When They Pray For You July 15, 2010

When They Pray For You

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

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  • Hitch

    It’s political. We do not see droves of people come out and pray for atheists they know nothing about, but Hitchens is a topic of contention.

    It is a struggle for the hearts and minds. Now if believers pray for Hitchens and atheists come out and say that that is inappropriate one can score points with ones home crowd. For believers they can say just how mean and immoral atheists are for rejecting the positive gesture. And for atheists it’s point to get upset about believers doing provably ineffective things to give an appearance of sanctity.

    My view is that if someone is sincere in wishing someone well but has odd ways to show that, I have not that much of an issue with it. But if someone just feints sincerity to give an appearance it is rejectable.

    Unfortunately I cannot hide that the latter is the case here with Hitchens (going to press for publicity and all), while Dennett’s personal friends that was about their relationship.

  • Alex

    I usually say thanks, it’s their time and not mine, they can use it how they see fit, it’s no skin off my back.

    A lot of times I will use the opportunity to change the subject to something I’ve never understood: isn’t the act of praying irrational, even if you are religious? The whole idea for offering your wishes up to God is based on three premises: 1.) There is a God. 2.) He can hear you. 3.) He can do something about it. So, by definition, you are praying to an omniscient, omnipotent being. But if God is omniscient and omnipotent, doesn’t he already know what you need/want, probably better than you do because he can divine the future? So wouldn’t your time be better spent doing anything else in the world than telling God something he already knows?

  • Parse

    It really depends on why that specific person wants to pray for him.
    If they want to pray for him, because he’s a human suffering from cancer, more power to them.
    If they want to pray for him, in spite of the fact that they dislike him, but because the Bible tells them to love their enemies, more power to them.
    Heck, even if they pray so that Hitchens will have more time on Earth so he can ‘repent his sins’ or whatnot, go for it.

    But if they want to say the only reason that the doctors, treatments, medicine, and research will work is because they prayed for him, that’s the point where I’d tell them to get stuffed. If they want to spend their time in prayer, it’s their choice, but it doesn’t give them the right to misappropriate credit from where credit is due.

  • Fraser

    I’m getting more and more intolerant in my old age. One of the comments on the article said (amongst other things), “What’s the atheist response then? ‘Sorry, mate, survival of the fittest and all that.'”

    It’s the strawman, the condescension, the lying, the clear lack of brains … it makes my skin crawl.

  • Dianna

    It still feels great to know that people showed their concern in the best way that they knew. Yes they prayed for us when we went through a horrible time of need, even though they knew what our beliefs were. Then they brought us food for a week after that.
    I’m eternally grateful.

  • “That’s okay, I forgive you” would seem to be a good (somewhat snarky) response.

    If they’re sincere, I’ll give them sincere thanks. But often the Christian “I’m praying for you!” is too much a dismissal, a signal that the conversation is over.

    It’s too often used as a euphemism for “Good day, Sir”, and it carries more unpleasant overtones.

  • I find it very hard to come up with some alternative phrase to hand out when people are having a rough time. “My condolences” sounds so cold. “I’ll keep you in my thoughts” sounds like a bad greeting card. I cut people some slack when they talk about prayer or God’s will or whatever, simply because I understand that they just don’t know what else to say. I wish I knew what to say. “That sucks” doesn’t really cut it.

  • pmsrhino

    I don’t take much offense to people saying they’ll pray for me. It means about the same as when someone tells me “I’ll think about you” when something happens. Because it is pretty much the same thing and has about the same effect on how things will go. It’s the same when I have clients or other people on the phone tell me to “Have a blessed day.” To me that’s the same as “Have a nice day.” I usually just smile and say thanks. To get angry or offended at that would be the same as getting offended by someone saying “bless you” when I sneeze. The closest I get to challenging it is just responding with something more secular. When someone says “I’ll pray for you” I’ll say something like “Thanks for keeping me in your thoughts.” Or if someone says “have a blessed day” I’ll say “Thanks, and you have a nice day too.” Like when people say “Merry Christmas” and I respond “and happy holidays to you too.”

    Now when they mean it in a condescending way THEN I’ll address it as offensive. But when it’s just their way of speaking I don’t mind. Maybe I’m just too “live and let live” sometimes, lol.

  • Jon Peterson

    I generally have two reactions.

    One is towards friends and family, when I’m actually in a bad way (as an example, I collided with a tree this past winter, was unconscious for 30 minutes, and hospitalized immediately thereafter). In that situation, I can’t help but appreciate that they have no idea what they can do, so they’re doing the one thing that they feel is significant. I am thankful for the emotion, and I’m certainly not going to call them on the irrationality.

    The other is towards ANY OTHER situation. A couple years ago, when I lost the job I’d had at that time, I had some friends (and my mother-in-law) inform me that they were praying I’d find a job soon. I responded by telling them “Don’t. If you want to help, call me if you see a Help Wanted sign or let my know if any of your colleagues are looking for entry-level help. Praying won’t help.” Almost needless to say, but yes, this did grate on some nerves.

  • phira

    I think that the reason why many people say things like, “I’ll pray for you/keep you in my prayers” is that often they feel helpless about the situation. Praying is something that they CAN do, and they believe will make a difference. When someone says something like that to me, I take it as, “I hope that things turn around for you, and I really wish there were something I could do.”

    I’m not friends with many religious people anymore, and most of my religious friends are not Christian (Jewish or Hindu, mostly). So I no longer deal with this kind of thing. But I used to be friends with a Christian so devout that he refused to stand up for me when a friend of his harassed me because he agreed with her that I was going to hell. He used to say he would pray for me for various reasons, and it really bothered me. I would tell him that I appreciated the sentiment and his wishes, but that he should pray for help for someone worse off than I was.

    Because that’s the thing: they say they’ll pray for you, but why should you pray that my 14-year-old dog won’t die when there are children being sold into sexual slavery? If prayer is powerful, direct it elsewhere!

  • Bob

    If they pray and Hitchens recovers, God gets credit. God has a plan for him.

    If they pray and Hitchens doesn’t get any better, God still gets credit … Because We All Know Chris Hitchens would be romping about like a teenager if he believed in God.

  • Wade Geering

    I usually just say “Thankyou. I’ll think for you.” It’s not as though their praying can do any harm so I really don’t mind if it makes them feel like they have done all that they can. If I have a medical problem I will be going to see a doctor anyway, so it isn’t like I’m going to die from sitting back and trusting that their prayers will magically cure me.

  • I have had several people tell me they are praying for my mother (she was diagnosed with cancer). I thank them and leave them at that. To me when they say they are praying it shows they care. I don’t expect the prayers to work but I can’t respond negatively to a gesture of kindness. In this case, I prefer to talk a friendly atheist approach.

  • Urgh I wish they wouldn’t try to insert their imaginary friend into everyone’s life with their insipid little references to it. When someone says “I’ll pray for you” all I hear is “You’re boring me, shall we talk about my god now?” How incredible selfish to throw this in when someone is in genuine need. Try doing something instead. Honestly “I’ll put the kettle on” is at least constructive.

  • Claudia

    You know, the prayer experiment actually found that patients who were prayed over and knew about it had significantly WORSE outcomes than those not prayed over or prayed over in secret, so the wellwishers telling HEART PATIENT Dennett they prayed for him were more likely to cause harm than good.

    I know, I know, performance anxiety of the kind Dennett is of course not going to feel, but it does go to show you just how indifferent these folks are to actual evidence.

    I’ve never been told that I would be prayed for by anyone. I think the reaction would depend on who was saying it. If it were a virtual stranger or distant relative or whatever I’d probably give a strained thanks while furiously resisting rolling my eyes, or if I were in a worse mood I might say “If it makes you feel better”. However for people close enough to me to know my stance on religion it would be different. Since they are knowingly saying they are going to do something I find absolutely ineffectual I would try to accept it and then get something out of it. “You know prayer is not in my belief system. If you want to pray that’s ok, but would you mind also doing something that honors my beliefs?” This puts them in the uncomfortable position of accepting or verbalizing that all they’re only really willing to do is something that requires no effort at all. If they accept honoring my beliefs I’d ask for a small humanist gesture related to the problem. If I’m sick a small donation to MSF, for instance.

  • grneyedmonster

    My mother is currently dying of cancer and I have to say it irritates my when people say they’re praying for her and/or the family. On one hand, I understand that they need to feel useful in the face of the helplessness that terminal illness causes. On the other, though, people don’t realize how hurtful these comments can be to the dying person. These well-meaning prayers can make the dying person feel that his/her own prayers for healing and mercy were inadequate. I have seen my mom struggle with this and the anger that she has lived a clean life and is still dying of cancer, in contrast to what she was taught in childhood by the church. One dumb broad actually told my mom “don’t give up hope, keep fighting, miracles can happen.” Even my slightly religious mom sneered at that one. If you really want to help, donate to cancer research or hospice, or volunteer somewhere. I know, though, that the older folks who have health problems of their own may be unable to do that, so they pray. If it helps you get through this hard time, that’s fine, but keep it to yourself. Otherwise, you’re just showing off how pious you are, which is the sin of pride.

  • Aaron

    I have gotten lots of prayers as I have had lots of health problems (cancer, then heart attack and bypass, just waiting for a stroke to fill out my trifecta) and I just treat it like they said “I really hope you get better.” They know they can’t do anything about the situation, and they are just trying, in their way, to let you know they care.
    Since I (sorta) came out to my mom on the eve of my heart surgery, she has been cool enough to say things like “I am thinking about you” instead of “I am praying for you”.
    Side note: I told her I was agnostic instead of atheist because she said, with tears in her eyes “You not an, an, an,…ATHEIST, are you?” like the word would break her heart. I just couldn’t hurt her like that. Discretion is the better part of valor, right?

    Side Side note: Can you believe that on the eve of heart surgery, she wants to tell me that “creation science” is the only thing that makes sense? Puddle thinking, I know.

    Side side side note: I kinda sparked the whole thing by responding to “Remember, God loves you” by saying “Uh, OK. Thanks.”

  • Andrew Lovley

    We must understand that religious people have adopted language to describe things in different ways than the non-religious do. When a religious person offers their prayers, with benevolent intentions, to me they are basically saying “I sincerely hope you transcend this hardship, and I am trying to improve your chances the only way I know how or believe that I am capable.”

    While the non-religious discount the efficacy of their prayer, we shouldn’t discount the gesture and intentions. Even if prayer is ineffectual, the gesture is something worth acknowledging and perhaps having gratitude for. Prayer is a benign religious practice at most, so why should we choose to get into a debate over world-view when someone offers us their gesture of hope and care?

    On a somewhat unrelated note — if Hitchens is such a rationalist, why did he keep smoking despite knowing all the reasons it is bad for his health? Sounds a bit irrational to me… Let’s quit pretending any of us are the epitome of rationality, it’s bound to become hypocritical.

  • I genuinely like it when my friends pray for me. It makes me feel loved. Of course, these friends also offer practical support and a listening ear along with their prayers, which is how I know that they’re real friends. I sometimes miss prayer myself, during those times when I wish I could do more than I actually can.

    I don’t see a friend expressing their love and concern for me as a time to engage in debate and point out differences in our beliefs. My friends know that I don’t believe in God. It still makes me feel special when they pray for me. I just say thank you.

  • Fraser

    On a somewhat unrelated note — if Hitchens is such a rationalist, why did he keep smoking despite knowing all the reasons it is bad for his health?

    Is that a serious question? In case it is, humans are not rational animals, which is why we need things like the scientific method. Kluge, by Gary Marcus, is a fun read on this topic.

  • TychaBrahe

    @Kelley – What about “I’m here for you,” or “Let me help. Is there anything I can do for you?”

    As Kirk said to Keeler in City on the Edge of Forever, “Let me help. A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme. He’ll recommend those three words even over I love you.”

  • Andrew Lovley

    @ Fraser

    It was a rhetorical question, because I agree that humans are not rational animals, even if they claim to be.

  • It makes me feel better when I know that when things got shitty, the people I loved were thinking of me. Even if the time they spent thinking of me was in prayer.

    But that is my family. It’s easier to overlook little things like that because I love them, and since I was raised to believe in prayer, I can understand. Plus, I know that if I needed anything, I could ask and they would actually help.

    I have a friend who knows I am Atheist. I don’t know what his specific beliefs are, but I know he does believe in a god. Every time he writes to me he tells me how BLESSED I am. Yup, all caps on just that word. I have let him know that the only blessing I know is a blessing of unicorns. But he is a friend. I know he is just being a pain.

    It’s difficult to know people’s intent. If friends or acquaintances pray for me when I get sick, because they believe their prayer and faith will help me, to each their own. But if medical science heals me, or my immune system and time gets me through, and they tell me god saved me, then that kinda frosts my cookie.

    A few years back I had to get an exploratory laparotomy. I was really scared. My father and my husband put their hands on my head with anointed oil (I was still technically Mormon at the time) and gave me a blessing. I was calm after that. I knew my family was praying for me. I knew members of the church were praying for me.

    I lost some innards, but in the end (as you probably already figured out) I was okay. 🙂 Now, was it prayer that pulled me through? No. It was the highly medically trained staff and surgeon. Did the power of prayer help me with the pain? No. That was the morphine. Did my blessing actually calm me? No. It was the medicine my doctor ordered to calm me the hell down.

    I know that many of my family members believe it was the power of prayer, their prayer. And that’s a shame. It kept them from directing their gratitude to the person who actually did something to heal me. Which makes them come across as pious and ungrateful. I know who to be thankful for, who to be thankful to. And they get thanked every year for saving my life.

    But most of those Christians praying for Hitchens are just looking for a reason to say that their prayer worked, or looking to say that their god doesn’t love Atheists. I understand that the Reverend’s point is that Christ wanted them to love everyone. (As I have loved you, love one another.) But it still seems self serving, as the bible says they should keep their prayer to themselves and not tell everyone how great they are for praying for someone they don’t like. :/

  • Interesting. I have never had anyone tell me they’re praying for me, so it’s hard to know how I would respond. I guess I would thank them for thinking about me and say that I appreciated their good wishes. I don’t think it would be an appropriate time to get into a debate about religion and prayer, not unless they said something really offensive.

    But I’m having a hard time thinking of people who would pray for me! Maybe some of my extended family would. I know they have some religious beliefs, but they’re very low key about them. If a family member was seriously ill, I suppose I can imagine them saying something like that. Otherwise prayer is just not something that comes up in my life.

  • Sheridan

    If someone said they would pray for me, I would ask them to make sure to ask their god to see that I won a multi-million dollar lottery and make me rich.

    Hey – why not go for it??

  • Jeff Dale

    On a somewhat unrelated note — if Hitchens is such a rationalist, why did he keep smoking despite knowing all the reasons it is bad for his health? Sounds a bit irrational to me… Let’s quit pretending any of us are the epitome of rationality, it’s bound to become hypocritical.

    As Hitch himself has said, humans are only partly rational. I used to wonder about people who choose to smoke, but to be fair, it’s usually started during the teen years, when our decision-making faculties are still erratic, and once started it’s evidently very hard to stop even with a rational view of the matter. I used to wonder about people who chose other potentially dangerous behaviors, like skydiving or being sedentary, but I’ve come to understand that a life well lived isn’t measured only in years, and people have different views about what’s worthwhile to fill their years with.

    Just one thing to add to the excellent comments here so far: Dennett is, of course, understandable in wanting to challenge the offering of prayer. (“Did you also sacrifice a goat?” LOL) But I don’t see why this particular expression of “faith” must be challenged when we politely refrain from challenging so many other such expressions. I mean, for starters, I assume that many religious people either don’t know of the research or accept the lame rationalizations against it (e.g., “You can’t test God.”). And further, we don’t march into churches during the service and tell people that the praying they’re doing is “morally problematic at best,” or upbraid the host at a dinner party for saying grace. It seems inconsistent to insist on challenging prayer only when offered as a “get well” wish.

  • stephanie

    If the words come across innocently enough, I translate them automatically in my brain into ‘I’ll be thinking about you” and if situations are reversed I my usual statement is; “I’ll keep you in my thoughts, so if there’s anything you need, please just ask.”
    I’ve never had a single friend or family member respond by asking me to talk to their god for them, even though some of them are quite religious. But I have had requests for real, tangible things that can help like transportation or visits or child care, and isn’t that so much better than sitting around doing essentially nothing?

  • Jeff Dale

    (Why won’t it let me edit?)

    However, if someone afterward said that the prayer had “worked,” or that “God” had healed me, I think I’d probably feel obliged to correct them.

  • Lynn

    I’ve read a bunch of explanations that atheists and agnostics have offered for why they don’t like it or why they get offended when somebody says they’ll pray for them, and I still don’t get it. It’s like somebody saying they’ll light a candle or hold you in their thoughts or clap their hands and spin around three times every time they think about you — who cares? It does nothing. It doesn’t do any good, sure, but it doesn’t do any harm either, as long as they don’t do it in place of something that could help.

    They’re trying to offer something and that should be appreciated, just as I hope they recognize that’s what I’m trying to do when I say something lame like, “oh, that sucks, I’m sorry” because that’s all I can think of to offer.

  • I really really dislike the idea of people praying for me. I feel it’s highly disrespectful. It’s completely ignoring my identity as an atheist. Our vast religious disagreements are just about the last thing I want to think about when I’m down.

    Luckily, I don’t know of many friends or family who pray so vocally.

  • Jim H

    Phira nailed it. When a friend of mine is sick, or out of work, or needs a new roof, there is only so much I can do. (OK, I can pass around my out of work friend’s CV, but only if she’s “in my thoughts.”)

    Feeling helpless kind of sucks. If someone thinks her imaginary friend makes her feel a bit less helpless, well, fine. I don’t want to stomp all over that, and it does no harm. As to a study showing that it DOES harm, that sounds like a sampling issue to me.

  • Ed

    People who pray for others that they love, who are ill or facing some serious problem, are doing so because they are anxious or worried and praying eases their mind a little. I would never, ever, say a negative thing to a friend who said they prayed for me. That’s just cruel. It’s like saying “I reject your concern”.

    When my father was dying, although he was an atheist he was always touched by people who came to him and told him that they prayed for him. It was their way of saying that they loved him, and they were hurting.

    Obviously when someone says they are praying for you because they are worried that you are going to hell, it’s high time for a friendly debate on whether there is a hell or not. But always thank them for caring, even if you are not nearly as worried as they are. Preserving a true friendship is more important than winning a debate about something that doesn’t exist.

  • No one ever tells me they’ll pray for me when I am ill or in a hardship or under duress. They only tell me that when I mention such things as how many prominent history figures were Atheist or if I mention something like an article about evolution at work in humans today. THEN they say “I’ll pray for you,” and they mean it as an insult. I don’t usually respond in any way because that’s what they want.

  • Prayer, itself, means nothing. As Bill Maher said, “It’s almost as good as wishing it were so…”

    Prayer does not bother me (I guess). People waste their time all sorts of ways. What bothers me is people acting like prayer is the same as actually doing something.

  • When I was still a Christian I found “I’ll pray for you” to be wholly unhelpful. That hasn’t changed. I try not to read disinterest or malice into it, though, but I can’t help thinking how much more useful that energy would be spent doing anything else.

  • Jeff Dale

    I really really dislike the idea of people praying for me. I feel it’s highly disrespectful. It’s completely ignoring my identity as an atheist.

    Understanding this sentiment might help to untangle the issue a bit. I think most will agree that a well-wishing prayer (if sincere) is the religious equivalent of “You’re in my thoughts”: ineffective, but fills the awkward space that otherwise would be filled with something like “That sucks.” So the well-wishing intention is more or less the same, but the form of expression depends on the religious opinion of the speaker; i.e., the religious dimension of the utterance is about the speaker and not about the sick person. In other words, if it’s disrespectful for a religious person to offer a sincere prayer for an atheist, by analogy is it not also disrespectful for an atheist to refuse to offer a prayer for a religious person, in that religious person’s own preferred mode of prayer? Must well-wishes be carefully tailored to the recipient, in spite of the speaker’s own way of thinking about well-wishes?

    Or to look at it from another angle, should we be offended anytime a religious person sincerely prays for us, under any circumstances? For example, if a religious grandmother goes to church and prays for the happiness of all her grandchildren, is that disrespectful to any of her grandchildren who happen to be atheist, or who belong to other religions and pray in a different way? To be consistent, this seems to call for the same answer as given for the well-wishing question.

  • April

    I don’t have any problem with “you’re in my prayers.” I just say “thanks” and move on, because it’s rarely worth the confrontation. However, I genuinely do not know what to say when someone I know asks ME for MY prayers. A lot of times when someone is sick or going through something difficult they ask for prayers. I do not want to add to their distress by getting into the whole “prayers are pointless” argument, and anything else sounds insincere: “I’ll keep you in my thoughts.” ?? How’s that supposed to help? “I’ll wish on a rainbow for you?” “Well, I hope everything goes well for you?” That sounds like a limp and lazy attempt at concern. I just don’t know.

  • nankay

    I think it irritates me because it is, by and large, a selfish act. They are praying for you so THEY feel better. “Whew. I did SOMETHING.” When my husband was very ill,I had so many people telling me they were praying for us. Well, whoopee. Hey, how ’bout driving the kids to band practice, baking a cake, putting a casserole in the freezer, walking my dogs, bringing me a sandwich as I’m sitting here in the hospital day and night, having the kids to your house for the night…? No one who said they were praying actually offered to DO anything tangible, but boy they sure felt good about themselves.

  • Andrew Lovley

    @ Nankay

    I think you’re wrong that prayer is by and large a selfish act, particularly when the subject of the prayer is another person’s welfare. As a nontheist, you do not believe that prayer has any real effect on life. However theists do believe that prayer has a real effect on life. So when a theist prays, I do not suspect they are consciously doing it just to make themselves feel better… in fact that may be the unintended by-product.

  • @nankay
    I like what you brought up because it underscores the fact that, for many Christians, prayer is “doing something.” The hucksters write whole books on how to pray, where to pray, whether or not to kneel, etc., etc. There’s a demented meme among Evangelicals that says prayer is, in fact, the most you can do for someone. So when you’ve done the most you can do for someone, why not pat yourself on the back? Moreover, when you’ve done the most you can do for someone, why do anything else? It’s in “God’s hands,” after all.

  • dale

    I’m sort of a casual Christian (I take the Bible with a grain of salt). I’ll tell people I’m praying for them only if something unfortunate happened and only if I think they’re somewhat religious too. If I know they’re Atheist I simply don’t bother because I know the phrase would be meaningless to them. Generally “I’m sorry for your loss” will suffice in the case of death. I guess there isn’t a time where it’s absolutely necessary to tell someone that you’re praying for them, it just sounds nice if you believe in that sort of thing.

    I don’t know everything, I’m just one person who thinks and feels things. I can’t prove or disprove God just like I can’t say it’s right or wrong to tell someone I’m praying for them. It’s easier to just lighten up in general and not worry about differences, everyone will believe what they want to believe unless they’re easily influenced. Way back when I was 15 I was questioning my beliefs and I tried to convince myself I was Atheist. I failed because it was impossible for me to think otherwise. That’s why I don’t do the preachy “I’m praying for you” garbage. If you believe you’re an Atheist that’s all you’re gonna be. The only thing that sucks for you is if my beliefs are correct, my soul can say “I told you so” after we die. That’s intended as a joke but it’s probably not funny to Atheists, just like anti-God humor isn’t funny to a lot of Theists. I had an Atheist friend once but he kept trying to push his beliefs on me (plus he was a gross womanizer who disrespected his wife on a daily basis) so we don’t talk anymore. I don’t know if there was a connection between the Atheism and the wife-disrespecting because of the lack of consequences in Atheist beliefs (non-beliefs?) but I wasn’t gonna stick around to find out. I didn’t like him as a person, and I don’t like people telling me what to believe or how to feel. I suppose not many people do.

    Anyway, I realize all of this is dumb, but I’m dumb, and everyone else is dumb too, and the sooner you realize these things the happier you will be. If you take a good look at everything you know it’s probably a bunch of trivial nonsense. That’s not a Theistic belief, that’s just what I’ve found through day-to-day living and socializing. We’re all different. Everyone will undoubtedly offend everyone else. I leave the house and get offended by awful drivers on a daily basis. Someone can look at me the wrong way and I’m offended. The world sucks, people suck, but I feel it’s better to just accept it all and roll with the punches because if you don’t it’s definitely going to get worse. Everything affects everything else. Negativity leads to more negativity, positivity leads to more positivity…at least I feel that way. If you “pray” or “wish” for someone it might put a smile on their face, and they might do something nice for someone else, then that person will do something nice, and so on and so forth. Again, it’s all just more of my dumb theories…I don’t know if it can be considered religious or not. Some circles would call it Karma, I call it that too but I have little interest in Eastern religions. Now I’m rambling. I’m done. Goodbye and have a lovely day.

  • Brandon

    Literally heart-warming, eh?

  • Lita

    I’ve never been offended by prayer. I like to think myself rational and I wouldn’t fly off the handle if someone ‘prayed’ for me. I feel they have every right to believe in what they want to believe in and express their sympathy however they choose just as I have the right to believe there is no god. I don’t think they intentionally do it to piss people off and the polite thing to do is smile and say ‘thank you’.

  • More self-congratulatory nonsense here. Read it with sunglasses; the sanctimony will burn your retinas.

  • Jeff Dale


    Glad you’re here. Nice name, btw.

    I don’t know if there was a connection between the Atheism and the wife-disrespecting because of the lack of consequences in Atheist beliefs (non-beliefs?)

    I’m gonna go with “not” on this one. The “lack of consequences” thing is a common fallacy that we need not sidetrack this thread for.

    I take the Bible with a grain of salt

    I take it with a pillar of salt. Hee hee, sorry I couldn’t resist. Cheers.

  • OneHandClapping

    I actually got into a bit of an altercation with a very religious neighbor who offered to give me a bible. I told her I’ve read the bible. She didn’t believe me and then went on to make some interesting and fun statements. This was one of my favorites: “I bet you read the bible when you were younger than you are now!” What do you know? She was right. Another was after she asked about my views on evolution and she scoffed replying “Who could think up a man and a woman?!” Yeah. That was her argument against evolution. But I digress.

    As we were parting ways she said “I’m going to pray for you” and I thought for a moment about what to say. I felt she was being an ornery old goat for telling me as much, since I just told her I was an atheist, so I said “It’s a free country, and I certainly can’t stop you.”

    I do think next time she offers me a bible I will offer her my copy of The God Delusion, though I hate to part with it.

    I have since spoken with her again, and found out she is a teeny bit racist (in the same way that the pyramids of Egypt must have been kind of hard to build). When she said we have lower crime here because there aren’t many black people, that’s what tipped me off.

  • Nicole


    … I find it terribly ironic (coming at this as an atheist) that you decide it is all about THEM wanting to put THEIR god in your life.

    The absolute, blinding hypocrisy of your post actually made my mouth fall open.

    Think carefully about what you wrote and then ask yourself: now who in this situation is self-centered–the person offering to pray (probably, as noted by posters above, out of a sense of helplessness) or the person who immediately assumes that he is so vitally important that everyone around him is attempting to hijack his beliefs with their “imaginary friend.” If you can’t see further than your own lack of belief when someone offers you sympathy, no matter what kind of package it comes in, YOU are the selfish and self-centered one.

    To the root of the post, I think Phira really, really summed this up well and basically said everything I could have wanted to say. I don’t get offended when people say they are praying for me. It won’t do any good, but “keeping me in their thoughts” won’t do me any good either even if it’s a more secular statement. And if we can’t have either of those, where does that leave us? As Phira noted, a rather hollow seeming, “that sucks” seems to be one of the only choices left.
    And before anyone suggests they offer to do something actually helpful, like cook for you when you are ill or whatever, INSTEAD of praying/keeping you in their thoughts… I have never seen someone do the one (pray/think) without the other (offer help) unless there WAS no way to help. Personally.

  • plutosdad

    I think it irritates me because it is, by and large, a selfish act

    This is the most important point I think in this whole thread. So many things people do are for themselves, not for the person in need. We feel better, but by doing that we really are serving ourselves. (If we want to point something out to christians: This is in a way the same point Samuel made to Saul when Saul sacrificed: god wants obedience not sacrifice. Do what’s right, not something special because you’ll feel better ).

    We do this to people we know in pain, we do it even politics (how many times have I heard “but we have to do something! even if we know it won’t work”). The need to “do something” is not noble, nor is it wise, and we should disabuse ourselves of that notion. It may sound clinical to do what needs to be done, but we are a better service to others when we do.

    Walking the dog is often better than bringing yet another casserole over, and certainly better than praying.

  • @Jeff Dale

    I don’t feel that the situation is symmetric. If I want express well-wishes to a religious relative, and I omit prayer, that can still be an inclusive form of expression. Merely omitting prayer does not raise the topic of our religious differences. But praying does. An exchange of sympathies is a highly inappropriate time to bring up religious differences.

    I should clarify/correct my previous statement. I don’t really care if people pray for me behind my back. Just don’t tell me about it, because for me, any feelings of sympathy are completely washed out by other thoughts. Thoughts like, “Do you even know me?” or “Ummmm… if you wanted to discuss religion with me, you could have chosen of a better time.”

  • this is what christopher hitchens said on the hugh hewitt show:

    ‘well, i mean, i don’t mind. it doesn’t hurt me. but for the same reason, i wish it was more consoling. but i have to say there’s some extremely nice people, including people known to you, have said that i’m in their prayers, and i can only say that i’m touched by the thought.’

    and this is what i wrote when i lost my mother:

    ‘she hasn’t passed away. she’s not resting in peace. she’s not in a better place and this didn’t happen for a reason.

    spare me any prayers.

    zoe se olous mas.’

  • Jeff Dale

    I don’t feel that the situation is symmetric. If I want express well-wishes to a religious relative, and I omit prayer, that can still be an inclusive form of expression. Merely omitting prayer does not raise the topic of our religious differences. But praying does. An exchange of sympathies is a highly inappropriate time to bring up religious differences.

    Not always, but a lot of the time I suspect that it is symmetric. For many religious people, speaking of prayer is routine, and the religious form of well-wishing is the default; they’d have to be careful not to speak that way if made aware that it would irritate the person they’re speaking to. Thus, much of the time (though far from all the time), they don’t intend it as a religious exhortation or a comment on the hearer’s religious opinions. Even if they do, or to the extent that it’s a sort of covert form of proselytizing they’re in the habit of doing, it’s no worse than all the other situations when they inject religion into the conversation, which we tend to ignore when harmless. Turning things around, even the religious people who ludicrously insist that atheists actually “know” God exists need not be offended if we decline to pray for them, since they know that’s not our thing. Seems to me we could take the same approach, or at least not feel the need to be more irritated in the particular case of well-wishing than in all the other God-talk. But each to his/her own.

  • john locke

    It only annoys me when people are praying for a person, but aren’t doing anything else when they can. For instance, if a friend is moving into a new house, I hear plenty of offers of prayer but very few offers of help with packing and unpacking. I also hear allot of people pray for the sick and poor yet do nothing to help them, when they have plenty of free time and disposable income.

    It feels like their prayers are just a way for people to look like they are helping without actually doing anythign.

  • Nick

    What if instead of wasting time debating on whether or not prayer should be challenged by atheists/etc, we just allow those who want to pray for us do so, after all they’re the ones wasting their time. Honestly, when most people say “I’ll pray for you”, they don’t really mean it, it’s just a way to let you know that they’ll be hoping that you’ll get better (whatever it is). The best solution? Deal. With. It.

  • I don’t care if they pray for me, long as they don’t make it known. Otherwise, telling me they’ll be praying is a not-so-subtle disapproval.

  • matt

    Generally I just let it go. If someone says they’ll pray for me I think of it like any other superstition. For example, if they were to say they’re going to dance in a circle three times and spit to give me good fortune. It’s stupid but harmless.

  • SickoftheUS

    I do look down on “god bless you”s when I or people I’m around sneeze. Why do so many people feel the need to DRAW ATTENTION to obnoxious bodily outbursts? Someone sneezed. Ok, life goes on, let’s not make a federal case out of it. The sneezer sure as hell doesn’t need another person’s deity’s blessing to get on with their life, and he also doesn’t need that person’s well wishes to get on with life after a sneeze, which is what the “god bless you” thing is really about.

    So many people are automatons, dumber than a box of rocks, their lives a series of socially-constructed duties and observances.

  • John

    I liked what Carol said:

    “I’ll give you the mindset of this Atheist. I really don’t care either way if you pray for me, but I do not appreciate it. I don’t appreciate the sentiments therein, because the vast majority of the time the prayer includes having your imaginary friend “save” me by making me believe precisely as you do. It’s inherently bigoted, in that it seeks to override my beliefs and replace them with your own through divine intervention.

    Now, as I said, I don’t really care either way if you do it. Talk to your floor or ceiling all you want. Since there actually is no god, your intentions do not work. However, do not ask me to appreciate your intentions.”

    Another thing – he published a book called “god is Not Great- How Religion Poisons Everything” – so I think it would be rude to pray for him!- Especially writing a letter like that pastor did.

  • Dan W

    Prayer is worse than useless. It’s doing nothing while thinking you’re helping. Instead of praying for me when I’m ill or dealing with stressful situations, I’d rather have my religious friends do something useful to help me out. It’s nice that they think about me in times of trouble, but if they wanted to help me in such times they could actually DO something useful instead of praying to an imaginary deity for me.

  • Godless Lawyer

    My standard response to ‘I’ll say a prayer for you’ is ‘I’d rather you didn’t, but I appreciate the sentiment.’

  • Sue

    One of my Christian friends says “Would it be OK if I prayed for you?” rather than just “I’ll pray for you” if she knows the person she wants to pray for is an atheist. I’d generally say yes, but I appreciate that she respects my non-beliefs enough to ask first.

  • Nicole, I suggest you look up the words “ironic” and “hypocrisy”.

    If you can’t see further than your own lack of belief when someone offers you sympathy, no matter what kind of package it comes in, YOU are the selfish and self-centered one.

    Is that what they’re doing with their offer to pray? Are they offering sympathy? Maybe they are but why can’t they do it without making a public declaration of their piety? They are saying “I can’t think of any way to help you. Did I mention that I believe in God”. Maybe people don’t think that way but that is what they are doing and it is rude.

    And before anyone suggests they offer to do something actually helpful, like cook for you when you are ill or whatever, INSTEAD of praying/keeping you in their thoughts… I have never seen someone do the one (pray/think) without the other (offer help) unless there WAS no way to help. Personally.

    How fortunate for you. My experience of people who offer to pray for you is that they can’t wait to get out of the door. They’ve offered their meaningless platitudes and can then go away with a smug feeling of having done something even though they haven’t.

    You know what makes it worse though? People who offer to pray and follow through because they are genuinely concerned are people who sincerely believe that intercessory prayer can change thing. They believe that by praying they can influence their god to change things. If things don’t change they believe that it is all because of “God’s Plan”. This same “God’s Plan” that inflicted the illness or trouble on someone in the first place. If they believe this then why aren’t they apologising on behalf of their god? Their god who gives people cancer, takes children from parents or wives from husbands all because it fits into his plan.

    That offends me. The problem of evil hasn’t gone away and all the offers of prayer don’t square the circle.

  • Technomancer

    I’d rather they didn’t. Despite the questionably good intentions, it doesn’t actually help and indeed causes harm by simply strengthing the false notion that doing absolutely nothing is actually beneficial.

  • Gibbon


    They are saying “I can’t think of any way to help you. Did I mention that I believe in God”. Maybe people don’t think that way but that is what they are doing and it is rude.

    The problem with this is that it is YOUR interpretation of the sentiments of another person. They may be offering a prayer, but that you automatically interpret it as an attempt by them to insert their beliefs means that the problem is not with the person but rather with you. Unless you have that intimate knowledge of the person’s intentions to know their motive for the prayer, you can’t say that they are making it about their god.

    What makes it more likely that the problem is with you rather than with the prayer or the religious person is the fact that it is fairly obvious that you hold a personal bias against religion. There is also the fact that other atheists here have expressed either benign or semi-positive opinions about prayers, which means that the problem is not with the prayer it self.


    it doesn’t actually help and indeed causes harm by simply strengthing the false notion that doing absolutely nothing is actually beneficial..

    Except where they can’t help in any practical way. If you’re facing a medical problem that only a doctor or a surgeon can solve then surely there is no harm if your friends pray for you. What else can they do?

  • plutosdad

    I was thinking a good response that would not offend them might be “instead of praying for me pray about how you can glorify god in this situation”. Since even when I was a christian i thought those were really the types of prayer Jesus taught about, not asking for a list of things like you’re talking to Santa. Also, they will probably do it, and then their prayer might end up a meditation on what they can do, and so they might end up actually helping you instead of just pretending.

    Gibbon wrote:

    What else can they do?

    Oh, clean your house, walk your dog, drive your kids to activities. There are a million things people do for each other when one is in need. Even sit by your bed and read you a funny book you like. There is no shortage of help that can be given and appreciated.

  • muggle

    It all depends on the context. A concerned friend is a concerned friend and shouldn’t be rejected for not expressing that concern in a PC manner. The important thing is that they are concerned and want to be there for you. Yes, maybe knowing your Atheist, it would be politer to go ahead and pray for you but keep that to themselves; however, in times of stress, people can be numb in the mind and the words they feel come out so let it slide. I usually shrug and say it can’t hurt. It is also their way of letting you know they’re there for you. If they’re willing to pray, presumably, they’re also willing to help in any other way that they can and you can feel free to ask them to.

    However, when they say I’ll pray for you (I had to edit that; I typed it pray to you, talk about your Freudian slips) like that proves something, they’re assholes, plain and simple. Let them know it. Or if after the shock of your illness has passed and their mind’s no longer numb with worry, if they give god instead of your doctors the credit, laugh and say ok so I didn’t need the hospital visit then?

    Also, the ones who do it to preach and push god deserve rudeness. I fear that’s what this church is doing in praying for Hitch so they deserve the flak they’re getting all over the Atheist blogosphere, the scumbags.

  • NorDog

    I’m a bit late to this thread, so I followed the link to the article by the priest that included this…

    “One of the greatest Catholic apologists of all time, G.K. Chesterton, debated the agnostic George Bernard Shaw up and down England, and their arguments were often pointed and aggressive; but after the debates, the two friends could be seen drinking and laughing together. That’s a model of how a Christian treats his intellectual opponents.”

    That passage reminded me of something.

    In the late 90’s I had the pleasure of knowing Tony Snow. In 1999 I spent the summer in D.C. as an intern at a magazine. Tony Snow had always said to contact him if I ever made it to D.C. so of course I rang him up. He was kind enough to give me a tour of the Fox News studios near Capitol Hill.

    In our discussions Tony related that he and Christopher Hitchens were close friends, and he told some stories about how they came to know one another.

    Having just become aware of Hitch’s, ah, disdain for religion and his take down book about Mother Teresa, I was amazed to learn of this friendship. I was surprised to learn that Hitch would even talk to a Christian, let alone be a close friend to one.

    People are complicated; aren’t we?

    I read with some considerable despair many comments on this site in which Christians are vilified. Yet the irony is that I share many of the same views. Some of the worst examples of goodness (or greatest examples of the lack of goodness) I’ve seen come from Christians.

    So I don’t disagree with most of these observations, I just despair that comments tend to be overly generalized to the point of being categorical.

    In addition to the fact that the comments tend to not allow that we are all complicated, there are many comments that seem to indicate that anyone who has religious faith is one who is to be held in contempt, incapable of rationality, and always possessed of nefarious motivations.

    I have friends of no faith. Heck, I was agnostic myself for many years.

    It is clear that atheists proclaim that they don’t need a non-existent God to be happy, do the right thing, etc. But no matter how many friends one has, I would think everyone could use another.

  • Gibbon


    Oh, clean your house, walk your dog, drive your kids to activities. There are a million things people do for each other when one is in need. Even sit by your bed and read you a funny book you like. There is no shortage of help that can be given and appreciated.

    But what if you have more friends and family than is necessary to do those things? And what about the different relationship you have with your friends and family? There are some people in your life who are much closer to you than some others are; they are the people that are better suited for certain personal issues than others are. Would you trust someone you don’t see as often as some of your other friends, to do your more personal chores? Would you trust someone that you see only once or twice a week to transport your children, walk the dog, even clean your house, or would you prefer that those things be done by the person you see every day?

    Those people closest to you will do those chores you can’t do because of medical issues, while those people not quite as close can express sentiment for you or support you in their own ways, including prayer if they are religious.

  • cogent46

    When someone tells me “I’ll pray for you,” I respond “Don’t waste your time.”

    They have expressed an interest in my well being in the context of their beliefs, and I have responded in kind.

  • Gibbon

    The problem with this is that it is YOUR interpretation of the sentiments of another person.

    Well of course it is. We interpret everything that people say and do.

    you can’t say that they are making it about their god.

    They’re bringing up their god. How are they not making it about their god?

    problem is not with the prayer it self

    No, it is using someone’s grief or vulnerability to proselytize. You might think that it is fairly innocuous or even well intentioned but it is still proselytising. I do have a problem with that.

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