It may be the 21st century, but you wouldn't know it from stories like this:
Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue stepped up to a podium outside the state Capitol on Tuesday and led a solemn crowd of several hundred people in a prayer for rain on his drought-stricken state.
"We've come together here simply for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm," Perdue said after a choir provided a hymn.
These past few months, the American South has been suffering from its most severe drought in decades. So far this year, northern Georgia has received half the amount of rain it would usually have gotten by this point. Lake Lanier, Atlanta's main reservoir, may run dry in as little as three months if the rains don't come. Undoubtedly, this is a serious crisis - which makes it all the more ridiculous and embarrassing that the governor of an entire state is engaging in a superstitious magical ritual which he hopes will change the mind of his omniscient, infinitely intelligent god.
The logic behind intercessory prayer makes no sense. Does Gov. Perdue suppose that Georgians' prayers will bring to God's attention a need of which he was not previously aware? Is God forgetful, so that he needs to be reminded to send rain each year? Or did God knowingly cause the drought for reasons of his own - and if so, what arrogance it would be for a Christian to assume that they know better than God what God should do and that they can persuade him to alter his plan!
Worst of all, it seems clear that this event made no effort to be inclusive, but instead employed the full machinery of the state to promote a Protestant Christian belief system in an atmosphere resembling a revival sermon:
A church choir belted out "What a Mighty God We Serve" and "Amazing Grace" as a keyboardist swayed to the rhythm. While preachers spoke, worshippers chanted "amen," and some stood with eyes closed and arms outstretched.
...The hourlong event was billed as an interfaith ceremony but only three Protestant ministers joined Perdue, who is a Baptist, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.
Thankfully, this egregious violation of separation of church and state did not go entirely unchallenged. The Atlanta Freethought Society was in attendance to protest, with some welcome words of reason, and most of the media articles about this event that I've seen at least noted their presence. Their press release put it best:
This is embarrassingly foolish, a great mistake, a waste of taxpayer money, and unconstitutional on its face.
Defenders of the faith may say that the state is in crisis, human efforts can't help bring rain, and there can't be any harm in praying, so why not try it? But if that were the case - if this truly was a desperate last resort - then we should expect the governor to try everything that might help. Why not sacrifice some livestock? Perform a rain dance? Bow towards Mecca? It can't hurt, right? But Gov. Perdue hasn't tried any of these things. Doubtless, that's because the real purpose of this event isn't to seriously petition God for rain; it's to put on an ostentatious show of public piety for his constituents. If it were otherwise, he could simply have encouraged people to pray at home - which would have been bad enough, but less offensive than this farce.
If Lake Lanier runs dry, the consequences would be catastrophic. On the other hand, if the rain returns in time to avert disaster - which is not unlikely, considering that rain is statistically inevitable given enough time - we can be sure that Gov. Perdue and his religious cronies will claim that their prayers saved the day. But even in the worst-case scenarios imaginable, it's a certainty that no one will call prayer a failure or think to blame God. In this scenario, as in others, religion has positioned itself in a no-lose situation. A more rational government, meanwhile, would not waste time imploring the gods for help, and would instead have used the crisis as a springboard for setting up water-conservation measures (such as reuse of graywater), in the hope of averting a similar disaster in the future. As Mark Twain once said, "It is better to read the weather forecast before we pray for rain."