Do You Accept Prayer from Others? July 26, 2008

Do You Accept Prayer from Others?

An anecdote and question from reader Steven:

Yesterday my daughter fell down some stairs and sustained a mild concussion (she’s OK, according to the doctor at the hospital where she received the best of care.)

My co-workers were completely supportive when I had to leave to deal with this accident but my team lead who is a devout born-again Christian sent me an e-mail invoking God for protection and healing. His second e-mail, once we knew my daughter was OK, praised God for this happy outcome.

I was touched by the sentiment and the genuine sincerity and thanked him for it, but in my reply I praised the paramedics, doctors, and nurses.

The question I have is, as an atheist do you wince a bit when a theist starts up the prayer wheel or simply accept this as a sincere attempt to help?

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  • SarahH

    I don’t mind – sometimes I’ll even thank them, because what they’re really saying (IMO) is “I feel for you and even though I can’t do anything to make things get better, I really hope they will.”

    For awhile after I outed myself as an atheist, my mom would ask me to pray for people, without realizing she was doing it. I reminded her that “I don’t do that anymore” and she apologized – it’s just an automatic thing for lots of people, like saying “Bless you” after a sneeze.

    If I want to express a similar sentiment, I usually say something like, “I’ll be thinking of you” or “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” The latter is tricky though, because some people will then ask you to keep them (or their loved one) in your prayers, which creates weird tension and/or dishonesty.

  • Sure, sometimes I wince when my mom says it to me.

    The only time I get genuinely annoyed is when she tells me that I should “pray about it”, as a solution to my problems.

    I have no problem with others praying for me. I know that they just mean the best. And I also know that a lot of religious people don’t even consider the idea that there could be atheists in their midst who might feel uncomfortable with receiving prayers.

    Just thank them. Because they mean well. No use ruffling anyone’s feathers over something so small.

  • Allytude

    Well, they mean well.. so no harm done…

  • TheDeadEye

    It would be pretty hard to not accept a prayer without coming off as an ass. I usually nod and say, “Thanks.” I don’t make any attempt to encourage it any further, but I am sincere in accepting what amounts to, “I’ll keep you in my thoughts.”

    simply accept this as a sincere attempt to help?

    Why would I do that? If they want to help, they ought to actually *do* something. Thinking about helping = not helping.

  • Maekern

    I do perhaps wince a bit when I hear of someone thanking god and completely ignoring, say, paramedics. In the more general case however I have no problem with someone praying for me. I don’t think it does any harm, and it may make the person doing the praying feel better. As the saying goes, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

  • Bo

    I do mind, for reasons very similar to what Dennett outlined in his (best) essay, “Thank Goodness!”:

  • Maekern

    Why would I do that? If they want to help, they ought to actually *do* something. Thinking about helping = not helping.

    It has been my experience in my life that Just Giving A Damn is not valueless. It’s not the same as actively doing something for someone, but it’s not nothing. In many contexts, just expressing that one cares is all one can do.

  • I smile and say “thanks for your concern; it is meaningful to me!”. 🙂

  • As a Christian myself, I’d say that if someone says they’re going to pray for you then they also better be ready to physically do something to help.

    It’s like this: If I’m going to oppose abortion then I’d better be willing to adopt some babies instead of bombing a clinic and praying for all those “sinners”.

    Know what I mean?

    I think Christians ought to be more sensitive to whom they’re saying things like, “I’ll pray for you.” If I knew someone was an atheist and their kid ended up in the hospital, I’d surely pray for the kid, but I probably wouldn’t say it to the parent. I would more likely ask them if I could bring them a meal or take their dogs out while they’re at the hospital. Or whatever.

    So so whatever your own convictions lead you to do, but don’t feel the need to make the situation awkward. If your goal is to make an atheist a Christian, then making them feel awkward probably isn’t helping.

  • MathMike

    My response is often just what you did. Thank them for thinking of me, but if they start to praise their deity for the end result, I will make sure to heap equal or greater praise on the people who actually did the work. I don’t get give it any attitude. I find it more effective to praise doctors and the like with the same sort of reverent awe that they have just given their deity.

  • Unspeakably Violent Jane

    It’s just their method of hopeful wishing. I don’t mind that nearly as much as some joker thanking God for a meal in the presence of the person that slaved away to prepare it. Now THAT pisses me off.

  • I guess it depends on what they are praying about. My in-laws recently told us that their entire church is praying for us to get rid of our “anger and hatred” and become Christians. When someone tells me they are praying for me in this way, I think it is very condescending and bigoted.

    If someone tells me they’re praying for a physical problem, it doesn’t bother me as much. I wish I had more Christians like Steve around me who believe they should do something as well as pray. It definitely wouldn’t bother me if people told me they were praying and they actually did something to help.

  • If it’s from someone at work or from an acquaintance, I’ll smile and nod and thank them. I take the comment at the superficial level at which it was probably meant: someone wishing me well.

    But if this is coming from someone with whom I care about the authenticity of the relationship, I’ll tell them why this bothers me. I do NOT want anyone praying for me. In my experience, someone praying for me comes from an attitude of pity, not compassion. I do not want pity. I don’t believe there is anything fundamentally wrong with me (i.e., original sin) and I don’t need to be fixed. There are times I could use some compassion (=willing to suffer with).

    If someone tells me they are going to pray for me and I care about having an authentic, honest relationship with that person, I’ll explain why I find this offensive. There is a difference between pity and compassion.

  • Well, it depends. Whenever possible, I say something along the lines of: “Thanks, but if you really want to help, why don’t you do [insert usefull activity here]”

    When it’s not, I just say “Uhhh… thanks I guess.”

  • Me here?

    something alike Steven himself.

    I don’t mind knowing people wishes good things for me, and that they recognize their inability to do something else.

    Indeed when I feel I’d like some moral support I ask “wish me luck”, not “pray for me”. And even if we all know luck can’t be changed by good wishes, it gives people something to do and you can feel the support. And maybe that’s enough sometimes to change the odds in some stuff where you still have some influence. I’m a psychologist, anyway. So feeling well, visualizing good outcomes, having a social support network, all are stuff that I know that truly matter.

  • Justin jm

    I can’t remember if I’ve been told I would be prayed for, but my response would be along the lines of, “Save your prayers, plant a tree instead.”

  • I just say that while I don’t believe in prayer, the sentiment is appreciated.

  • I don’t mind. It does not hurt. Of course, we all know it does not help either. My basic approach is that I do not try to control what others feel a need to do. I draw the line at the whole laying on of hands. I’ve actually had people try to do that to me when I’ve had a bad headache.

    I think the “I’ll pray for you” is an automatic response from some people. It is their way of saying that they care and want to help.

  • Reagan Hawkins

    I agree with SarahH. I don’t get mad if it a genuine expression of love – and for many theists, it is. “You’re in my prayers” = “I’m thinking of you”

    It usually elicits a “thank you” from me. Most, if not all of my friends know about my atheism so I think it’s just an automatic. My response to hearing the news about another’s misfortune is usually “Your and your family are in my thoughts”.

    We’ll make no friends by trashing another’s beliefs at a time of sadness or worry.

  • Jeff Satterley

    I don’t really mind when someone says “I’ll pray for you,” or something similar. The mention of God and prayer seems to be an ingrained response for most. Many people probably mean what some of you have already mentioned: that I wish there was something I could do, and that I will be thinking about you.

    However, what bothers me a bit more is when someone takes credit away from those who are actually responsible for a good outcome (such as the doctors, nurses and paramedics in Steven’s situation) and give it to God. In these cases, I tend to echo the sentiments that Daniel Dennett writes about in his short essay “Thank Goodness.” Those people did the work as mortal, imperfect people. They did the best they could, and deserve the thanks. God did not do his best work, since a bad situation happened. He could have stopped the whole situation from happening in the first place. Therefore, he made a half-assed effort at best, not worthy of praise, in my mind. Again, I don’t think most religious people think about it in that way, but it still irks me a bit, because those people are thinking about the logical consequences of what they say.

    I usually do the exact thing that you do: praise the people who are actually responsible for the good fortune, and echo the same sentiments without mention of God, prayer or blessings. Although most don’t think about what they’re saying, a lot of them do seem to realize my omission, and I think it does get them to at least think about the words they choose.

  • Erp

    I would say wince slightly but also take it in the spirit intended (and the intentions will vary). When my brother killed himself a couple who are friends of the family wrote my parents to say they had had a mass said for him. In such a situation there is little one can do except try to give words of comfort unless one is very close to the family. I took it in the spirit intended which was they were doing the best they could do to comfort us (I doubt they knew that all my family except my mother, who is liberal christian, were atheistic) and probably to comfort themselves (they knew my brother). I’m not quite sure how my father responded.

    Human life requires a certain amount of rituals to provide comfort and closure. The thank-you’s and your welcome’s, the I’m thinking of you (praying for you), the being born, being married, being buried. In a diverse culture there is a delicate dance among what the various parties are willing to give and receive at such times. So I’ll go to ceremonies (religious or non-religious) that friends want and show respect but in turn expect them at my ceremonies to show respect. One advantage of a religion is that it provides organized rituals from which willing participants can take comfort .

  • Old Geezer

    I recently had very serious heart surgery. On my second day in ICU, with my atheist wife and atheist son by my side, the hospital chaplain came in and inquired as to my recovery. We chatted pleasantly for a while and then he suggested we all join together in prayer. I stopped him and simply said that we did not share his belief in the power of prayer. To his credit, he stopped and went back to simple social discourse. As he was getting ready to leave, I thanked him for stopping by. He walked out positively troubled, not by my refusal to pray, but why I should appreciate his visit.

    I am not troubled by his profession or the practice of it amongst those who feel they need his help. I would, however, be upset if he were a proctologist who felt he needed to practice on anyone whom he had just met.

  • Ryles Malone

    Like it’s been said, I also appreciate it when people pray for me. I also count it as good thoughts. And there is certainly something to be said about positive thinking and positive attitude and energy and all that.

    Thankfully, I’ll add, is that people don’t suggest that I pray about it. As an ex Christian, I know that it’s easy to say as an act of evangelism perhaps, but that really pisses me off.

  • Steven

    Thanks everyone for your excellent comments.

    It sounds like many folks would do what I did – thank the person for their good wishes and then thank the agents who are really responsible for the positive outcome (paramedics, doctors, and nurses).

    I’ve had abundant proof in my own life that God isn’t “watching over me” (or if he is, I’m not his favourite person). I’ve also had abundant proof that other people (family, friends, professionals) are the ones who really help me when I need them.

    God wasn’t there to catch my daughter or prevent her fall in the first place – but hard-working, caring people with advanced medical technology were there for her. Thanks to them, and to chance I suppose, my daughter is fine.

  • ubi dubius

    When somebody prays for me or my family to get well, get a job, etc., I take it as good wishes. I’m glad that they care enough to express that they care. I will say things along the lines of “good luck”, “I hope it goes well”, or “I’m thinking of you”.

    When someone says they will pray that I’ll accept jesus, become a (better) Christian, I’ll respond with, “and I’ll sacrifice a goat just for you.”

  • Sometimes the phrase “I will pray for you” seems to me as some christian politeness. Though I am a christian myself, it is not easy to “accept” these prayers, since – I think – praying is a very intimate thing, and it should not become automatic.

  • Josh J

    I agree with Jeff Satterly. I had a really close friend who got testicular cancer (at age 23, no less). Went through many months of grueling chemotherapy (try watching a friend who had all the energy in the world suddenly be so tired and sick that he didn’t even want to walk).

    When he was finally cleared (and he’s been cancer-free for 6 years now) his wife’s church stated “When Tom got sick, we prayed and prayed and, through the graces of God, he got better.” I feel that that completely undermines the pain and torment he went through with the chemotherapy. But me, I feel fairly certain that the doctors in charge of his treatment had something to do with him getting better.

    On the subject of “pray for someone” being an automatic, it’s definitely true, sometimes in interesting ways. My wife (who is weakly religious), got some bad news about her grandmother, she said to me “Well, I know you’re not religious, so I won’t ask you to keep her in your thoughts and prayers, because you don’t pray.”

    My response: “No, but I do *think*”

    A simple “keep her in your thoughts” would have sufficed, of course, but she couldn’t seem to separate “and prayers” from the rest of the phrase, instead negating the entire thing instead of just removing that bit. I found it amusing 🙂

  • Caroline

    I know I’ve told people “I’ll pray for you. In a non-religious sense.” or “I’ll think of you.” Meaning, for example, if they were sick I’d think about them and think about whatever doctors are helping and hope for a good outcome. Not exactly praying to a certain person. Just crossing my fingers for them to get better. You can’t really change the outcome no matter how many prayers or wishes. So it’s just holding your breath for what happens and rooting for the good outcome.

    Like others have said, I’d be offended if they were praying for something meaningless like for me to believe in God. But praying for something good to happen can be okay.

  • Miko

    Depends on the offensiveness in the statement (which I mean in an objective sense and not in terms of the level of offense intended by the speaker). In our example here, I agree that redirecting praise back to where in belongs (medical staff) is appropriate. And if anyone ever has the gall to suggest something along the lines of “God has a plan for us and never gives us more than we can handle” chances are they’ll get a follow-up question about the children under the age of 6 who die of starvation on average once every seven seconds.

  • Daktar

    I’d thank them. Unless they’re really obviously trying to push their religion on you in a time of difficulty, they’re probably being sincere and compassionate. Examples:

    “Oh, I’m really sorry for your problems. I’ll pray to God to see that everything turns out okay.” Sounds pretty sincere to me.

    “So sorry. You know, joining [insert sect here] would really help you with your problems.” A contemptible attempt to push their faith on you.

    If I got the first response, however, I’d definitely express my admiration for the doctors, nurses etc. I’d be pretty pissed if I were a lifesaver and all the credit went to a fictional character.

  • Ryan Lanham

    What would a Christian do when a Muslim says they will pray for them…or a Buddhist? Vice versa?

  • Maria

    The only time I mind is when it’s send in a condescending way, i.e. “I’ll pray for you to covert to my religion”, etc. Otherwise, I don’t mind-they’re thinking good thoughts about me and focusing on my well-being-how can I get mad about that? If there is no higher power, they’re thinking good thoughts about me and that’s good, if there is, who knows, it might pick up on it. I baseically take as them meditating for my well-being. However, when someone prays for like a medical thing and credits a higher power but not the people who actually helped, I make sure to mention to them the people who helped. I do think it’s silly when people thank god and not the people involved.

  • as an atheist do you wince a bit when a theist starts up the prayer wheel

    A bit? A bit! It makes me hopping mad.

    It’s a blanket dismissal at the very least and a deliberate insult at the worst. It all comes down to what prayer is. I believe that prayer is a form of meditation and self evaluation, a way to assess the problems of the days and seek out solutions. Having someone offer to pray for me is the same as them calling me an irritating problem, except it’s not as honest.

    It gets worse when you consider that many Christians believe that prayer is a form of communication with a supernatural being who intercedes in reality on the petitioner’s behalf. Am I considered such a problem that I need to be fixed by a divine agent?

    Referring to a third party or external event, I’d prefer they not waste their time praying and actually do something. If they pray for guidance (meditation) then that’s fine if it allows them to get the required focus to act or helps them to act more efficiently.

  • Rae

    I use to wince when I first came out as an atheist, but now I accept it as something sincere, especially if people don’t know I’m an atheist. I admire your response praising the doctors. You aren’t going to change anyone’s mind rejected their kindness.
    I am an atheist, can’t help it, but I respect my friends who aren’t. When my Christian friends have been in crisis I have held their hands while they prayed, they knew I didn’t believe but I did it because it made them feel better. This may sound crazy but in my community of friends caring and helping someone deal with a crisis in a way that works for him or her prevails over our having to agree about it. I wouldn’t pray with them or accept Christ to make them feel better but if they asked me to jump up and down or shake a chicken bone and do a chant, I would do it.

  • Darryl

    My son in law is a Muslim. He knows that I’m an atheist. Recently he has been worried over a problem that I will not go into but that has been weighing heavily on him. I spoke with him recently and in a moment of fatherly concern, knowing his worry, I promised him that I would pray to Allah about this matter. I assured him that I would do this. I think it raised his spirits somewhat.

    So, I went to the internet, and found an instructional video on how to pray to Allah, including the ritual washings before prayer. And, I did it. I did it, not because I believe in it, but because I said I would. I love my son in law, and it comforted him. Life is crazy.

  • Reynvaan

    I don’t mind one bit if somebody wants to pray privately for or about me to whatever god(s) the believe in, but one experience I had was just a bit shocking and off-putting.

    About a year after leaving Christianity, I went to a friend’s Pentecostal church group for college students (to hear a “controversial” guest speaker they had that night). During the worship songs at the beginning of the meeting, I stood out of respect, but I didn’t sing along. About halfway through, one of the group leaders, a man in his fifties, approached and asked if he could pray for me. Of course I said he could, thinking he would just go back to his seat and say a silent prayer on my behalf. Instead, he grabbed me by the shoulders, pressed his forehead to mine, and began to pray in a loud voice that God relieve me of my doubts, purge the evil from my soul, forgive my sins, and instill me with unshakable faith. And this just because I wasn’t singing; nobody but my also de-converting friend knew that I was no longer a Christian. I sat down immediately and the rest of the meeting passed with the group members verbally attacking their guest speaker for trying to reconcile homosexuality and God. It wasn’t a very fun evening.

  • Daktar

    Rae said,

    I am an atheist, can’t help it, but I respect my friends who aren’t. When my Christian friends have been in crisis I have held their hands while they prayed, they knew I didn’t believe but I did it because it made them feel better.

    This to me is the perfect mindset for a free thinker. You can choose not to believe in something, but that doesn’t mean you have to refuse point blank if someone asks you to partake in a ritual that they do believe in if it brings them joy/comfort/whatever. Bravo, sir or madam, for your commendable open mindedness.

  • To be honest, I find it somewhat irritating that they appear to expect thanks when in fact they’re not doing anything at all to help. Just a couple of words of sympathy is more help; if they offer that, I can thank them for that.

    The prayer thing doesn’t happen much, but when it does, I try not to be an ass about it and let them know how I feel.

  • For me it depends on the situation. If I, my spouse, or our kids are ill or injured, and my mom wants to try and send some Mormon priesthood men to give a blessing or she wants to put our names on a temple prayer roll, we say no thanks, please don’t.

    If however my mom or some religious friends say they’ll pray for a recovery I’ll say something like “you know I don’t believe in god and therefore prayer, however I know you do and I know that you mean the offer as a sincere gesture. And I appreciate a sincere gesture. However, please understand that your prayer isn’t going to give us any comfort or make us feel better. However, if praying makes YOU feel better, then go ahead.”

    However, if the person wanting to pray was a co-worker that I’m not particularly close to, I would probably just say something like “thanks for your concern.” No need to stir up office politics unnecessarily.

  • as an atheist do you wince a bit when a theist starts up the prayer wheel?

    I view it as “Christian talk” for “I’m thinking about you and wish you well”.
    It doesn’t mean that they are necessarily going to do anything, but neither is someone who merely says “I’m thinking about you and wish you well”. It doesn’t bother me. I appreciate the sentiment.

  • Jeff Satterley

    A lot of people have made this point, and I think it’s very interesting. It’s obvious that the real value of prayer is that it helps the pray-er, not the pray-ee. It helps that person deal with the fact that they can’t do anything to directly help those for whom he is praying (or at least they don’t know of anything they can do which actually helps). It’s one of many psychological responses to the fact that we humans are helpless to do anything to escape all of the reminders of our mortality in the world.

    This is my basis for taking most offers of prayer in stride, because I know that everyone, the religious and secular, submit to these psychological urges, even though they are generally irrational and unhelpful to everyone else. I am not immune from this, although I do believe that studying psychology and these phenomena, which I have, allows me to be aware of some cases when I am acting this way, and curtailing this if it somehow harmful. So I try not to blame others for their subconscious actions.

  • Spirit found me. I cannot explain what it is, only where it has taken me. I can no longer return to the hollow place.

  • Often when something bad happens, and I’m discussing the issue with someone in my family, there will be a long pause, and I’m pretty sure they’re waiting for me to say “I’ll pray for you.” I’ll say, “I’ll keep you in my thoughts,” or ask if there’s anything I can do to help, or in one case when the circumstances were especially ridiculous and self-inflicted, I told my Bible-banging cousin I’d drink to the success of her procedure. Talk about a long, awkward silence.

  • Aimee

    My grandma just died yesterday and have already been told by my mother in law that she will keep me and my family in her prayers. I just say thank you even though she knows I don’t buy into any of that. More or less “It’s the thought that counts” kind of mentality.

    *Sort of along the same lines:

    Almost 2 years ago now my son was riding an ATV, took the corner to sharp, slid and hit a barbed wire fence. Another half a milimeter, he wouldn’t be here. His neck was cut open by the fence, he had on a helmet, and a leather coat with a high collar. This was in a small town that didn’t have a surgeon that would have been able to help him had he cut his artery. If you tell this to a religious person, they automatically say that a guardian angel, or god was looking out for him. IMHO, he was just especially damn lucky that day.

  • Aimee

    Unspeakably Violent Jane said, I don’t mind that nearly as much as some joker thanking God for a meal in the presence of the person that slaved away to prepare it. Now THAT pisses me off.

    You and me both. I can’t stand that! That is the part I dread when it comes to big dinners and holidays with the in-laws. I’m thinking, “WTF”, I didn’t see jeebus in here basting the turkey or mashing the freakin’ potatoes!”

  • N

    This will seem very self-centered and relatively unrelated to the original post. But, I am going to share it anyway. I hope you don’t mind.

    As one who is teetering on the uncertainty between faith and reason:

    As a Christian, all my life I believed that prayer had a very real affect on what happened in this world and how things in our lives would turn out. There have recently been many things that have caused me to seriously question that sentiment.

    For instance: the little girl with cancer that everybody prays for. The church prays for her desparately, and she gets well. Okay, so this all-powerful God heals this little girl because we asked for it hard enough. If he had the power to heal this innocent, precious little girl (whose healing I am IMMENSELY grateful for – to the doctors and scientists who developed the treatments which led to her cure; but I digress), then why on Earth would he hesitate to heal her if WE didn’t pray enough for her?? You’re kidding me, right? God won’t heal unless we pray? Even though he is all-knowing and all-powerful, we still have to ask? That makes no freaking sense to me.

    So, that being said, here are my thoughts on prayer.

    Even after the last thread of faith is ripped from me (and it’s going fast…), I believe I will still pray.

    Prayer, to me, is a time to reflect on the things in this life for which I am grateful. I am very blessed (whether that blessing comes from a God or from a combination of happenstance and life choices). I have many, many things that I don’t deserve. For those things, I will always take a moment at night, before I sleep, to reflect. I think that is healthy.

    Also, prayer is a time for me to reflect on those things in life for which I hope. Some of those things I have control over, and prayer helps me focus on them and prepares me to do the things necesarry to achieve them. Some of those things, I have no control over. Prayer simply allows me to gather my concerns together in my mind, and contain them so I can manage the concern.

    So, whether a higher being hears my prayers, or whether they are simply a series of chemicals passing through the synapses in my nervous system, they serve a purpose for me. Therefore, even after I have crossed the line from agnostic to atheist (if that day comes), I believe I will still pray.

  • Pray = meditation then N? You meditate for yourself to order your own thoughts. Meditating (praying) for another is pointless.

  • N

    You are absolutely right, hoverFrog. I think that when I pray (or meditate) for someone else, it is 1) out of habit (I believed wholeheartedly in prayer for a looooong time), and 2) focusing on my hopes, or gathering my concerns so as to better deal with them. It surely does no good for the person for whom I’m praying, except maybe to lift their spirits to know someone is concerned and thinking about them.

  • If someone asks if they can pray for me, I usually say, “If you want.” I’m not sure why they need my permission… I mean, they don’t. So I suppose they just want me to be aware that I am being prayed for. Do you think it would be rude for me to respond, “Well, if you REALLY want to help, you can bring over supper some time this week,” or something similar?

  • Polly

    I seem to remember answering this exact question in another thread.
    So, I’ll just tack on my lame attempt at humor, instead. (rhyme not intended)

    His second e-mail, once we knew my daughter was OK, praised God for this happy outcome.

    My 2 word response to such an e-mail would’ve been a reiteration of his sentiment translated into another language:
    “Allah Akbar”

    That should keep him at bay. 🙂

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