Well, it probably had to happen. The Church of England has incurred wrath and warmth in variable measure over the weekend, after reporting news of Professor Richard Dawkins' recent stroke. It posted a link to an Independent article for its 58,456 Twitter followers with the text 'Prayers for Prof Dawkins and his family'.
While it was rapidly retweeted (at the time of writing by 1,778 people) and liked (by 1,362), not everyone was quite as supportive. The CofE's motivation was treated with suspicion by some, with cinema worker and 'passionate Londoner' Rob Lugg reacting: 'This is EPIC trolling from the @c_of_e. 😂😂😂'
Actor and 'all round clever clogs' Ian Hayles was similarly unimpressed, tweeting: 'disgusting use of a man's illness to score a childish point'. Still others questioned why Dawkins had been 'singled out' for prayer, and dismissed the efficacy of prayer as a response to ill health.
The Church of England, for its part, was swift to explain itself via a blog post by Communications Director Rev Arun Arora on the organisation's Tumblr page. He wrote: 'The tweet was a prayer. Nothing controversial in that,' before continuing that 'Many recognised the tweet for what it was, a genuine tweet offering prayer for a public person who was unwell.'
'Some of the twitter reaction assumed that Christians only pray for other Christians,' Arora furthered. 'In fact Christians pray for all kinds of people.' Arora also paid tribute to Dawkins' support of the Church of England surrounding the banned Lord's Prayer advert that had been planned to play out in cinemas prior to the latest movie in the Star Wars franchise. 'Any suggestion that Christians do anything other than hate Professor Dawkins,' he explained, 'utterly confuses those who think in binary terms.'
Once unsettled, however, Twitterati can be difficult to quell. New Antiquarian and 'killjoy' Sjoerd Levelt calculated that 'The only two earlier individual prayer tweets from @c_of_e to late 2013, by the way, were each for deceased people. #PrayForDawkins', while Gazzz1987 asked 'Should you pray for people even if it would insult them?'
‘Prayer shaming’, as this exemplifies, is a phrase coined in December 2015, following the terrorist shooting at a social services centre in San Bernardino, California. As had become de rigueur, a #PrayForSanBernardino hashtag had gained momentum on Twitter shortly after the incident became public knowledge. Some of the higher profile users of this hashtag were criticised for preferring to talk of prayer rather than taking more tangible action.
It also gave rise to some heated argument centring on ‘where is God in this suffering?’, a common objection to organised religion which can prove difficult for inexperienced apologists to counter. A pertinent example was a tweet from George Zornik, the Washington editor of liberal-leaning magazine The Nation, America’s longest running journal. A selective screengrab from Tweetdeck illustrated the difference in response from Democrats and Republicans, including then-2016 presidential candidates.
Democrat Hillary Clinton had used Twitter to criticise gun controls – including the phrase ‘we must take action’ – while Republican George Pataki had tweeted ‘Praying for the victims and first responders in #SanBernardino’. It appears that Zornick was portraying a false dichotomy
where Democrats 'do things' but Republicans 'just pray'. The screen grab comparison was authentic – it had not been Photoshopped – but was very selective in its scope.
Where do you stand on the #PrayForDawkins debacle? And does a reaction like this deter you from adding prayers to social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook? Let us know!