Thursday, September 11, 2014

Andrew W.K. Insults Us (Who Don't Pray)

Last week a person of secular worldview wrote to advice columnist for the Village Voice Andrew W.K. From here on out I'll refer to him or her by their signature NGP (Not Gonna Pray.) NGP's brother had been diagnosed with cancer, causing a great deal of anxiety and confusion among family members over how to deal with the situation. NGP's grandmother suggested: 

...we should all just "pray for my brother," like prayer would actually save his life. Just thinking about it now makes my fists clench with frustration. 

NGP's vocal opposition to grandma's call for prayer caused more upset within the family, and NGP concludes the letter to Andrew W.K. with: 

I need to get them to see that praying and religious mumbo jumbo doesn't help. How do I explain this to them?

Andrew W.K. started off by defining prayer as "a type of thought" that involves concentrating one's thoughts and feelings on a particular person or object. He tells NGP: 

I'll bet you're already praying all the time and just don't realize it.

Nevermind that no common definition of prayer resembles Andrew W.K.'s. It is none of the 7 found at The dictionary defines prayer as either the attempt to communicate with God, a "religious observance", or as NGP interprets grandma's suggestion as: "a petition, entreaty." Wikipedia's opening sentence on prayer would probably sound about right to most people: 

Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity, an object of worship, or a spiritual entity through deliberate communication.
Admittedly, Encyclopedia Britannica's opening definition is vague enough to include Andrew W.K.'s definition. 

Found in all religions in all times, prayer may be a corporate or personal act utilizing various forms and techniques. 

But that hardly gives credence to W.K.'s indication that his definition is the definition, or that it is the definition being used by NGP's family. 

Nevermind, also, that people are constantly crediting supernatural intervention for all manner of good fortune, from hitting a home run to preventing a suicide, and regardless of how often misfortune occurs. 

Having established that NGP apparently doesn't even know what prayer really is, W.K. goes on to call those who refuse to pray stubborn and arrogant. According to W.K., the "X factor" in prayer is "humility." 

If there are any other out-atheists reading this, you've no doubt encountered this awful stereotype of us before. And people wonder why so many of us are frequently angry and frustrated. But I digress. 

As if these personal assaults on the character of NGP (who, remember, is a person suffering not only from recent news that his or her brother has cancer, but from family tensions) weren't enough, after going on and on in flowery descriptions about the correct way to pray (which, again, fits no commonly accepted definition of prayer) Andrew W.K. finishes off by chiding NGP for his or her disrespect toward grandma. NGP is instructed to make amends: 

I want you to pray for your brother right now. As a gesture to your grandmother — who, if she didn't exist, neither would you. I want you to pray right now, just for the sake of challenging yourself. I want you to find a place alone, and kneel down — against all your stubborn tendencies telling you not to — and close your eyes and think of one concentrated thought: your brother.
Then get up and go be with him and your family. And you can tell your grandmother that you prayed for your brother.

Andrew W.K.'s solution to NGP's problem is basically for him to redefine prayer so broadly and vaguely that he can appear to share his family's worldview, thus rendering his secular worldview invisible. In other words, back into the closet with you, naughty atheist! 

There are those, such as Amanda Shea at Mad World who found Andrew W.K,'s response to NGP "EPIC." I found it to be a condescending screed that failed to understand NGP's point of view, and worse, re-enforced damning stereotypes that have plagued us secular folk for too long. 

Of course I can't know how NGP felt after reading such a personally insulting response from someone he or she trusted enough to seek advice from, but I imagine pretty damn bad. In my involvement with organized secular humanism, atheism, and skepticism, I have met so many people tormented by feelings of isolation as their families condemn them for their lack of faith under the pretense of love.   

It is hard, if not impossible, to empathize with a totally different worldview. It upsets me when my fellow atheists lack the curiosity to learn about the various theistic perspectives, and instead project false assumptions about all religious and spiritual mindsets, and then go on to belittle religious and spiritual people based on those assumptions. Likewise, it upsets me when people like Andrew W.K do the same damn thing to one of us. 

I don't know if NGP will ever read this blog post. But for NGP and anyone else out there who might be suffering from a similar problem, here's what I would have advised: 

Dear Not Gonna Pray, 

I'm sorry that your brother, you, and all your family have to deal with this situation. 

Keep in mind that at times such as these, emotions run high, and family tensions tend to flare up. You might need to step away to work through some of this matter on your own or with friends who share your perspective before engaging with your family again. 

When you say: "We need to actively help my brother and do actual things to save him", I take that to mean that you want to gather as much pertinent information as is available that might help your family understand your brother's illness, so that you can be most effective in your support of him and hopefully his recovery. If so, I completely agree with you. 

That said, the first thing you need to accept is the uncertainty of the situation. Even with the best doctors working on his case, any course of treatment will carry certain risks and only rate a percentage of possible success. Like predicting the weather, even though science is involved that helps us make more accurate predictions, prognosis comes down to the chances of this or that happening. That might sound a bit cold and clinical, but it is hard truth. 

That hard truth is exactly why people with religious faith turn to prayer. When your grandmother suggests that everyone "just pray", that might be her way of finding acceptance of the uncertainty of your brother's health. Granted, plenty of people (if not most) pray in the hopes that God or some other Higher Power will actually intervene and fix the problem. And maybe your grandmother or other family members mean it that way. But whatever prayer is for them, you can't change their minds about the importance of it, and you shouldn't try. It will only cause strife and family division, and that will hurt everyone, including your brother. 

Years ago my grandmother was staying at my house on Christmas Eve. My mother had gone to midnight mass, and I, as a young woman who had lost any faith in religion or gods, refused to go with her. My grandmother was too ill at the time to physically go to church, so she watched the Pope give service on television. I was a pretty out-atheist and assumed my family had accepted my atheism, so I was shocked when my grandmother tried to get me to watch mass with her and seemed to shame me for not going to church with my mom. We ended up getting into a rather nasty argument about whether God exists and actually intervenes in the lives of humans in response to prayers and faith. At some point I stormed off, angry and frustrated. Almost immediately, my grandmother called me back to sit with her on the couch. She didn't say anything that would re-ignite the argument. Instead she just took my hand and told me that she loved me. I told her I loved her, too. 

She passed away soon after that evening, and in my grief I felt so much gratitude toward her for making that peace with me. Even if we didn't share a worldview, we shared the same priorities when it came to family. 

You and your family can have your different perspectives on prayer and still love and support each other fully. Once you agree to disagree, you can move on to more practical matters, such as who is going to bring your brother meals on what days while he's recovering from his cancer treatments. 



  1. Nicely said, especially the humanist reply to NGP's letter.

    Having just watched Attenborough's Gandhi I sense there are many opportunities for we as individuals to demonstrate empathy for others who hold different world views as our own toward better outcomes. Love can transcend creed if we strive to permit it so.

  2. I read the original AWK article and, as a non-religious person, I was offended at the idea of "redefining" prayer and to simply concede to the elder family member (without whom he wouldn't exist). So, you're going to guilt me into praying, is that how it works? I saw your comment with your blog link and decided to check out your page, which I really enjoy. I just wanted to comment here that your response to NGP was a wonderful one. There is no shaming, no guilt-trip, no high horse... I wish more people would think this way.

  3. I am a non-religious person. Actually, I believe that religion is a cancer on society. This blog post seems to display the same close-minded crap as any fanatical religion. The over the top feeling of superiority because you are an atheist is repulsive. NGP wrote to Andrew WK because he wanted Andrew WK's opinion. That is what he got. AWK began by saying "I THINK." He did not make any "personal assaults" or call anyone arrogant or stubborn. I do see that he spoke of "stubborn tendencies" which all humans have. The way that you have clipped this article to your benefit and presumed that NGP would be much better off with your amaaaazing words of wisdom is pure arrogance.

  4. I have read the above blog and also the original AWK response in Village Voice. I think your answer to NGP is wonderful and is likely to be of more help to NGP than what AWK did. But I went further and looked at other AWK advices to other people. This showed a consistent approach - perhaps I could call it 'muscular agnosticism' - AWK looks like a muscly Jesus but never seems to indicate he is a christian and uses references like Wizard of Oz so is drawing on folk psychology of some kind and projects himself as a streetwise tough-loving hippie version of TV's 'Dr Phil'. This may or may not be a good thing for people in vulnerable states but 'what you see is what you get' and if you ask this guy for advice it's going to be of a tough-love kind.

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  6. (...Sorry I had to prematurely finish previous to escape a technical problem.)
    I think 'boogies' comment is unnecessarily aggressive and spoils the point he is trying to make which has some validity. There may be an assumption that if NGP writes to AWK then a certain type of response is to be expected. It might be something that was once called 'man to man' talk but might nowadays be categorised with words like 'streetwise' or such. Martha is right that NGP isn't well-enough known as to whether this kind of tough-love approach is appropriate. As actual advice-giving Martha's approach is better. But do people actually expect personalised advice from a columnist? Perhaps in this genre the questions are secondary to the answers - they're just there to set the scene for AWK's street/folk-wisdom thing. To some degree it's pretentious, to some degree it's risky - but I also admit it is interesting. Taken by itself as an atheistic approach to 'prayer' it's thought-provoking and as a tough-love 'crack their heads together' kind of reconciliation process for an american family it has its good points. (to be continued)

  7. Finally to clarify the term 'muscular agnosticism'.
    There was once something termed 'muscular christianity' very much associated with 'british empire' times which gave rise to things like the YMCA movement. It was a tough-love kind of evangelism popular a century ago. And agnosticism in America seems to mean you don't believe in god but you don't want to offend religious people or you want to be a celebrity and appeal to everyone.
    It's also a shame I can see religious people on the web who are quoting AWK approvingly. They will always try to coopt any efforts at religious neutrality which is why I wouldn't use the word agnostic myself as it gets misused.