humility.

In this piece, Caitlin Matthews, a long-established shamanic practitioner, writing as a former leader of the Order of Bards and Druids, lays out a way to provide support without interference. It involves ‘holding the object of your prayer in your heart … and wishing them well’ that anyone can practise, whether spiritually motivated or not. But, she advises, resist taking a step further and asking for a specific outcome: It’s only when we interfere and interpose our own hopes and fears upon people and situations that things get ethically tangled. If someone is dying, praying for their recovery may be a curse, not a blessing.’

On the Dawkins Prayer Affair, my jury’s still havering. As an ethnic Anglican, I’ve always found it comforting to hear the names of those around me remembered in prayer, and like the idea of being prayed for myself. It’s not as if the typical Anglican vicar is asking for much; in the broad, compromise church that emerged out of Britain’s religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, what’s expressed is a vague benevolence which seems to me not that much different from sending someone your best wishes.

And yet, in the case of Richard Dawkins, to publicly pray for someone who, the sender well knows, does not want or welcome it – isn’t that just a bit provocative?