Opinion

What is ‘slacktivism?’

What is ‘slacktivism?’

It’s the art of feeling really good about doing practically nothing worthwhile

Last month saw a large number of Facebook’s users swap their profile pictures on the social networking site for images of cartoons from their childhood. This was part of a well-intentioned, but ultimately superficial campaign to reduce child abuse by drawing attention to the issue.

So effective was it, I was prompted to comment:

I was about to punch a child, but then I saw Fred Flintstone and I reconsidered.

The campaign had the effect of making people feel like they were contributing (whilst allowing them to compete on who knew the coolest/most obscure cartoon character) without their actually having to make any effort whatsoever: slacktivism at its finest.

But the Facebook campaign utterly pales in comparison to the ultimate in slacktivist action. Imagine, if you will, hundreds of thousands of people sitting at home, feeling smugly satisfied that they’re contributing to the relieving of the world’s problems whilst in reality they’re accomplishing nothing.

Imagine that these people gather together to bask in the warm glow of shared altruism, whilst living without any form of altruistic action. Imagine that these people see terrible things around the world, and believe that they can contribute to fixing these things without doing anything at all.

You don’t have to stretch your imagination very far. Prayer is all these things and less. Prayer manages to instill a sense of accomplishment when nothing valid has been achieved by relieving the faithful of any burden of duty.

The effects of this can vary from simple laziness to fatal neglect. In February 2010, a couple in Oregon were jailed for criminally negligent homicide after their son died of a simple and easily treatable infection. The parents were members of the Followers of Christ Church, who preferred prayer to medicine and acted on their conviction, holding prayer vigils over their dying son.

Another case from early 2008 involved an eleven-year-old girl in Wisconsin whose parents ignored the symptoms of diabetes and chose instead to – you guessed it – pray for her recovery . When the girl died of such easily curable ailments, the Police Chief commented:

They believed up to the time she stopped breathing she was going to get better. They just thought it was a spiritual attack. They believed if they prayed enough she would get through it.

Needless to say, prayer is an absurd and futile occupation – simply people making requests to empty rooms. Money wasted on medical studies of intercessory prayer have discovered that prayer has no positive effect on the world.

In fact, in some cases prayer makes things worse. This came to light in a 2006 a study that involved 1,802 people who underwent coronary bypass surgery at six different hospitals from Oklahoma City to Boston. The cost was $2.4 million, paid by the John Templeton Foundation and the Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation of Memphis.

Herbert Benson led the study to determine if prayers by congregations who did not know heart bypass patients would reduce the complications of surgery. They didn't. In fact, some prayed-for patients fared worse than those who did not receive prayers. (Staff file photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

Herbert Benson led the study to determine if prayers by congregations who did not know heart bypass patients would reduce the complications of surgery. They didn’t. In fact, some prayed-for patients fared worse than those who did not receive prayers. (Staff file photo Jon Chase/Harvard News Office)

The study found an excess of complications in patients who knew all those people were praying for them. The researchers admited they had “no clear explanation” for this.

One theory is that those who knew so many outsiders were praying for them felt a stressful anxiety to do well.

Said Charles Bethea, a cardiologist at Integris Baptist Medical Center, who was part of the research group in Oklahoma City.

It might have made them uncertain, wondering, Am I so sick they had to call in their prayer team?

Jeffrey Dusek, an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School and alsoan  associate research director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute, noted:

We found increased amounts of adrenalin, a sign of stress, in the blood of patients who knew strangers were praying for them.

It’s possible that we inadvertently raised the stress levels of these people.

Prayer too has a significant problem for the theologically inclined. It is said by way of explanation when bad things happen to good people that “God has a plan”; some mysterious plan that will make everything work out well in the long run.

Late great comedian George Carlin explained how pompous prayer looks in relation to the Divine Plan:

Suppose the thing you want isn’t in God’s Divine Plan. What do you want him to do? Change His Plan? Just for you? Doesn’t that seem a little arrogant? It’s the Divine Plan! What’s the use of being God if every run-down shmuck with a two-dollar prayer book can come along and fuck up your plan?

Another important question we can ask is “Why won’t God heal amputees?” I’m sure we’ve all heard the anecdotal evidence from a believer who just knows prayer works because they once prayed over some trivial matter and it came true! Sam Harris sets a challenge to the faithful: Gather the legions, have them pray in unison over the lost leg of a war victim, and see if God grows the leg back.

Of course, we know it couldn’t happen, because there’s no recipient of the prayers and the laws of physics are indifferent to lost legs or their recovery.

Being grateful for prayer during or after a successful medical recovery is another twisted piece of thinking. By all means be grateful to friends and family for their keeping you in their thoughts if it comforts you, but when medical staff have poured genuine bravery, skill and effort into you and the thanks go to God, something is badly awry.

Philosopher Daniel Dennett authored a piece called Thank Goodness after he was rushed to hospital. In it he makes note of all those whose scientific and medical abilities went into the process of saving his life. He notes that he can be directly grateful to those whose goodness benefited him, and that he can endeavour to be good and kind to others. Contrarily, gratefulness to God is useless even if you’re a believer – it won’t make a jot of difference to him whether you’re thanking him or not.

How could a mere human ever hope to repay the creator of the universe? Especially, notes Dennett drolly, after he sacrificed his son for us. Prayer, it seems, is the pinnacle of intellectual laziness. It is feeling accomplished whilst accomplishing only a feeling.

Someone said:

Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.

Give a man religion and he will die praying for a fish.

• This edited op-ed first appeared on the Freethinker site on December 7, 2012.

7 responses to “What is ‘slacktivism?’”

  1. L.Long says:

    LOL!!! The last two lines are awesome!!! Wish I thought of it.
    I always tell xtians that if they want me to believe Pray for (insert something real and important) and when it happens I’ll see them in church. I haven’t gone to church yet.
    What is worse is the absolute hypocrisy of the holey ones when their idiot book states ….ASK of it in my name and it WILL BE granted….
    Then when you as for them to pray for a new leg they claim… You can’t test gawd!!! Which means that they claim their jesus is a phucking liar and con-man!!!!!

  2. TrickyDicky says:

    One pair of hands at work will achieve more than a thousand pairs clasped in prayer.

  3. Broga says:

    Prayer is asking an omniscient God to change his mind. (Excellent article.)

  4. jay says:

    Teach a man to fish and he’ll sit around drinking beer all day…

  5. John says:

    Give a man a fire and he’ll be warm for a day.

    Set a man on fire and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life!

  6. […] A perfect example of Peter Brietbart’s “Slacktivism”. […]

  7. georgina says:

    Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach a man to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.

    Teach him to make fishing rods and he will feed the village.