Faith still comforts in times of turmoil

Simon Smart examines the disappearance of faith language from public discourse.

Last year Christopher Hitchens, the most vocal opponent of all things religious, announced he was suffering cancer of the oesophagus. This news was met with sadness both among his friends and opponents, and the 20th September was declared, “Everybody pray for Hitchens day”. Apart from some crazies who said they’d pray that he’d rot in hell, the blogosphere was flooded with believers saying they’d pray for the famous contrarian’s body as well as his soul. The pugnacious Hitchens said that while he was under no illusion that it would do any good, he was touched by the sentiment. Very few people, when facing a crisis, will object to being prayed for.

Australians have been doing it tough lately and might well be looking to the heavens for answers or even to voice their objections. The sunburnt country eulogised by Dorothea Mackellar can be a cruel place and plenty of Australian families subject to the fury of flood, fire and cyclone know it all too well.

It’s fascinating to watch news footage of Prime Ministers and other leaders visiting disaster sites in Australia. Despite the cynicism and distrust of pollies in this country, they do appear to be genuinely welcomed in times of great loss and need. In tragedy people look for a leader who is strong, reassuring, compassionate – even pastoral.

But the self-conscious avoidance by politicians of any mention of faith when addressing these situations is testimony to the extent that religion has disappeared from public discourse.

Anna Bligh, who has been rightly praised for her performance and poise in handling the floods and then cyclone in Queensland, assured those in the firing line of Yasi that ‘the thoughts of all Australians are with you.’ Similarly, the Prime Minister, eager to send a message to those waiting to learn of their fate at the hands of the cyclone declared, “In the hours of destruction that are coming, all of Australia is going to be thinking of you.” It’s hard to gauge how much comfort that provides.

It’s no surprise that prayer wasn’t mentioned here. Both of these leaders have been very open about their non-belief, and it would be distasteful for them to pretend otherwise. But it’s interesting that none of their advisers see fit to include even a nod to those for whom their greatest hope lies in something more transcendent than the possible arrival of the SES.

According to a large Herald-Nielson poll conducted in late 2009, 60% of people believe in God and a similar number in miracles. Whatever you make of these figures, they suggest that a fair slab of the Australian population would be seeking comfort from above when faced with their mortality or the loss of material possessions.

When Barack Obama delivered a speech on religion and politics in 2006 he said, “if we scrub the language of all religious content, we forfeit the imagery and terminology through which millions of Americans understand both their personal morality and social justice”. He could easily have added, where many locate their calling, hope and motivation to keep going despite the challenges and tragedies that life throws up at us. The religious landscape is different in Australia but the broad point is true here as well.

Objections by people who don’t believe are understandable. What’s the point of praying in the face of weather systems we can’t control? Why are some spared and others not? What possible difference can it make? But that’s a misunderstanding of prayer. For those who hold a worldview that includes an all-powerful, good God, it makes sense to both be thankful for the good things in life, and to cry out to him when in turmoil. It’s not a formula for a trouble-free existence and never has been.

But countless people who have gone through terrible suffering and loss can attest to feeling sustained by a faith that sometimes feels most real in a crisis. And there is something comforting in knowing that you are being prayed for. Even in the action of crying out to God, there lies the defiant human belief that perhaps we are not alone in the universe – that all hope will not be lost.

There are plenty of people who will feel glad that religious talk has disappeared from our public language, and that such a movement reflects a culture that has shrugged off superstitious belief and moved on.

But when clinging to life on the roof of a house surrounded by rising floodwater, not sure if the building is going to hold, there are still those for whom the offer of a prayer, as well as a helping hand, will mean a great deal.

Simon Smart is a Director of the Centre for Public Christianity

This article first appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald on February 9, 2011.