The quick rise and fall of “Pray for Boston” on social media

One early response to the Boston bombings on social media, “Pray for Boston,” quickly increased and then quickly faded. Here is one reaction and possible explanation:

It was jarring. There was the weirdness of seeing so many references to the divine in spaces normally reserved for vacation photos and article links and quips about the news. It was tempting to think that all the social-media-fueled “prayers for Boston” somehow degraded the idea of prayer. As one Facebook commenter wrote on the Pray for Boston page: “Do you want me to DEFINE prayer? A solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship. Prayer is solemn. Not a ‘like’ on facebook.”

It was also strange to see so many non-religious friends talking about prayer. The majority of my Facebook friends who wrote about praying aren’t especially observant. Maybe they go to church or synagogue on holidays, but not regularly—and they certainly don’t post about prayer under normal circumstances…

But I’m not sure that’s really what’s going on here. I don’t think the outpouring of post-Boston social-media prayer was fueled by a bunch of people who, in the face of tragedy, are suddenly eager to seek God. As Elizabeth Drescher writes in a well-done piece at Religion Dispatches, it didn’t take long for the “pray for Boston” meme to die; it was soon replaced by other, more practical sentiments. I noticed that, too. Here it is in graph form—check out how quickly the phrase “pray for Boston” surged on Twitter on Monday, and then how quickly it fell…

Drescher believes #PrayforBoston rose and fell so quickly because the prayers were never really about religion in the first place. They were more reflections of temporary anxiety and sadness than a lasting call to pursue belief:

I’ll throw out two related ideas:

1. Perhaps expressing prayer for victims of tragedy is an updated feature of civil religion in the United States. After tragic events, particularly deaths, it is common for politicians, media figures, and others to say something like “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims.” This is a shorthand for saying we care about the victims and are hoping for the best for them. Invoking prayer is a generic idea (such phrases are not explicitly about praying to “the Christian God” or Jesus) and works pretty well in a society where 80-90% still believe in God or a higher power. In other words, it is like saying “God bless America” at the end of major political speeches – it is a reference to religion but runs little risk of offending people and taps into some transcendent ideas about ourselves and the United States.

2. It is relatively rare to see sustained expressions of religious faith on social media. While most Americans still have some sort of religious or spiritual belief, social media tends to frown on such expressions. Perhaps this is related to the idea of Moral Therapeutic Deism as found and defined by sociologist Christian Smith – what may work religiously for you is fine as long as you don’t impose your values on me and “force” me to see this on my Facebook or Twitter feed may simply be too much. At the same time, just the fact that this social media meme even started at all indicates some kind of religious background of the users.

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