by Jesse Galef –
How do you feel when people say they’re praying for you? I’m not talking about them praying for you to “find your way” (which I find rather condescending) but the times they genuinely care about your well-being and think their prayers will help.
Two days ago, Rev. Robert Barron wrote a piece on CNN.com about why Christians should pray for Hitchens. They got enough responses from both sides that CNN posted a new piece yesterday entitled Atheists reject prayers for Hitchens, believers doubt he’s a child of God.
I’m not going to argue about whether Hitchens is a “child of God” since I don’t find the phrase meaningful. Instead, the interesting question is what to do with religious individuals’ prayers for us (not that I fully understand what it means to “reject” the prayer). On those occasions when someone says they’re praying for me, I’ve thanked them, appreciating the intent. But I do recognize that I’ve let a form of irrationality go unchallenged.
As is often the case, others have hashed this out before me. It’s my pleasure to quote Daniel Dennett from his essay “Thank Goodness” on his thoughts after his heart surgery.
The favorable response to prayer:
I translate my religious friends’ remarks readily enough into one version or another of what my fellow brights have been telling me: “I’ve been thinking about you, and wishing with all my heart [another ineffective but irresistible self-indulgence] that you come through this OK.” The fact that these dear friends have been thinking of me in this way, and have taken an effort to let me know, is in itself, without any need for a supernatural supplement, a wonderful tonic. These messages from my family and from friends around the world have been literally heart-warming in my case, and I am grateful for the boost in morale (to truly manic heights, I fear!) that it has produced in me.
The unfavorable response to prayer:
But I am not joking when I say that I have had to forgive my friends who said that they were PRAYING for me. I have resisted the temptation to respond “Thanks, I appreciate it, but did you also sacrifice a goat?” I feel about this the same way I would feel if one of them said “I just paid a voodoo doctor to cast a spell for your health.” What a gullible waste of money that could have been spent on more important projects! Don’t expect me to be grateful, or even indifferent. I do appreciate the affection and generosity of spirit that motivated you, but wish you had found a more reasonable way of expressing it.
And the crux of the matter:
For another, we now have quite solid grounds (e.g., the recently released Benson study at Harvard) for believing that intercessory prayer simply doesn’t work. Anybody whose practice shrugs off that research is subtly undermining respect for the very goodness I am thanking. If you insist on keeping the myth of the effectiveness of prayer alive, you owe the rest of us a justification in the face of the evidence. Pending such a justification, I will excuse you for indulging in your tradition; I know how comforting tradition can be. But I want you to recognize that what you are doing is morally problematic at best.
The whole essay is wonderful and I highly recommend you read all of it.
Some of the things I care about and do the most good in the world – science, medicine, rationality – are based on the notion that we need to scale our confidence to the level of evidence. Prayer is a rejection of that principle. I’m starting to think the right response is something along the lines of “Thanks for the good wishes, but I think the best thing you can do right now is…” and take the opportunity to change the framing. I don’t want “good wishes” to be wrapped up with the idea “prayer” in society.
What do you think? How should we react in this situation?
photo © Adrian van Leen for openphoto.net CC:PublicDomain