#PrayForBoston: Prayer as a Meme

As news broke about the Boston Marathon bombing, updates and photos from the scene immediately began appearing on Twitter and Facebook. At the same time, a hashtag trend developed. The phrase #PrayForBoston was appended to tweets through the day, with the likes of Mary J. Blige, teen rapper TZire, Saint Louis Cardinals infielder David Freese, La Toya Jackson, the US Senate Republicans, and, of course, Justin Bieber joining millions across the world in calling for prayer.

Shortly after the blast, a Twitter profile, (@iPrayForBoston), quickly gathered more than 25,000 followers.

Likewise, Facebook users began posting “Pray for Boston” icons, changing their profile and cover images to show support, and offering and calling for prayers on their walls. On Facebook, too, a Pray for Boston page was set up, though its reach, with just under a thousand “likes,” has been far more limited. Some visitors to the page—which mostly features gory news photos and aggressive demands that visitors “like” photos (“Like this or you are completely heartless”) and calls for prayer—complained that the page was a craven attempt to gather followers in a time of tragedy.

That may well be. But it also seems that thousands of prayers, calls for prayer, prayer icons, and so on floating around the social media universe—the active meming of prayer, we might say—during times of crisis are a indicator of something sincerely felt in the digital soul.

Of course, the feeling is relatively fleeting in the “always now” of digital time. By the morning after the bombing, the #PrayForBoston meme had faded as a top trend, replaced by the leaner #Boston hashtag, which mostly tracks news and opinion, with calls for prayer appearing more sporadically. As the sun set on the same day, and the #OneBoston hashtag appeared, we were all apparently meant to be over whatever had prompted so many to call for prayer, focusing our energies on the practical what’s next of the tragedy.

Obviously, we can reasonably conclude, prayer memes shared in times of crisis do something besides expressing traditional religiosity, calling us to God, to regular spiritual practice, or to worship. Rather, in an increasingly secularized America (the Land of the Rising None), praying or calling for prayer in times of tragedy seems to mark a kind of existential angst, sorrow, or confusion for which other words or gestures seem inadequate. Likewise, the impulse to pray holds a space that we may not even believe exists, giving us time to gather our less spiritually distracted wits about us. It is “true” in what it offers more than in what it is.

This is at least something of how one woman I talked with recently put it. An atheist, she wrote in the Nones Beyond the Numbers narrative survey I’m currently conducting,

I only pray in a crisis, out of total desperation. Which is nonsense. Hypocritical. I know this, but I can’t help myself. When my best friend was dying, I couldn’t just ‘wish her well’ or tell her I was ‘thinking about her.’ I prayed, even though I don’t believe in it. Then I started in on all the real work you have to do to cope with personal tragedy.

In a follow-up conversation, she elaborated:

I don’t believe that there’s some higher being who hears my prayers or a flow of cosmic energy that gathers up my positive energy or whatever. I’m a scientist. I know better than that. The whole ‘sharing love and light,’ ‘sending positive energy’ business sets my teeth on edge. And I know that ‘god’ is an idea people made up though human history to explain the unexplainable and find comfort in the face of suffering. That’s what I believe. When I pray, I’m not doubting any of that.

But there are times when my internal experience is just more than thinking intently about how I’m feeling about someone I care about or some difficult situation. I guess when I end up praying, it’s me wanting there to be a higher power, wishing there were, even though I don’t believe there is. So, as a last resort, my mind goes there. I guess you could say that prayer for me is a brief expression of hope in times of extreme fear that ‘I’ll be thinking about you’ just isn’t. I hope it’ll all be okay. I don’t want to face that I don’t really know if it will be. Maybe I want a second when I’m willing to believe there’s some force that can make it all okay if I ask very sincerely. Maybe it’s an evolutionary response. Maybe it’s socially conditioned. Either way, there are times when it’s the only way I can respond.

I have not of course polled everyone who used the #PrayForBoston hashtag, though I do know plenty of people who did and who are fairly conventional in their understanding of prayer. Still, I can’t shake the hunch that for many social media participants—maybe even for most—the prayer meme marks a shared and sharable mix of anxiety and hope of a quality not unlike that described by the woman I interviewed. It has at least as much of a lexical function as a spiritual or emotional one, signaling the presence of the tangled knot of feelings that have long been understood as the motivator for intercessory prayer to a supreme being or power.

No other word in English, so far as I know, marks that register as does the word “prayer.” Marks it, I suppose, and moves on to the next new thing in the digitally-integrated world, rather than calling for the physical, spiritual, and relational action that traditionally completes the practice itself.

We might conclude, then, that the prayer meme has cheapened an ancient, arguably venerable spiritual practice, rendering it a mere gesture of quasi-spiritual self-posturing absent relational or ethical consequence.

Certainly, even among clergy and other religious leaders who have offered frequent, and often very moving, prayers for the victims of the Boston bombing, the first responders, the police, and so on, and who have announced the opening of local spaces for meditation, prayer, and worship on their Facebook pages and Twitter feeds, there’s precious little evidence of relational one-to-one engagement with others in what may or may not constitute social media “communities.”

There are few indications, that is, of the tweeted prayers of others being heard beyond the occasional re-tweet, that the worries stirred by the tragedy have been taken to heart by leaders in ministry, let alone the tweeting and posting masses. If the prayer meme turns out to be the cry of a digital cosmos hungry for spiritual meaning and the human engagement it requires, as I pointed out a couple years back during the Chilean mine rescue, religious leaders are hardly robust models of such engagement in digital spaces.

But if the #PrayForBoston and other tweeted prayer memes highlight the failure of meaningful digital ministry on the part of traditional religious leaders, it nonetheless seems to signal the enduring, if redefined, significance of at least the concept of prayer: the idea of a reaching out, however momentarily, however noncommittally, to an imagined digital cosmos and whatever greater power makes it hum for a blip of connection and solace.

Perhaps, in aggregate, that spiritualized pause in the noosphere is not nothing, mere microblinks of expression coming together to suggest the possibility of genuine encounter, if not with a divinity, with one another. Maybe that is something of the possibility that the notion of prayer, the meme, holds in times of crisis. Perhaps that’s why so many Nones I talk to, who sincerely believe they “know better,” continue to slip into prayer when the reality of disconnectedness and the risk that it cannot be mended makes itself most plain.

In a piece I wrote on the National Day of Prayer in 2010, I argued that what was then the really new news that the population of the religiously unaffiliated had doubled since the early 1990s rendered such a national observance “obsolete.” I opined in the piece that

a government-sponsored National Day of Prayer may not be appropriate or Constitutional, but it fails most because, as a civic and as a spiritual event, it’s about as culturally relevant to the developing mainstream of American believers and non-believers alike as a National Day of Butter Churning.

I was maybe half right there. Prayer itself, it seems, has a continuing cultural relevance and meaning that clearly cannot be so easily dismissed even by the growing population of Nones themselves. For the wide variety of Nones along the believer-unbeliever-StopAskingMeWhatIBelieve spectrum, prayer likewise has deep personal meaning—though many color far outside the lines of what would be understood as prayer within traditional religions. So, I was wrong to assume that the increase in the religiously unaffiliated could in itself be taken as a sign that prayer was no longer important.

But my further point was maybe not so far off in that it may not be the role of government to call for prayer. This, not because it is unconstitutional (which so far opponents have not shown it to be), but because events and human responses to them are effecting digital and closely associated local days of prayer on a more regular basis than we actually might wish. These are not collective expressions of politicized prayer or prayer as it functions in most religions. They are expressions of anxiety and calls for hope in a world in which it is less and less possible to ignore the daily reality of violence in all its odious forms.

So far as I can tell, nothing in our language or in our collective practice, digital or otherwise, holds space for such moments of spiritual pause, however secularized that spirituality might be. If religious leaders see that as spiritually shallow, they might spend less of their time broadcasting their digital prayers and more time attending to the prayers of others in social networking sites as I know many do in local communities. If political leaders see prayer as some sort of civic cement that will unite Americans across their differences, they might call for prayer and pray with other Americans not just on a politically engineered Thursday each May or in the face of grotesque national tragedies like the one that unfolded in Boston this week, but every time a young woman ravaged by rape or an LGBT teen tortured by bullies is shamed into taking her or his own life.

Three years ago I said a national day devoted to prayer was obsolete. Now, after two years of talking with the religiously unaffiliated at prayer, I’d say that prayer, whatever it is coming to mean, is an unrecognized expression of the changing national and international soul—whether we believe in that sort of thing or not.