NPR goes soft on faith again

I’ve kvetched before about the religiosity and faitheism flaunted by Scott Simon of National Public Radio (see here and here), and about the soft-on-faith attitude of NPR in general. They rarely seem to give atheists a good hearing, but there’s always plenty of opportunity for the numinous, as in the brief interview below as well as the weekly lachrymose lucubrations of Krista Tippett & Company. This brief NPR interview from Saturday (click on first screenshot to listen and see a transcript) is described like this:

The words “thoughts and prayers” are often criticized after mass shootings. Scott Simon talks to David French of National Review, who argues prayer can be the most rational and effective response.

First of all, I don’t see anything in French’s response that says that prayer is the “most rational and effective” response to mass shootings. If you can find it, show it to me.

UPDATE: Reader Mary, in comment #16 below, shows that the quote comes from French’s article in the National Review. And it’s even worse than you think: here’s one quote from French:

“There’s a bottom line here: Either you believe that God intervenes in the affairs of men or you don’t. And if you do, then you know that no one and nothing is more powerful than the creator of the universe. That means that while prayer is not the only response to evil, it is both the most rational response and, in all likelihood, the most effective response.”

The bit above is simply how NPR wanted to sell the interview. But even a believer can’t possibly think that the most rational and effective response to a mass shooting is to say a prayer. Well, listen for yourself.

While I found this interview weird, what’s more disturbing is the lack of any similar response from nonbelievers, who have plenty to say about “thoughts and prayers” after tragedies. The trope “our thoughts and prayers are with the families” sounds good, for it’s a kind of virtue flaunting, but unless it’s matched with either direct expression of those thoughts to the people affected, or tangible action to comfort them and prevent further tragedy, they are completely useless. The thoughts are of course no more useful than prayers.  But you’ll wait a long time to hear an atheist discuss the issue on NPR. And if you’re like me, hearing the ubiquitous “our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and friends” is like listening to nails on a blackboard.

To be fair, French does say that T&P are best supplemented with actions, but doesn’t add that they’re useless without actions:

For example, French clearly thinks that prayer by itself has an effect, even if it’s not helping those who died go to Heaven.

Right. Well, you know, I think a lot of people, when they critique thoughts and prayers, don’t really realize what people are praying for. You know, what people are praying for is comfort for those who are grieving, courage for people who are responding. You know, they’re even praying for inspiration in ideas and how to confront this crisis.

So you know, it’s – the prayer life of a Christian is something that’s very, very rich. And prayer saturates their lives. And it’s going to be – not just a – it’s going to be an automatic response to a crisis. And it’s going to be something that is – provides great comfort to a great deal – you know, a great many people. So when you’re targeting prayers, a Christian, for example, would look at that and be, frankly, kind of puzzled by it.

How, exactly, does prayer comfort anyone but the person who prays—unless that person expresses condolences to the grieving?

I won’t belabor the rest of the short interview, which is more emblematic of NPR’s uncritical attitude of religion than of arrant stupidity, but I want to show one more exchange between Simon and French:

SIMON: Jeannie Gaffigan, the comedy writer and producer who has been publicly battling a brain tumor and happens to be a person of faith, this week tweeted, I’m living proof that prayer works. She’s feeling better now. But it also takes enormous effort along with prayer, sometimes a lifetime of struggle and dedication. Do you agree with that?

FRENCH: Oh, absolutely. I believe – you know, there’s a scriptural principle that faith without works is dead. In other words, you should pray and you should act. But I think the main criticism that many of these Twitter activists are offering is that they’re saying, don’t say thoughts and prayers. Say what I want you to say. And in a political environment where there’s sharp polarization and very different ideas about how to respond to a crisis, that’s just never going to happen. And besides, what use is an activist tweet anyway?

First of all, there’s Simon’s uncritical acceptance that prayer becomes more efficacious with practice. Well, it probably becomes easier with practice, but Simon implies that it works better with practice. Does he mean works to reduce tumors, or just to feel better about them? It’s not clear, but I suspect it’s both.

As for French’s Dictum that “faith without works is dead”, yes, faith without works is useless, but there’s an entire set of Christian religions that believe in the principle that faith alone makes a religion live, and brings salvation, and that works aren’t needed for salvation.  This is called justification by faith alone, or sola fide, and is followed by some Protestant sects like the Lutherans. In other words, you can be Hitler, but if at the end of your life you finally accept the salvific power of Jesus, you go to Heaven. (I don’t think I’m exaggerating here.) And sola fide, like French’s own doctrine of “justification by faith and works,” has also been supported by citing Scripture.

Finally, it’s true that, as French notes, an activist tweet is pretty useless—but so are thoughts and prayers.

Reader “Airbag Moments”, however, had a stronger dislike of this program, and not only sent me the link but the following message, and two tweets he sent:

Scott Simon’s choice to cover the story from this angle, to defend prayer in general, and the awful use of prayer by pro-gun politicians in particular, says everything you need to know. I like to call Simon out on Twitter because I know he reads it – and often engages with me. So I Tweeted this example of the original and my fantasy improved version of the story:
Yes, it would be nice to have Simon do a second show with Dawkins.  The thing is, however, that Simon interviewed Dawkins back in May, and took an aggressive and confrontational approach completely unlike his bum-licking of Mr. French. So it goes.


  1. alexandra Moffat
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:22 am | Permalink

    NPR = bah humbug. We need a new public , more honest broadcasting source.
    I wrote them – again – about their faith bias.
    No reply expected.

    (I do admit there are interviewees, authors etc worth listening to offered by NPR).

    • sensorrhea
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

      I dream of an NPR that has the dedication to telling important truths with the passion & drive of someone like John Oliver.

  2. Ken Phelps
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:25 am | Permalink

    “…the prayer life of a Christian is something that’s very, very rich. And prayer saturates their lives.”

    White noise – because thinking is hard.

    • sensorrhea
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      Your quoting of “saturates” reminds me I have a religious friend who practices group prayer outside of the regular services. She told me recently they perform something called a “soaking prayer” when they feel it is needed. This is just a lot of repeating the same request for a long time.

      It’s the “will you take us to Mt. Splashmore” theory of prayer.

      • Ken Phelps
        Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

        Om mani padme hum.
        Om mani padme hum.
        Om mani padme hum.
        Om mani padme hum.
        Om mani padme hum.

        I can’t wait for fundies to start trying to sell me chocolate bars at the airport.

        • busterggi
          Posted November 13, 2017 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

          The Green Lama strikes!

          Damn I’m old.

  3. busterggi
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:34 am | Permalink

    If thoughts and prayers were effective then they wouldn’t be needed.

  4. Jake Sevins
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    The main problem I have with T&P is my worry that people who engage in them think their job is done. In other words, they think this absolves them of actually doing anything.

  5. Sastra
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    The critical reaction to sending “thoughts and prayers” to the victims of the recent mass shootings is specifically fueled by its being perceived as a substitute for gun control. Although we atheists are likely to snark a bit when it’s the response to a natural disaster (“Didn’t God also send the earthquake?”) the public condemnation of prayer which was strong and general enough to jolt its defenders into action was political, not theological.

    These general defenses of prayer-as-therapy though always strike me as a mild form of Little People Argument. Atheists shut up, nobody cares about whether it really works. It “works” if you need it to work and the simple folk of faith feel strengthened. Prayer is both a crutch for the weak and an incredible power and virtue which just blows atheism away. So there.

  6. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:06 am | Permalink

    Oh, for goodness sake. If I suffer, first tell me you feel for me, and you’re going to DO something.
    When we say that actions speak louder than words, the latter includes prayers.

    Now, if later you say you were inspired to DO something specific in part by prayer, okey-dokey, but mentioning prayers first and last is like sitting on your hands.

    If you aren’t engaged with me, your prayers are just a feel-good exercise.

  7. rickflick
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Attempting to give an appropriate response to a serious situation can be an tricky moment.
    I’ve often thought most people advance their T&P simply because they can’t think of anything else to say. They are simply following custom. Like the “bless you” often heard after a public sneeze to break the awkward silence.
    For others, of course, it helps to obviate the need to actually do something constructive about the problem.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Almost no one says “thoughts and prayers” in the other English-speaking countries. Our politicians etc are more likely to say something like, “Our thoughts are with the victims and their families.” Even the religious ones rarely mention prayer because they’re aware that for so many (including me) it’s like it is for Jerry – nails on a blackboard.

      • rickflick
        Posted November 13, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

        We’ve got a lot to catch up with.

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted November 13, 2017 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

        I’m afraid we get an awful lot of “thoughts and prayers” following terrorist outrages or natural disasters in the UK.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted November 13, 2017 at 4:55 pm | Permalink

          Oh dear. I thought you guys were better than that. However, I guess politics is always a bit behind the times with the deference it pays to religion. In fact, it is a bit here too – we just don’t mention it so much.

  8. Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    Two points:

    1) There is a “moving the cheese” element in the French quote that is perhaps worth noting: “don’t really realize what people are praying for” makes it sound like the controversy is over what the prayers are asking for. In other words, the target of prayer is the issue, not its effectiveness.

    2) Isn’t it likely that NPR is pandering to its listeners, many of which are religious? While atheists are likely attracted to much of NPR’s programming, they may still be a minority of its audience. NPR has to maintain its funding.

    • Craw
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 11:32 am | Permalink

      Most Americans are sympathetic to religion, including most NPR listeners — and a lot of donors too.

    • Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      Business model. NPR has a percentage of it’s audience that accommodates religion. They also recognize that putting in pieces that osculate the bum of faith makes for contention that is attractive to some of the listened who probably disagree.

      • Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

        Yes, NPR is not immune from the “report the controversy” syndrome that the mainstream media suffers from. (Ok, perhaps NPR IS mainstream. It’s debatable.)

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

      They also get a chunk of their funding from the government, like PBS. In the past there has been a push to cut their funding since they were seen to be a liberal voice. My impression is that NPR has gone soft on religion as a means to placate the conservatives.

  9. Larry Smith
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:28 am | Permalink

    There was a great gun control segment last week on “Full Frontal” with Samantha Bee, the basic message of which was “let’s pray that someday we will do more than just pray.” The T&P part starts at 2:20, and the surprising gospel song starts at 5:45:

  10. Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:37 am | Permalink

    Speaking of good gun control segments, check out Jordan Klepper’s brilliant “gooder guy with a gun” argument from his “The Opposition” show on Comedy Central:

  11. Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    This reminds me of the Cuban Missile Crisis when I was 12 years old. At elementary school they conducted drills where we’d line up in a hallway in the lowest part of the building, squat down, and shield our eyes against the wall.

    Like prayer, it was a case of “We have to do something. This is something, so we have to do it.”

  12. Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:45 am | Permalink

    The next time NPR asks for money, I will tell them my thoughts and prayers go out to them. That should help keep them on the air for a long time.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:44 pm | Permalink


  13. Curt Nelson
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Hannibal Buress on thoughts and prayers.

  14. Randall Schenck
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:56 am | Permalink

    One thing you won’t hear from an atheist…our thoughts and prayer on you. If you say what you prayed for it won’t happen. Oh wait, that is when you wish for something.

  15. Steve Gerrard
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 11:24 am | Permalink

    “prayer saturates their lives.”

    I call BS. Prayer is maybe 5 minutes a day and half an hour on Sunday, for most Christians that aren’t monks, nuns, or clergy.

    “Thoughts and prayers” is just the customary response to tragedy, one that requires little of either to make.

  16. Mary Hogge
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Link to NRO article where he explicitly states it:

    • Posted November 13, 2017 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      Thank you for this, and you’re right. The money quote:

      There’s a bottom line here: Either you believe that God intervenes in the affairs of men or you don’t. And if you do, then you know that no one and nothing is more powerful than the creator of the universe. That means that while prayer is not the only response to evil, it is both the most rational response and, in all likelihood, the most effective response.

  17. XCellKen
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    There is an old saying that goes like this:

    Prayer is like masturbation.

    It really feels good for you, but does absolutely nothing for the woman in the picture !

  18. netbuoy
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    whether or not it does any good (I am certainly not holding my breath, lol), I always get a response from the NPR ombudsman:

    NOV 13, 2017 | 02:29PM EST
    Elizabeth Jensen replied:
    Thank you for contacting my office. I’ve noted your thoughts for the newsroom.
    Elizabeth Jensen Ombudsman
    NOV 13, 2017 | 11:57AM EST

    Original message:

    I have enjoyed listening to Weekend Edition for decades, but for some years now it seems that NPR is drifting off into some netherworld where Fox News is journalism. The latest irritant was Scott Simon’s interview of David French. Perhaps NPR would like to fund future programming on “thoughts and prayers” as opposed to donations? I thought not.

    Yes, I understand NPR wants to appear “even handed”, but if the cost of being perceived by deluded ideologues is that NPR reportage takes leave of its senses, you can cross my family off your listeners (and funders) lists.

    This is, I think, one of the worst kinds of journalism because it provides a hidden reinforcement for the irrational. Enough! If Mr. Simon wants to cover the concept of thoughts and prayers, than we would expect him to include in his coverage a psychologist who will inform the listeners that this practice helps only one person at best, and that is the person deluding himself.

    I won’t even begin to point out the issues with giving a microphone to French while essentially muzzling those who would note that T&P is not only code for gun nuts, but also the pallid response to the natural world by millions who are “ensorscelled” by “religion” and subscribe to magical thinking.

    • busterggi
      Posted November 13, 2017 at 2:42 pm | Permalink


  19. Posted November 13, 2017 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

    Changing my bands name to Bum-licking of Mr. French.

  20. chris moffatt
    Posted November 13, 2017 at 3:19 pm | Permalink

    Surely if we are to petition doG for a breaking of the chain of causality in response to our requests, shouldn’t we ask before the tragedy, in order to avert it, rather than afterwards when all that can be done is to clean up some of the mess?

    • Posted November 20, 2017 at 4:34 am | Permalink


      Besides what kind of doG is it that requires petitions from its creations to get things done?

  21. Posted November 13, 2017 at 10:36 pm | Permalink

    NPR is a cesspool of smarminess, smugness, virtue-signaling, political correctness, deepity, white guilt, crocodile tears, warm fuzzies, and inanity.

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