Why Is Everyone Praying?

On Monday evening, January 2, millions of Americans were shocked by what they saw happening on a football field in Cincinnati, Ohio. What appeared to be a routine play  turned into a scene many found unimaginable. Damar Hamlin of the of the Buffalo Bills made a tackle, stood up, and almost immediately collapsed. Medical personnel quickly began conducting CPR on Hamlin.

Players, fans, the ESPN broadcast crew, and almost everyone else seemed completely stunned. Both Bills and Bengals players were sobbing. Eventually, an ambulance came onto the field and transported Hamlin to a nearby hospital where he was put on a ventilator, kept unconscious, and listed in critical condition. Both teams returned to their locker rooms and the NFL suspended the game. As news of this terrifying incident spread throughout the country, a frequent exhortation was “pray for Damar Hamlin.”

This led to something quite remarkable the next day. ESPN analyst, Dan Orlovsky, prayed for Hamlin on the air during Tuesday’s edition of “NFL Live.” Orlovsky said, “I heard the Buffalo Bills organization say they believe in prayer, and maybe this is not the right thing to do, but I want to pray for Damar Hamlin right now. I’m going to do it out loud. I’m going to close my eyes and bow my head, and I’m just going to pray for him.”

Many are convinced God is answering the prayers of Orlovsky and a multitude of others. Doctors report that Damar Hamlin is making “remarkable progress” and appears to be headed for a full recovery.

These events reflect a fascinating paradox of American culture. When a prayer is spoken during a high school graduation ceremony, there can be howls of protest. However, when a tragedy occurs, either an individual one such as Hamlin’s cardiac arrest, or a national one like the terrorist attacks on 9/11/01, public prayer becomes not only permissible, but is encouraged. Though more and more people consider themselves “non-religious” (and fewer identify as Christians), Americans still have a lot of religious beliefs and practices.

A recent Pew survey found that 55% of American adults say they pray daily, with another 22% reporting either weekly or monthly prayers. Most of these folks believe that their prayers have at least the potential to somehow benefit a person facing a serious health problem. I think few individuals would pretend that “thinking of Damar Hamlin” would have any impact on his condition. An underlying, often unacknowledged, belief in God motivates even non-religious people to pray.

Another indication of religious belief among people who do not claim to believe in God is the wide-spread, deep concern Americans felt for Hamlin. He is merely one of 340 million people who live in our country. About 8,000 people die every day in the U.S., some of them younger than Hamlin. From the perspective of scientific naturalism, the philosophical assumption of most atheists, there is nothing more natural than death. Some even claim that because of overpopulation, any human death is a positive thing. It is Christianity and Judaism that celebrate the dignity of every individual and view each human life as sacred. The great concern for Hamlin’s well-being reflects religious belief by non-religious people.

The events of the past few weeks are likely a sign, not of religious revival, but of religious confusion. The Apostle Paul’s description of humanity in Romans 1:21 fits many today: “For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God.” Only when we begin to trust and honor the true God—the triune God revealed in Jesus Christ—will our religious confusion end.
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Dan Erickson