Richard Dawkins pulled out of a speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand last week after suffering a minor stroke. In response, the Church of England put out the following tweet:
Prayers for Prof Dawkins and his family https://t.co/KxBBkBrECk
— Church of England (@c_of_e) February 12, 2016
Pretty innocuous stuff. Nonetheless, it led to a twitterstorm and the inevitable media follow-up pieces. The claim is that the CofE were trolling Dr Dawkins, knowing as they do his tendency to deny the existence of the Almighty and his less than benign view of all things religious. You can read of it in the Guardian, Daily Mail and Independent amongst others. You can also listen to John Humphries sounding bemused that the church might pray for an Atheist on the Today Programme (underlining the point I made re Dan Walker here). As you can imagine, the Church of England have denied any malicious intent.
Richard Dawkins hasn’t yet passed any comment but one is inclined to believe that is because he is still in recovery and has bigger things to worry about than calling people out on praying to imaginary deities on his behalf (in his view). And it would be crass to try to presume that he would either appreciate the sentiment despite his beliefs or that he would rage against it because of them. We, frankly, have no real way of knowing at the moment. I am sure he will let us know one way or the other in due course.
The question is whether the Church of England were trying to troll an unwell man? Rather than displaying the Christian characteristics of care and compassion, did the CofE spy an opportunity to annoy and upset a man whom many view as an enemy of the church? Were the church ignoring Jesus’ commands to love their enemies?
In short, I think the answer to those questions was probably not. I am inclined to believe the church were not intending to upset or irritate. In fact, they were in a rather no-win position on this. Offering to pray is interpreted as trolling a sick man whilst a failure to pray would be viewed as quite unChristian. Surely they could have simply sent their “best wishes”, I hear you cry? Indeed they could have done that but it would almost certainly lead to the shrill response that the church either don’t believe prayer works or aren’t prepared to pray for a supposed opponent. Even saying nothing would have garnered some comment. It seems unlikely the church wouldn’t have come under fire regardless of what they had done.
That aside, I am quite sure the church were not considering this as some sort of political statement. The desire to pray is rather inherent to the life of the Christian and is a manifestation of their belief in God. Indeed, they pray because they believe God can and does intervene in the affairs of man. Regardless of Dawkins’ own particular view on God and prayer, the intended sentiment is clearly a good one because the CofE do believe in God and that their prayers will be heard. In their view, they are doing something valuable and helpful. From an Atheistic point of view, the worst this can do is nothing. But wherever you stand on issues of God’s existence and the value of prayer, praying is surely a manifest expression of care and concern from those who do believe it works.
It is also worth asking whether the Church of England view Richard Dawkins as an enemy anyway. They have certainly never said that. Even if they do view him in this way, Jesus was very clear how the Christian ought to treat their enemies (cf. Matthew 5:43-47). Nor is it likely they are singling out Dr Dawkins because he is an Atheist. The Church of England pray for all sorts of people, in all sorts of situations, whether Christian, Atheist or otherwise. It seems odd to therefore presume the church are seeking to troll him when they offer prayer for all sorts of people all of the time.
I would really like to believe, despite the twitterstorm and rage on his behalf, that Dr Dawkins will take the sentiment in the spirit it was intended. It was simply a desire to do what they could, in a way they believe was meaningful, to aid his recovery. He may not believe the prayer will achieve anything but I hope he can spot a well-meaning sentiment when he sees one.