How Do You Push Away Religious People with Good Intentions? May 23, 2010

How Do You Push Away Religious People with Good Intentions?

This story and the question with it comes from an anonymous reader:

My daughter was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy a few years ago and just recently my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. Ugh! Hit with a ton of bricks. We’re about to go through a major event; fortunately, we have a lot of family and friends to help us out.

We are not religious and never go to church, but we haven’t come out as declared atheists, so I know the inevitable is on its way… I’m sure we’re about to get all kinds of “prayers” and proselytizing from folks with good intentions, but that’s the last thing we need right now.

We can easily blow off the “we’re praying for you” comments and ask that they donate to the MDA or Cancer Society, but I’d like advice on the people that really try to convert us and tell us to go to church, etc.

I don’t need a family fight in the middle of this to add to the stress, but I’d like suggestions on how to push them away if this happens.

Any suggestions?

Have you been through something similar? How did you handle it?

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  • Gordon

    If they are trying to convert you during a hard time then their intentions are not good. They are preying on you like vultures!

    I’d offer a polite “not interested” and leave it at that.

  • I would simply ask them to imagine how they would feel were I, in similar circumstances, to use their time of hardship as an excuse to convince them that NOW is the time for them to abandon their faith.

    If they cannot see the lack of sensitivity and consideration inherent in their actions – no matter how well intentioned – I’d plainly tell them that their efforts only add to your stress, and that perhaps they might visit another time…when they feel more comfortable respecting your beliefs (or lack thereof).

  • sailor

    Something about these problems always brings out the weirdness in people. And it is not just religion, in an analogous situation people were suggesting eating blue-green algae, raw buckwheat, and a host of other crazy things that were supposed to make you better. And of course it it did not work it was your attitude that was at fault.
    Still you sound like you like you don’t want confrontation so how about “We are giving it some thought, you will have to let us work this out in our way and our own time”

  • Beckie

    I have experienced this with a couple of major health issues our family has had the past few years. When they say for me to go to church I say “At this time I know I am strong in my beliefs and would be better dealing with this on my own.”

    There has been a few times people asked to pray with me. If it is a stranger or someone I cant stand I flat out say no thank you. If it is family I let them do their thing. Even if you dont believe their rambling it helps close family deal with things themselves. Its like letting the nasty aunt give you a hug. You dont really care for it but it makes them feel better.

  • Re

    I thought long and hard about your question because it’s easier for me to give advice than it is to do the same myself on this topic.(I am in a very similar situation). I have been going over some examples of responses to religious suggestions.

    thanks but we need to deal with this in our own way

    thanks for your thoughts on the matter but we already have very strong thoughts/opinions ourselves and we’d rather not get into it right now

    as you know we are not religious and we are OK with that

    thanks for respecting our views

    Well I think I’ve only stated obvious responses but I hope I have helped a little. Good luck with everything hey and remember to laugh every day!!

  • I simply say, “thank you” and change the subject. If they’re too pushy, I just say “Thank you, but I don’t believe in all that stuff”.

  • kate morgan

    I recently went through a very difficult time when my brother died. He was very religious but respected my desire to not engage in philosophical debates with him. I was fortunate in that I was not pressured by family and friends to join them in prayers etc. If I alienated anyone by my refusal to seek spiritual help, I am not aware of it.
    My suggestion to you is to do what you feel is right. By seeing that you are adhering to your principles, the people who respect you as a person will respect your wishes to deal with your problems in your own way. The ones who don’t were not your friends in the first place. As for your family members and their reactions, I feel I would have to defer to other’s suggestions w/ regard to your situation.My family has left me alone to deal w/ things in my own way. Good luck to you.

  • Claudia

    I think maybe the approach should be different depending on who they are targeting. If they are targeting daddy/husband more patience is to be had than if they are targetting mommy and WAY more than if they are targeting daughter (if she is a child).
    Maybe the best way to approach it without a fight is to frame it in positive words. When a suggestion is made that you should go to church with them, something along the lines of “I think you’re love and support is the most important, and it would make me/us feel better just to have you with us”. “I appreciate your intentions, but right now that would only add more stress, which is the last thing we need, I know you’ll understand .”

    Framing that states explicitly that you know their suggestion comes from a place of love and because of that you know they’ll respect your wishes to not engage in religious activities may avoid you a fight, assuming the family truly has pure intentions.

    Or so I hope.

  • littlejohn

    Since declining the prayers will start a pointless (and endless) argument, my response has always been “I suppose it can’t hurt,” which strictly speaking is true.

  • Kristian

    Those trying to convert at times like this, are doing so out of fear. They see a loved one who they think is going to hell and feel they must do something. We are often asked to respect the beliefs of others, so in this case I would say “Thank you, for your concern, but I would prefer not to discuss it.” If pressed then the follow up could be “Look, things are not easy right now, I really wish you would show the same respect for my beliefs as I do yours.”

  • littlebirdie

    To the once mentioned and left alone – “At this point in our lives, we have enough upheaval, we are not looking to make any more major changes in our lives.”

    To the prayer wishes, “We are relying on the science and skill of our doctors to see us through this illness”

    To the persistent, “Please stop telling us what to do. It is not helping.”

    I am sorry for all of your recent challenges. I have faith that the medical professionals you are working with and your family and friends will help you navigate this challenge

  • Pat

    How about
    I thank you for your love and support. I hope you know that I respect your chosen spiritual path, and I want you to respect mine. YOUR presence and support is what I (we) need right now. Can you offer that?

  • Gordon

    littlejohn, the problem isnt with the people who offer prayers, it is the ones who see this as a chance to “save you”

  • Thirteeen years ago I was diagnosed with cancer while my wife was on 2+ months of bed rest with twins, trying to avoid a miscarriage. We are also atheists, but not overt about it other than not attending church. We got a lot of the “we are praying for you” – which the questioner correctly notes is easy to brush off. We never once received a conversion attempt or even an offer to join anyone at their church. And we live in the buckle of the bible belt. So the questioner may be worrying about something that probably won’t happen. On the rare chance that it does, I like the “No thanks – now is not a good time” (with a smile) type of responses stated here by others.

  • Hitch

    Take care of yourself. If something adds stress in hard times, don’t let it do that. Ignore. The first time often just blows over. They wanted to help and they tried it their way and that’s it. If ignoring is not enough, tell people who cannot let you be that you request to be left alone on the issue because they add unwarranted stress to the situation.

    I would advice against articulating the faith issue at all. This is a discussion you do not need to have and clearly would add stress. It is in fact not the topic even. The topic is that people offer unsolicited and unwanted help.

    It’s all about intrusion into your private affairs when you are already under pressure. To request in fact demand to be left alone is legitimiate and that is also true if any other reason does that, say an old friend gets offended why you call less during a stressful period.

    If they persist it simply is time to set a boundary.

  • Don

    At times like these, you don’t need (or deserve) additional stress. I am usually slightly offended by the “I’ll pray for you” comment, if the person doesn’t know I’m an atheist (only because religion in general, offends me). If I tell someone I’m an atheist, then get the “I’ll pray for you” comment, all bets are off….. I’ll most likely respond in a way that will lose that friend forever…

    I would be honest about your particular feelings. I usually tell people “I don’t share your beliefs. If you feel the need to pray FOR me, please feel free, but don’t tell me about it. This is not a good time for me to get into a debate, since I have so many other things to deal with right now, and don’t want the additional stress, thank you.”

  • Yes, people who do that sometimes do hope to convert you in your time of need.

    But after seeing this time and time and time again, I am convinced that more of them want to feel that they are helping you in your time of need. Prayer offers and church offers are not always that different…

    So, sometimes hard to say but usually well received and highly effective: “Thanks, I know you mean well”. When it works it really works. It pushes away the “religious” without being agressive to the “people with good intentions”. As already said by others, this is not really different from refusing hospital visits at a time when you are not up to it. Do it politely, express gratitude for the offer, but do it.

  • Judith Bandsma

    Just a little more than 46 years ago my mother was dying of breast cancer. The doctor had allowed her to come home to die. It might have been better if he hadn’t.

    The fundy segment of the family (who wouldn’t have pissed on my mother if she was on fire) gathered at her bedside and badgered her to be ‘saved’. Badgered her, blocked my grandmother from entering the room with her morphine, kept us kids and her friends from seeing her to say goodbye.

    According to my grandmother, my mother’s last words to anyone were to these people. They were “shove it up your ass”. (Go Mom)

    But her last month on earth was truly made hell by these people.

    In the case of the writer, you might explain that because of suppressed immune systems of your wife and daughter, it would be better if visitors were severely restricted. (The ‘good christians’ visiting my mother never gave a shit if they came in with colds or flu, so I don’t imagine the most pushy in your case would even think of their own contagion) Then you can pick and choose who you deal with.

  • Enrys

    Don’t try to take advantage of my unfortunate situation to say I’m a sinner, I must repent, or God is mad at me. You can pray all you want, medical science and doctors have a better success rate than prayer.

  • Mary

    Most people will suggest that you go to church because they believe it will be helpful or comforting. I have been in situations in the past, both with depression and with cancer, where people made religious suggestions. My response has always been something like this: “Thank you so much for caring. To be honest, church is not a comforting place for me right now. I need to do what is going to bring me the most comfort and strength. I take walks in the sunshine. I visit with friends. I read encouraging books and listen to music. I will be okay. I hope you understand.”

    Most people cannot imagine church not being a comforting place, so this shuts them up. Some people actually look hurt! They also cannot think of how to convince you to go to a place that is not comforting when you have cancer, so they have a hard time trying again.

    I get frustrated sometimes because atheists always assume some kind of evil motive. Most religious people really think they are trying to help. Church gives them comfort and hope. They can’t imagine going through cancer without their god. I doubt they are trying to harm you. Just see what they do after you tell them church is not comforting. Most will not try to convince you to go, and if they do, you can tell that it’s because their go-to comfort has been taken away, and they don’t know what else to say. They really can’t understand. Most people, even religious ones, aren’t trying to take advantage of you.

  • Eric

    I am very supportive of your approach and will adopt it as my own. There may be some advantage to preempting comments by first saying s.t. like “…in lieu of prayers, send donations to…”

    While I have never done it before, I have been tempted to say to others, “I don’t pray to Satan on your behalf, don’t pray to Jesus on mine.” (For clarity, I’m an anti-theist, not a Satanist). Of course, that would be a crude and limbic-generated response that I wouldn’t recommend. I share it only to demonstrate that I have felt your sense of infringement when faced with the offer by others to pray for you.

    Best wishes to you and your family. Peace!

  • “Sorry, my beliefs are none of your business.” You don’t owe them more of an explanation than that.

  • Angie

    Sadly, this sort of insensitive behavior is not unusual among Christians. However well-meaning they may be, they must still be made to realize how insensitive and inappropriate their proselytizing is during a time of sorrow.

    Set clear boundaries with these people. Remind them that it is NOT appropriate to proselytize during sorrowful situations. Remind them that preying on people in an emotionally vulnerable state is NOT helpful. Remind them that you do NOT need to justify your beliefs to them. With any luck, they’ll back off.

  • Lou

    Their hearts are in the right place, but their heads are not. Thank them for their concern, maybe even say you’ll consider it. You’re right, the last thing you need now are battles with the self-righteous. I wish you all the best.

  • Instead of defending your non-belief or attacking their belief…just try this:
    1) If you need help: “Thanks so much, but right now I really need help with (and detail exactly what type of assistance you need.)”
    2) If you DON’T need help: “Oh, that’s so kind of you! I’m all set in that department, but thanks for thinking of me!”
    If they insist again, simply tell them, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you were seriously offering help.” Then just stare at them without saying another word.
    That will usually shut them up.
    I’ve used variations on this technique several times with positive results in all cases except one.

  • colin

    I suggest a water pistol

  • Can’t someone want to help AND convert at the same time? Also, is it so far out of the realm of probability that a fundamentalist may actually have a moment in their life in which they see a greater need to offer physical assistance than to preach? C’mon, we’re talking about human beings, not automatons or monsters.

  • Trace

    Excellent advice from many readers.

    Four years ago my son was diagnosed with Asperguer’s. To this day I get from religious people what a “great blessing” my son’s condition is. I know they mean well, but can’t help answering with an “is it?” That normally shuts them up, and stops them from witnessing any further.

    Take good care and best of luck!

  • alph

    My first commandment is “cause no harm”. Most of these people beleive, and its like telling a kid there is no santa claus. Recognize their good intention and politely say thank you for their concern. I’m assuming they are not trying to make you pray with them – in that case decline.

  • After a brother died, I simply retorted

    “OK, but first I need to thank your god for punishing my mother by taking one of her babies away from her.”

    The stare that followed (YOU DO NOT WANT TO START WITH ME NOW!!!) generally kept that bullcrap at bay.

    Not the most civil method of deflecting the superstitious from spreading their baloney, but effective.

  • stephanie

    For offers of prayers I usually offer a “Thank you for keeping us in your thoughts” which also happens to be how I respond to requests for prayers, which irk me even more.

    I have very rarely had any issue with people trying to convert me because I’m pretty out as an atheist. And rather staunch, so sadly I can’t help there. But I have found over the years that a smile and changing ‘prayers’ to ‘thoughts’ gets the point across very kindly.

  • Vene

    I don’t believe in good intentions, everybody has good intentions. I care about whether the actions are actually good. My advice, tell them to “fuck off.” I see no reason to pander to superstitious assholes. If they’re just saying they’re offering prayers, whatever, that’s them wishing for the best, no issue. But, trying to convert. No, fuck off, that’s just preying on the weak and is despicable.

  • Aaron

    I certainly hope your daughter and wife will be OK.

  • Honestly, what I would say in the circumstance is the following:

    I appreciate that you care, but I’d prefer you not take advantage of this difficult time as an opportunity to proselytize. If you genuinely care, please leave your religion out of it.

  • I’m having a hard time imagining anything more inappropriate than selling someone snake oil when they have a genuine need. I would be quite rude and not feel any guilt at the offence that they brought on themselves, but that’s me. A firm, “No thank you” repeated as often as necessary should be sufficient. if they press the point just ask why they are not respecting your wishes when you’ve made them so abundantly clear.

  • Rhiannon

    Wow that’s an awful situation to be in, I hope this nugget helps.

    It seems your relatives have their hearts in the right place, they do care, however wanting to get you to sit in a church pew isn’t going to help anyone. If possible, I’d try to tweak their end goal to say volunteer work for hospitals and raising awareness and funding for these conditons. Try to take their focus off the mystical and supernatural and bring it down to earth where you can have a real and significant impact.

    Good luck, sir!

  • Unfortunately I can’t help with advices to push way these religious people, but I have an advice to everybody that think they have the right to give advices on someone else’s life and say how they should behave, especially in the moments of sorrow.

    I was a believer most part of my life but since 2006 I’m an atheist. On 2004, when I was still a Christian (catholic) I lost my wife in a car accident, 1 month before our wedding (we got married one year earlier, on 2003, but the celebration in the church and the reception would happen only on 2004 – it’s a long story, I can’t explain the reasons now).

    Anyway, that was huge catastrophe in my life. Everything was ready for the party, the wedding dress, our honeymoon… everything was perfect, except for my wife because she was dead.

    For 6 months I was in great depression and from time to time some people “tried to comfort me” (I prefer to think this way) with phrases like:

    * Don’t be sad. It was God’s plan to take our wife to Heaven and he knows what he’s doing!
    * It’s being six months already. You can’t be sad anymore! Have faith in God and he’ll ease your pain.
    * God probably wants to test your faith OR he probably has someone much better for you, that’s why he took your wife.

    I was still a Christian at the time but all these God bullshit about how I shouldn’t be sad, how it was God’s plan to kill my wife and how I should be happy with that drove me crazy. It doesn’t matter what’s your religion: you can’t say this type of crap to someone that is facing real problems and sadness.

    Two years later I became an atheist, but not because I was mad at God or something like. I became an atheist when I realized all that nonsense written in the Bible and logical inconsistencies in the claims of existence of God.

    Anyway, my advice for all religious people or atheists is: don’t give advices on someone’s life that is in a great pain. If you want to help you can just say that are ready to listen when the person when he/she wants to talk. That will help a lot already.

  • The Other Tom

    The anonymous reader asks for advice about those who “really try to convert us”, not the mere “we’re praying for you” crowd.

    The first time someone tries to convert you, if they’re relatively polite in their method (suggesting it, offering to take you to church, but not being overtly critical of you or telling you this is because of your lack of churchgoing) you should respond with a polite negative – “Thanks for your concern, but right now I need to focus on helping my family properly receive medical treatment so they will live.”

    After you’ve politely brushed them off once, or if they have the gall to try to blame your problems on your family’s lack of church attendance, you are morally justified in being as impolite to them as you like. Basically, it’s best at that point to make bluntly clear that their behavior is not going to be tolerated. You can do that by using polite but excessively blunt words – “I’m offended by your implication that my family’s medical problems are my fault, and demand you apologize or leave immediately” – or you can be as snyde as you like – “So you’re saying that your god is torturing my wife and daughter to death to punish me for not going to church? what a hatefui and evil god you worship! We want no part of that.”

    At that point if they don’t take the hint and behave better at once, it’s best to push them rather severely out of your life until you get a sincere apology or until your life has calmed down to a point where you can handle negotiating with them about their behavior without significant stress to yourself.

  • I agree with several of the earlier commenters, in that it’s important to get what people mean, as opposed to just what they are saying.
    For a lot of religious people, “I’ll pray for you” is code for “I’m thinking of you, I hope things work out for you, and I’m going to set aside some time every day to do what I can towards that in the best way I know how”. For these people, I’d respond in the same way that I would to anyone expressing those sentiments.

    As for people using difficult times as an opportunity to recruit? Entirely different situation. All bets are off, there, I’m afraid.

  • I would suggest just telling the proselytizers, “Thank you, but to us faith is a very private and personal matter. We prefer not to discuss it.” If they persist, quote Matthew 6:5 and 6:6 to them.

    And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

    But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

    I’ve found that nothing shuts up a fundamentalist out to save your soul like a good bible quote in the proper context. In addition this lets them think that they don’t have to worry about your soul since you mentioned your faith and quoted the bible properly. They don’t need to know that your faith is in science and reason, not in goat herder logic.

  • Natty

    Wow – I know religious people are underhand, but that is low. I agree with others who have said if they use your painful situation to try to convert you the gloves come off.

    The ‘I’m praying for you’ comments are annoying, but just about acceptable, but actively trying to get you to profess belief (because they obviously don’t care whether you *do* believe or not, just that they can claim your conversion) by using your pain against you? Low.

    I’d be very tempted to offer a comment about how using someone’s pain against them to achieve a desired response is akin to torture and that isn’t very christian of them (even though it really is).

  • BlueRidgeLady

    Just wanted to say that I wish you and your family the best. I’m really sorry you are going through such a bad time right now. Best of luck.

  • Vinícius O. E.,
    Thank you for sharing your story. Very moving. I hope you are doing better.
    I hope things go better for you.

  • bumlet5

    A few years ago I had a house fire and lost everything in it. While I got a lot of support from friends and the community, one woman I talked to regularly said she was going to talk to her church congregation about my situation to see if they would be willing to help me. I tried to easily talk her down from it, but it didn’t work. A couple weeks later she said that she had a truckload of stuff from church members, and that the church itself had bought me a full bed (mattress, box springs, frame, sheets, pillows, the works). I tried to refuse it, but she wouldn’t let up, saying that churches were supposed to help a community in need with no strings attached. I knew it was stuff I needed anyway, so I relented and took the offer. I knew what was coming. Sure enough, a week or so later, she asked me to go to church with her. I politely declined, and for the next couple months she asked me every week, getting more pushy each time. By the end, she (and a few of my coworkers) insisted that I owed them for what they had done for me.

    To this day, I don’t talk to that woman.

    I can easily take “I’ll pray for you” from strangers. Even with friends my response to that was “Please don’t, but I understand and appreciate the sentiment.”

  • When my Dad was ill, lots of people said ‘I’ll pray for him / you’. Same when he was dying. Same when he died.

    By which time I was mostly tempted to say, “Well, fat lot of good that did!”.

    I varied on my responses. Sometimes I’d say, “I’d rather you didn’t”. Other times, “Well, if it makes you feel better” (to make it clear that that was all it did).

    Other times, when I couldn’t be bothered with a fuss, I’d say thank you.

    What I usually wanted to say was, “Don’t waste your time. However, if you *do* want to help, you could…” donate to cancer research, do something practical to help me or him, anything really.

    It annoyed me that people thought that praying was a useful and helpful thing to do. And because they then thought they were already being helpful, they never thought beyond that to what actually could be helpful.

  • 0nlyThis

    A simple “Thank you, that’s very sweet of you” will usually sap whatever importance the proselytizer attributed to the offer.

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