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Is secular life bereft when tragedy strikes? Not for a minute


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In the week since NFL player Damar Hamlin’s near death on the field, prayer has had a big moment: players bowing their heads and circling to pray before games, ubiquitous signs and social media posts bearing messages like “Pray for Damar,” TV commentators speaking of prayer—and in at least one case actually praying during coverage—with an explicitness previously unheard.

The secular community has by and large responded to the public piety with respect (notwithstanding justified pushback against Dan Orlovsky’s over-the-top prayer on an ESPN studio show, exemplified by Hemant Mehta’s thoughtful piece at OnlySky.)

The problem is the surge of pundits and media outlets trying to exploit public sympathy for Hamlin and the heightened visibility of prayer to assert the superiority of religion, and to point out the supposed inferiority of secularity in life’s most trying moments.

“In a supposedly secularizing nation, our true instincts emerge in times of crisis,” Daniel Darling of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary writes in USA Today. “We appeal to something outside of ourselves, to a power beyond us, to save us.”

Shouts a Wall Street Journal headline: “How Damar Hamlin Drove a Nation to Pray.”

And the coup de grace, courtesy of Tennessee pastor Erik Reed in World magazine:  “No one turns to an atheist’s screed-filled manifesto in moments like Monday night. It shows that at the core, every human being knows there is a Maker who is over all things…and is our only true hope and help amid tragedy and pain.”

Woe to the secular meanie who shouts “foul” in a moment like this. But “foul” I will shout, despite my respect for religion and the positive role that prayer can play in religious life.

No need to push back against the naturalness and inevitability of prayerful people praying when a young athlete appears to be dying in front of millions of viewers on Monday Night Football. But we should not tolerate the discredited notion that secular life is exposed as bankrupt when tragedy strikes.

Not only does the secular enterprise of medical science often “save the day,” as it did in Hamlin’s case. Secular people have resources aplenty to which we turn during life’s biggest trials: wise philosophies, consoling practices, each other.

A welcome demonstration of caring

In addition to the good news that Hamlin is recovering, a positive aspect of the weeklong trauma is the demonstration of caring that we’ve seen. As someone who has thought about and very recently written on the inhumane aspects of pro football, I am heartened by the humane regard gushing forth after Hamlin’s collapse.

It seems to take both hell and high water for the NFL to postpone or cancel games, but the league wisely suspended the Bills-Bengals clash in which Hamlin nearly died. Since then, it has given up on trying to reschedule it. The message being: There are more important things than football.

The country’s religious majority responds to tragedy by (among other things) speaking of prayer, by engaging in prayer. It’s a big part of how religionists express care and concern. I recall the time my wife and I were leaving the office of a veterinarian after having to euthanize a beloved pet. A woman outside the adjacent evangelical church noticed our sadness and asked if she could pray for us. It struck us as a kind and compassionate act, as the Christian woman’s way of saying she cared.

I realize that prayer gives religious people a much-needed experience of agency when there really isn’t anything else to do. “We can’t participate in the medical process,” Cincinnati-based pastor Brian Tome said at a community prayer service for Hamlin the day after his collapse. “But we can participate in prayer.”

Secular people don’t pray per se. But we can and do engage in analogous practices. Those of us watching that game last Monday centered and kept Damar Hamlin in our thoughts. We held him in our hearts.

When people are down, we give them a shoulder to cry on. We tell them we care, and knowing that actions speak louder than words, we do things to show them we mean it.

Seculars in foxholes

Where do we find comfort in the face of deadly tragedies? Not in thoughts of heaven or eternal life, obviously. Martin Hägglund has brilliantly articulated how these are not only unbelievable to the secular mind but undesirable as well. We take heart instead in knowing that what’s good and beautiful lives on after we and our loved ones are gone.

Daniel Darling is wrong in asserting that religion is the only way we can “appeal to something outside of ourselves, to a power beyond us.” Secular people turn outside of ourselves—to art, to nature, to the insights of literature and the philosophers. We turn to other people: our friends, our families, our communities.

Are these secular responses to tragedy as well-developed as they could be? Are they practiced as often and as robustly as would be ideal? Probably not. But I’ve been to secular memorial gatherings that are absolutely as consoling as religious funerals, and to secular weddings as beautiful and uplifting as religious ones.

Let’s be respectful as religious folks do what they do in emotional moments like the one unfolding around Damar Hamlin of the Buffalo Bills. Except when they shove it in secular peoples’ faces.

Then we point out the truth: There are lots of secular people in foxholes, and we have what we need to make it through life’s darkest nights.





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