Can Praying Be Considered Religious Intolerance? May 8, 2009

Can Praying Be Considered Religious Intolerance?

David Silverman of American Atheists was asked this question on a radio interview:

Do you get offended when someone says “I’ll pray for you”?

While we all know the sentiment and good intentions behind that phrase, Dave responded that he still considered it to be offensive.

… when someone prays for me, they are trying to change me against my wishes. Yes, of course it will fail, but as the old saying goes “it’s the thought that counts”, and this thought is negative. They are trying to convince their god to “open my heart” or whatever other metaphor they wish to use for “convert by force using your supernatural powers”.

Indeed, praying for someone is an act of religious intolerance.

I don’t think that thought goes through theists’ heads when they say it. It’s like saying, “Bless you” after someone sneezes. You just say it; you aren’t thinking about the meaning.

But at the core, Dave is right. What do religious people mean when they say they’ll pray for atheists?

They pray that we will realize we’re wrong (not that we are).

They pray that God will work His way into our hearts (as if there’s some God-shaped hole waiting to be filled).

No matter how they spin it, they are saying we are wrong. But instead of being so blunt, they try to spin it with positive words, consciously or not.

Do atheists do such things? If we think you’re wrong, we’ll just come out and say it. We’re not trying to sugarcoat our disapproval of religious beliefs.

Do we have any atheistic equivalents of “I’ll pray for you”?

On a side note, my favorite retort to “I’ll pray for you” is “And I’ll think for the both of us.” But that’s a dickish thing to say in response…

(via No God Blog)


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  • Steve

    May his noodley appendage bestow it’s blessings upon you as well.

  • It’s both. Some people are praying that I’ll see the light and “come back to the Lord” while others of my friends are just praying for my well being and health, kind of like Spock saying “Live Long & Prosper”…. the former is religious intolerance; the latter is not.

  • Richard Wade

    No matter how they spin it, they are saying we are wrong. But instead of being so blunt, they try to spin it with positive words, consciously or not.

    Of course they think we’re wrong; they believe in spooks and magic, and we do not. Somebody’s wrong. I don’t mind that they think I’m wrong, it’s the spirit (if you excuse the term) and the tone with which “I’ll pray for you” is delivered.

    After I gave a talk about dinosaurs to some kids, a woman approached me with the usual challenge questions about why was I teaching kids things that did not agree with the Bible. I politely responded with a brief explanation about how science follows wherever the empirical evidence leads, but after she realized that I wasn’t going to give in, she said “I”ll pray for you.” She said it with exactly the same tone that one would hear if she had said “Fuck off and die.”

    I was very tempted to call her on that, but I thought that would not change her attitude and the conversation would take a nose dive from there, so instead I replied “Thank you!” with a big smile, beaming with gratitude and friendliness. That way, she was left to wonder if I had believed she’d been sincere and I was being sincere too, or if I had seen through her and I was being sarcastic.

  • Jay

    I usually say something like “I’ll be thinking of you” or I offer to help.

    I had one person tell me they were going to pray for my mother when she was ill and I let it go. I don’t get offended, I get bemused. It’s like they are saying “I’ll wave this plastic wand and try to make everything better.” I know it does not work, so if they want to waste their time that is up to them.

    I also say Gesundheit if someone sneezes. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gesundheit

  • JSug

    I think praying for someone without asking them for permission first could be considered intolerant, though it isn’t necessarily so. As DD pointed out, there are different sorts of prayers, and they aren’t all so condescending to the target.

    Atheistic equivalents? I don’t know. Actively or surreptitiously trying to de-convert people might qualify. You know, like “accidentally” leaving your copy of ‘The God Delusion’ at your Christian friend’s house.

  • Dave

    I try to ignore people who want to pray for me. Sometimes, they make it difficult.

    I’ve had massive (online) arguments with people about this very thing. There have been times when I’ve revealed small, personal tragedies online or elsewhere. There are always a few who volunteer to put me in their prayers. When I politely refuse (“Please, don’t.” or “Thanks, but that’s not necessary.”) they get belligerent, like it’s some sort of insult to refuse someone’s prayers.

    Sure, I could keep my mouth shut and choose to ignore the few minutes they waste talking to their imaginary friend. On the other hand, they could quit volunteering prayers.

    I equate this sort of thing with the Mormon habit of posthumous baptizing. It’s rude and insulting.

    Then again, somehow, I’ve managed to develop a circle of friends who eschew religion, so this is rarely an issue.

  • It’s possible they’re not praying for your conversion, but simply praying for you in general. Very similar to “wish you well”, but they believe there is a Supernatural power behind it.

    Like “I’ll be thinking of you”, but with a “I’ll be thinking of you, towards/from the heart of God.” Which may be hard to understand/rationalize as an atheist, but it does not always have to be a negative and proselytizing associated thing.

  • I like “I’ll think for both of us.” I may use that in the future, dickish or not.

    When someone says “I’ll pray for you,” or “God bless you,” I usually respond with “No thank you.” That’s my response to “Merry Christmas” as well. I usually want to be polite, but I also don’t just want to let these comments slide.

  • James H

    It all depends on the circumstances. If, for example, my parents are sick and an Episcopal minister says, “I’ll pray for them,” it’s fine. For several reasons, actually:

    1) The minister is sincerely offering positive wishes and is comforting my family in a time of need;

    2) I may be wrong about God’s existence, so it doesn’t hurt to have all the bases covered; and,

    3) I am an atheist, but my parents are religious.

    Additionally, prayer in times of crisis isn’t always about, as a person above crassly put it, waving a magic wand to make things better. Some people pray not for a magic cure, but for strength, wisdom, and courage to see a crisis through.

    I would argue that sort of courage and strength comes from within, not without. A trained minister will argue that courage that comes from within stems from God’s voice within my heart …

    But that’s not the point. The point is that in a time of crisis, the theist is there for my family and offers comfort and community. So why not accept the positive wishes for what they are?

    On the flip side, somebody who piously proclaims “I’ll pray for you” when proselytizing in my direction is not worth one iota of my time.

  • As several of the other commenters have suggested, a lot depends on the context. If someone says they’ll pray for me and mean it in the sense that they’ll ask their supernatural friends to help me (get better if I’m ill, for instance), I don’t mind that at all. If they mean it in the smug I-know-you’re-going-to-hell sense, then I definitely consider it offensive.

  • Yossarian

    I’ll often say “I’ll think of you” in response. And if I’m in a pissy mood I may add “in bed” or “in the shower” as I turn and walk away.

  • IMO the “I’ll pray for you” parting shot is — after any particular bout of proselytising — conversationally equivalent to saying “well, f**k you then!”, regardless of how much sweetness and light they try to inject into their tone or mannerisms.

    Other contexts will give me other impressions, but my general feeling is that of it being an unnecessary exclamation because they’ve got something on their mind that only their god(s) can give them advice on. By speaking to them in their heads.

  • Nurse Ingrid

    I remember telling an elderly fundie relative “I’m keeping you in my thoughts,” and he corrected me, saying “You’re PRAYING for me!” and I said, “Yep, I’m keeping you in my thoughts.” That was the end of that conversation.

    On a similar note, when people tell me they’re thankful to God for their sobriety or for the strength to weather some personal crisis, I always say, “Well, I think you can give yourself some of the credit too.”

  • Totally depends on context. If I’m sick or something else bad has happened to me then I take it as a message that they care about me. I may think praying is useless but they don’t and so it’s meaningful to them. I usually thank them for the kind thoughts.

    On the other hand people who say they’ll pray for me because I’m an atheist, that I take a lot of offence at. It’s an implication that they think I deserve going to hell if I don’t repent my evil non-believing ways.

  • faustfire

    I just reply with a friendly, “Don’t waste your time.”

  • Hank Bones

    Like others have pointed out, its all about the context.

    But really, I can’t go so far as to think its religious intolerance. I mean really, we all (i.e., atheists; the readers of this blog) hope that the religous will miraculously see the light and lose their faith, don’t we? What it comes down to is: we all (i.e., theists and atheists) think we’re right. And when you think that you’re right, you wish for others to think the same as you. I have a hard time equating that with religious intolerance.
    Praying is just a silly way to change people’s thoughts. Or change anything.

  • “I’ll pray for you” is meaningless, the equivalent of “I’ll eat some Fruit Loops for you” or any number of mindless phrases. As such, I’m never offended when I hear it. My general response is “Thank you” and then I move along, regardless of the person’s intention. I don’t really have the time or energy to be concerned with people who actually believe in prayer.

  • Reginald Selkirk

    The best comeback is, “Thank you, I’ll sacrifice a goat in your honour.”

  • Miko

    If there is an atheist equivalent, by its very nature it’s certain that we wouldn’t be aware of what it is.

  • If someone says it in true kindness I let it rest or just say “thank you”. If they’re saying it to be rude (and some people do so) I might say “I’ll think for you” or “I’ll put a word in for you during tonight’s Black Mass”.

  • I mean really, we all (i.e., atheists; the readers of this blog) hope that the religous will miraculously see the light and lose their faith, don’t we?

    LOL. I don’t really care if people believe in God. I just don’t want them to vote Republican – or to use their belief as an excuse for bigotry or other bad behavior.

  • Hank Bones

    LOL. I don’t really care if people believe in God. I just don’t want them to vote Republican – or to use their belief as an excuse for bigotry or other bad behavior.

    I read: “I don’t really care if people believe in God. I just don’t want them to vote.”

  • I’m afraid I’m less than polite at this blanket dismissal of my beliefs and arrogant assumption that they can get away with it. “I’ll pray for you” gets a response of “Why?” or “I’ll do something about it instead”. I can be a dick too, especially when I’m in a grump.

  • CybrgnX

    I use to say about the same thing as HoverFrog, but that that was before I heard someone say in response…”you know that AT LEAST jesus loves you’ It usually take 10 steps before the realize the insult. Just like when someone on the road gives me the finger…I blow them a kiss…makes them really pissed.

  • MV

    It usually does not bother me. If someone says “I’ll pray for you” when we are talking about some hardship or future endeavor, I just shrug it off.

    In that context, it is the same as saying “Good luck” when that obviously does not exist either.

    When they the nuts come knocking at my door at 8:00 in the morning and say they will pray for me when I tell them I am atheist, that is a different story. That is intolerance and hateful.

  • flawedprefect

    I like taking it in the spirit of which it is given. If I know for certain they are giving me non-theism a curt nod, pointing out that I am less than them, I kindly say “please, don’t”. But the majority of times, it’s just a phrase which simply means “I hope you get what you want” or “I wish you well”. Seriously, how many of us still say things like “Thank God” or even type “OMG” in a chat box or email, tho we believe in in such deity?

    There is a line before things begin to be overly sensitive and petty. But yes, as thinkers, I believe we can well distinguish that line for ourselves.

  • I don’t mind “I’ll pray for you” when it means the theist has been so utterly out-argued that they have to appeal to supernatural methods of conversion.

  • I would simply say “you do that”

    It makes no difference to me if they want to waste oxygen with a prayer on my behalf. Since I don’t believe in God, they’re just wasting their time. That would be their problem, not mine so why waste the energy being emotional about something so trivial. If they were saying it in a FU type of context, I’d still say “you do that” with a slightly more sarcastic tone I guess.

  • Aj

    It is intolerant, rather authoritarian, but I wouldn’t particularly be offended by it. That they’d like their sky daddy to change my opinion is one of the more trivial aspects of religion. Especially when they believe the stakes are so high, if they believe I am going to be tortured for eternity. They make up so many creative ways to harm themselves and others, when they’re not attacking rationalism, reason, and science, this doesn’t even register with me.

  • stephanie

    If it’s generally meant in the terms of “I’ll keep you in my thoughts” I let it slide. If it isn’t I usually ask them ‘Why?’ in a perplexed tone. You’d think the response would be some statement of faith, but usually people just kind of mumble something and go away.

  • medussa

    I work on an ambulance, and many of my patients or their family members say they’ll pray for me, and as it’s almost always meant as an elaborate “thank you” I usually let that slide, because an emergency is not the time to argue, and the intention is positive.
    But there have been a few times when a patient, thinking they (or their baby) are dying, wants me to pray with them, and I find that situation difficult.
    My job is not just to practice paramedicine, but also to reassure and calm the patient, and starting a discussion regarding the lunacy of their core beliefs is not helpful in that context.
    I have yet to find a comfortable solution for my predicament. Off duty is not an issue, I have plenty of come backs….
    Recently, a mother asked me to help her remember how to pray for her dying baby, and I actually tried to remember one. To my everlasting amusement, all I could come up with was “Oh Father, where art thou?” which had my Mormon family shaking their head in despair…

  • Barker

    I’m not exactly sure what my response to a condescending “I’ll pray for you” might be but I’m thinking of going with a cheerful “Thanks! Let me know what you hear back!”

  • Tom

    If someone says “I’ll pray for you” to me in reaction to learning I’m an atheist or gay, I tell them “you’re welcome to waste your time as you see fit.” I’m very good at sounding condescending if I want to. I don’t believe they’re trying to be intolerant of my atheism, I believe they’re trying to express their smug sense of moral superiority over me, which is an insult, so I’m under no obligation not to insult them back.

    If someone tells me they’ll pray for me because they’ve learned of some difficulty in my life, I tell them “it’s kind of you to think of me, but I’m an atheist.”

    If I sneeze and someone says “bless you”, I say “thank you.” A friend who knows I’m an atheist once sneezed, I said “bless you”, and he pounced on the question of who I think is doing the blessing. I explained that *I* did the blessing – he has my blessing to stop sneezing. However, I usually say “Gesundheit” or “Would you like a tissue?”, if I feel obliged to say anything in response to a sneeze.

    If I sneeze and someone says “god bless you”, I either ignore it if I’m trying to be nice, or I reply “no, he really doesn’t,” if I’m feeling annoyed, or “stop saying that, I’m allergic to ‘god bless you’!” if I want to confuse them. (The latter is good because I get sneezing fits from my allergies, and if I can force all those words out, it usually stops my sneezing fit.)

  • Anfractuous

    In general, I don’t think it’s worth worrying about it, so I usually don’t reply at all, or just say thanks if it’s meant well. I think people sometimes get carried away with being “offended.” There are times to stand up and be counted but otherwise it’s just too ridiculous to worry about.

    However, just in case I need a response, I’ve been thinking of a few that might work. I’ll probably never have the nerve to actually use any of them, but for someone looking for a snappy comeback….

    If it’s meant as a good wishes comment on the illness of a family member, for instance: “Actually, I’d rather have the money;” or “a donation to ______ would be more helpful;” or “I’d rather you’d come and do the dishes for her or take her to play Bingo;” etc.

    If they’re using it as a parting shot, I’d love to laugh at them and say, “Well, if that’s all you got.” Or perhaps, “Gee, I hope you get what you deserve as well.”

  • llewelly

    They are trying to convince their god to “open my heart” …

    Suddenly, I hear a song in my head. It goes something like this:

    Open up your heart
    and let the sun shine in
    Open up your heart
    and let the sun shine in

    The people singing it are waving knives, dancing around altars, and … they’re 15th century Aztec priests.

  • nickolayer

    I liked Anfractuous’ idea of “if that’s all you’ve got”. A good comeback would be “why don’t you do something USEFUL instead?”

  • Yes, I think it’s a form of intolerance for the very reason stated.

    On a side note, my favorite retort to “I’ll pray for you” is “And I’ll think for the both of us.” But that’s a dickish thing to say in response…

    I was thinking of “I’ll do good deeds for all of us.”

  • nickolayer

    And if you’re really furious, respond with “…well, if you can’t tackle/handle me by yourself…”, but that will work only if you know that your opponent has given up trying to convince you.

  • Sean Sauve

    Christians are no saying that you are wrong when they say “I’ll pray for you.” They merely pre-suppose you are wrong (which you are).

    As to how it can be considered religious intolerance, your article here is considered offensive to many Christians, so by your own (wrong) standards, you too are intolerant.