Why I Care About Prayer July 16, 2010

Why I Care About Prayer

by Jesse Galef –

Yesterday I asked how you would react to someone praying for you. Your reactions spanned the gamut, as I expected.

There’s one type of response I wanted to specifically address, because I think it’s a common one: why would I possibly object to someone trying to be nice?

I was originally motivated to write yesterday’s post after Chris Stedman of the Interfaith Youth Core tweeted the question. I’ve met Chris in person a few times – we disagree on a lot of interfaith issues, but he’s a nice guy. On his NonProphet Status blog, he posted a response to me, epitomizing that common response:

It seems Jesse and I are more or less on the same page when it comes to how we internally react to prayer — he too appreciates the good intentions of those who pray — but we differ in that he also thinks it is important in such moments to assert to the individual offering prayer that it won’t work.

But more importantly: why does it matter [whether prayer works]? So my classmates at Loyola think that prayer works and I remain unconvinced. Why should I try to dissuade them from that belief? Seems self-important and unnecessary to me. And, more importantly, their kind intention actually means a lot to me. We have a relationship of mutual concern and care — why would I want to go and ruin that by trying to assert my so-called “intellectual authority”? I’m a lot more interested in the fact that they care enough about me and my well-being to take a moment of their day to wish me well.

Perhaps I didn’t go into enough depth in my last post, because I don’t feel like this is an accurate representation of what I would do. There’s a case to be made that direct confrontation serves a valuable role, but I don’t think it’s my role. So I’ll use my own words instead of Dennett’s in an attempt to be more clear. Why do I care about someone praying for me?

I certainly appreciate it when someone has kind thoughts or kind words for me. (Many commenters assumed that the person praying has ulterior motives, but I’m only addressing the cases in which they sincerely want to show good will.) And I’ll express my thanks for that – I think we all should! I don’t have a problem with that. But it’s not all about the words they’re saying. It’s about the whole message being sent.

If meant literally – if the well-wisher genuinely thinks prayer will do good – then the message they’re sending is not just “I hope you get better” it’s also “I believe prayer works, disregarding standards of evidence, science, and the importance of reason.” I have a problem with that message.

Even if not meant literally – if the well-wisher is merely using the phrase to express concern and care – then their message is also “morality and concern for others is connected with religion.” I have a problem with that message, too.

I care about prayer because I think it sends and reinforces memes which are detrimental to society. As a glorified bastion of irrationality, religion does unnecessary harm to ethics, scientific discovery, and politics – fields with particular potential to alleviate the world’s problems. But the prayer is wrapped around good intentions. What are we to do? It’s a complex message and deserves a complex reply. If at all possible, I want to show gratitude for the good parts while diverting focus from the religious components. For example:

  • “My family will appreciate knowing that you care. It’s so important to have friends and neighbors who support each other.”
  • “Thank you for the thought. I sure hope the surgery goes well, too – those doctors are impressive. We should really donate to the hospital.”

These lines subtly shifts to a humanistic frame, where what really matters is what we can do for one another here on Earth.

One thing I keep hearing is that prayer makes people feel better in the face of being helpless. But humanism can be empowering! It emphasizes what IS under our control. We can be there for each other emotionally, we can support medical research, we can volunteer our time when it’s needed. Science and reason are the best ways to combat helplessness in the long run – the more we understand about the world, the better we can react and adapt.

Let me see if I can put some of my own advice into practice: Chris, I’m completely with you that it’s important to have mutual concern and care for one another. Science, humanism, and reason are such great tools to care for each other. Wouldn’t you agree?

(photo © Adrian van Leen for openphoto.net CC:PublicDomain)


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  • Hitch

    A deeper concern is something else. Do we help others or do we do thinks that we claim help.

    Some of the most annoying thing I know is someone who says they want to help but actually don’t understand what help is needed and do something else, that then is either insensitive, disruptive or counterproductive.

    To pray for an atheist can be nice. But it can also be insensitive. It’s in fact very much the same as going into a church and telling worshippers there that they prayers are futile.

    However we hardly ever discuss both sides of these kinds of insensitivities. Only things told to believers are usually recognized as insensitive, not that a believer can be insensitive to someone of a different faith.

    We have to respect the intentions of prayer, but we are told not to respect the intentions of someone who goes into a church to spread his idea of doubt in faith.

    The underlying bias is that faith is inherently good and we should not criticize that goodness, whereas disbelief, skepticism, etc is fair game and deserves no inherent recognition for the goodness that may be part of an action.

    I think we should recognize all goodness, all good intentions and all misunderstandings. We should recognize if something is meant well, but doesn’t do well. And that should be for everybody, independent of world view.

  • phira

    I think that another issue at hand here is that of intentions. When someone says that they’ll pray for me or for something, I’m almost always sure that their intentions are good. But it still makes me uncomfortable. And when the pray-er’s reaction to being told this is, “Well, I mean it in a good way, so just appreciate what I’m doing,” it just makes me angry.

    Intentions matter. But the way that your actions and words are received, regardless of intentions, also matters. Otherwise, no one would apologize for anything or forgive anyone, etc. etc. Saying that people should ignore their own feelings and just accept your good intentions is rude.

  • Justin

    If I fall ill, and someone expresses their intent to pray for me, it forces a conundrum on me. I can:

    1) Express my appreciation of the thought and ignore the failure of prayer out of politeness. However, should I pull through, there is a good chance that the other party will not be so polite in declaring the correlation between his prayer and my recovery, then using it to proselytize, not only to me, but anyone willing to hear his anecdote.

    2) Confront the other party belligerently (or ignore him altogether) and reinforce every magical belief that he may hold.

    3) Express my appreciation of the thought, but politely ask that the other party refrain from prayer, explaining the concept of confirmation bias and my desire to not be complicit in reinforcing it for anyone.

    There may be other responses, but the third response seems the most reasonable to me.

  • Andrew Lovley

    If meant literally – if the well-wisher genuinely thinks prayer will do good – then the message they’re sending is not just “I hope you get better” it’s also “I believe prayer works, disregarding standards of evidence, science, and the importance of reason.” I have a problem with that message.

    Even if not meant literally – if the well-wisher is merely using the phrase to express concern and care – then their message is also “morality and concern for others is connected with religion.” I have a problem with that message, too.

    Would you ever be okay with someone expressing their ideas of how the world works when they differ from your own?

    What kind of world would we live in if we are offended any time someone understands the world differently? How productive, truly, if at all, would it be to debate every little last detail that is in contention?

    You can choose to be ‘that guy’ who is compelled to stop whatever is going on the next time someone says “Wow you’re lucky,” or “I’m crossing my fingers,” but I’d just assume let these kind of things go. Not everyone signs up for philosophical debate class each time they talk to someone.

  • Jesse Galef

    @Andrew –

    What kind of world would we live in if we are offended any time someone understands the world differently? How productive, truly, if at all, would it be to debate every little last detail that is in contention?

    Offended? No, I’m not offended, so I never used that phrase. But I think the memes being spread are subtly harmful to society. So I want to help spread good memes in their place.

  • Naked Ape

    My response to believers stating that they are praying for me is to thank them for thinking of me, and then ask them to please refrain from praying for me because I am in the control group.

    Cheers,

    Naked Ape

  • Andrew Lovley

    I think many of us non-theists are mistakenly hopeful when we guage our chances of success in swaying people away from their supernatural beliefs.

    For one, people stick very firmly to their beliefs, even when presented with ‘facts’ that are contrary. In fact, they may become more entrenched with their belief. This has been supported empirically by a study from the Univ. of Michigan recently.

    Two, every person who is born on this earth is born with a world-view vacuum, and will actively devise a way to understand the world from their culture, society, family, and experience. How often do you think each new human being will adopt the scientific world-view? I’d say the chances are slim, and always will be. Folk-psychology and Folk-philosophy will always reign.

    Lastly, this is where humanism and cosmopolotanism come into play – is a constant clash over world-view something that we want to help foster and encourage? It is this clash that has led to some of the fiercest conflicts in human history. We should instead accept difference, target extremism, and promote cooperation. To argue every little difference just adds fuel to the fire, and produces unhealthy social anomie.

  • Andrew Lovley

    @ Jesse

    when you said “I have a problem with that message.” I interpretted that as “I am offended by that message.”

  • Viggo the Carpathian

    I have been getting more and more uncomfortable with people praying for me. I know it does no good but mostly I feel embarrassed for the person who is revealing themselves to be so gullible and deluded.

  • Viggo the Carpathian

    I scrolled through the FB updates from my friends list. There were 4 references to prayer in the last 12 hours. Even people I don’t think of a religious just throw it in.

  • plutosdad

    One thing I keep hearing is that prayer makes people feel better in the face of being helpless. But humanism can be empowering!

    I agree, which is better:
    1. to accept what cannot be controlled
    2. to think if you pray enough or change enough a god may change your situation depending on if it’s his will,

    The first leads to acceptance and peace

    The second, leads to almost praying every spare moment (and choosing prayer over other activities) because you don’t know when god might suddenly change his mind and heal you. The sicker you are the more neurotic and dangerous this could become. (If anyone has been truly sick with horrible fatigue they know the difference between praying and resting.)

    Finally there is incredible irony in the 2nd belief, since it’s a well known prayer that “God grant that can accept the things that I cannot change”, and then turn around and pray god changes them, since basically this means you haven’t accepted it, you think you can change it by praying enough.

  • Angela VanBuren

    when i was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis the father of a friend of mine asked her if it would be ok to pray for me. i really appreciated that he respected my beliefs enough to ask first.

  • I used to get upset when somebody, usually a store clerk, said something like “have a blessed day” instead of “have a good day” or “good-bye.” However, like the FA, I’ve come to realize that for most the phrase “have a blessed day” is simply another form of wishing me well.

    Now, if somebody would say to me “have a blessed day… you know, jesus loves you”, I would take offense at the fact that a civil wish of wellness has turned into proselytizing.

    So, if somebody said “they are praying for me”, I’ll accept that as a civil wishing of wellness. Should they say “I’ll pray for you, because only through jesus can you be saved” they will deserve every bit of the response that I give them.

  • yoshi

    I’m perplexed why people get freaked out by someone doing something that has zero impact on you.

    I have one or two family members praying for me to leave my “sinful gay lifestyle”. Don’t care. Its their issue – not mine. Its has zero impact on my life.

  • SickoftheUS

    Excellent response from Jesse, and similar to the point I was going to make in yesterday’s thread.

    Dawkins and others have pointed out that when people invest time/energy in prayer and other religious activities, and when they let those beliefs become a significant part of their waking life, then there is great opportunity cost – the cost of actually efficacious actions and brainstorming and other directed human energy, which will never be actualized because the believers used their finite energy for religious nothingness.

    One might argue that an “I’m praying for you” takes little energy and sacrifices nothing. But if it takes little energy, it’s offered mindlessly. Compassion takes energy, and the energy of real compassion can get transformed into useful action. That’s what these little rituals stifle.

  • Andrew Lovley

    It seems hypocritical to me to want the religious to accept our non-religiousness and not try to convert us, yet we cannot accept their religiousness and we do try to convert them. What happened to Live and Let Live?

  • LarryD

    Two points…

    First, many people offer prayer in a lazy way as if it means they are doing something to help me. They may truly be empathetic, but if they want to do something that really matters then maybe they could feed my cats, mow my lawn, or take my children to their ball games. If all they wish to do is express empathy, then do that and then a simple, “Man, that sucks…” suffices.

    Second… prayer sends a sub-message of ‘you are helpless’ and does nothing to actually build a person up. This isn’t surprising since most religions are built on the concept of we are worthless and doomed without divine intervention. What many converts find is that it is empowering to give up prayer and religion because you can start looking at what is possible instead of relying on the sky daddy.

    These two reasons are why I do not appreciate people praying for me. It’s similar to what Hitchens says (paraphrase) that while in some contexts religion may do no harm, there is certainly nothing religion inherently offers that isn’t otherwise already available.

    All of that said, I usually tell those who pray for me that I appreciate their concern and then I look to my real friends to provide true support.

  • Moxiequz

    One might argue that an “I’m praying for you” takes little energy and sacrifices nothing. But if it takes little energy, it’s offered mindlessly.

    That’s very poor logic. It takes little energy for me to say “Thank you very much!” to someone who offers me a compliment. That doesn’t mean I’m saying that “mindlessly”. When I’m complimented I’m genuinely grateful and I wish to sincerely offer my thanks.

    On the flip side, not everything that has had major effort and energy put into it is “mindful” or well thought out. Creation Museum anyone?

    Effort/Energy does not necessarily equate to sincerity/mindfulness.

  • I’m okay with prayer from the “I’m indicating to you that I care about you and am concerned about you and hope you get better” standpoint.

    My biggest problem is that time wasted in prayer could be spent doing other actually useful things. Nothing was ever accomplished by someone sitting around on their ass and talking to themselves.

  • defiantnonbeliever

    I always hear (‘I’ll torture a helpless animal in sacrifice ritual for you, and habitually proselytize to you and insult you without thinking, as I do with all potential and current believers’) behind the words on tape.

    I’m both embarrassed for them and fearful of any political and social power they might have. I can’t understand why they can’t see that a ‘well meant’ propaganda phrase is insulting, why not see it for the slur against others it is? If it’s said like, ‘I’m crossing my fingers for you’ it’s often said with a wink, if like the nazi tag phrase it’s an affirmation of supremacy. Just because a slur is habitual doesn’t excuse it. Will I ignore it or say, ‘thanks for the caring but don’t swear at me while expressing it’ or not, idk, depends on my mood. Do I feel like being the moth eaten old bitty who threatens children with soap, switch, or strap abuse and chastises everyone else for using ‘dirty words’ or not? Do I call out every racist term used in casual conversation? Nope, just on occasion as it’s rarely fun.

  • Ron in Houston

    Honestly, I couldn’t give a flip whether they say “I’ll pray for you” or “I hope you die mother f***er.”

    About the only way they matter is to show me how successful I am in my human interactions.

    It’s a little different for folks like Hitchens because he’s such an outspoken atheist. However, probably 95% of the time “I’ll pray for you” is just as benign as saying “bless you” when someone sneezes.

  • Justin

    It seems hypocritical to me to want the religious to accept our non-religiousness and not try to convert us, yet we cannot accept their religiousness and we do try to convert them. What happened to Live and Let Live?

    There is a difference. Evidence should convert. When they proselytize, they have none. When we tell them that prayer doesn’t have an effect, we do.

    At any rate, your responses lead to a 4th alternative I didn’t consider earlier, but that wouldn’t be an attempt to convert anyone:

    4) I could hide from religious family and friends any situation or occurrence in life over which they would feel compelled to pray. If there isn’t anyone trustworthy enough to not leak the information, I could tell no one. If my appearance or voice would give away my condition, I could avoid seeing or speaking to religious family and friends.

    I’m sure they would all find the above solution much less offensive than simply telling them and asking them not to pray for me, since, as Naked Ape brilliantly phrased it earlier, I’m in the control group.

  • It seems hypocritical to me to want the religious to accept our non-religiousness and not try to convert us, yet we cannot accept their religiousness and we do try to convert them. What happened to Live and Let Live?

    Opportunity cost of time spent in prayer vs. time being productive is a big one.

    This is best answered by a Greta Christina Meme of the Day:

    Why do many atheists care what other people believe? Because people act on their beliefs. If religious beliefs only affected the people who held them, most atheists wouldn’t care very much about them.

  • Andrew Lovley

    So how much does it affect you if someone says that you’re in their prayers? Chances are they pray every day anyway, and they’ll just add you to their list of things to pray about that day. Honestly, how many people do you believe pray and do nothing else? It doesn’t seem to me that those who pray believe it is a substitute for other actions, but rather a supplement. My grandfather, an avid prayer, believes it is wrong and irresponsible of people to not take their children to the hospital when they’re sick, and to pray instead. Even after people have done all they can, in material terms, sometimes they wish they could do just a little more, and soliciting the mercy of the benevolent god they believe in is just one more thing they can do. I say let them do it.

  • My wife and I had a difficult time getting pregnant, and we weren’t willing to pay huge fees for the potential. Eventually we came to terms with the reality of not having children. A few years later the unexpected happens, and she gets pregnant.

    A good friend of mine then says: “I didn’t want to tell you, but I was praying for you and I asked God to give you a child.”

    Later, when I was talking with his girlfriend I said: “Apparently Andy is responsible for my wife getting pregnant.”

    He had to explain that he had only “helped.”

    I told him I was only trying to give him the credit he thought he deserved.

  • There’s another issue here, too, which is: Does the person who’s telling you they’re praying for you know that you’re an atheist?

    If they don’t, my inclination would be to try to see it in the best possible light — as a sincere positive wish — and give a polite, entirely secular reply, as Jesse suggested.

    But if they know I’m an atheist? That’s just obnoxious. That’s like saying to a Jewish friend, “I know that the good lord Jesus Christ is with you during this time of trouble.” It’s a passive-aggressive jab — presumably at a time when what I need is genuine support. I’d probably still respond politely and secularly — but I’d be more ticked off about it.

  • stevekensington

    When someone says “I’ll pray for you” I usually remain silent, but it takes an effort not to reply “What, you’re trying to manipulate God?”.

  • Moxiequz

    I apologize for this off topic comment but are the email notifications for follow-up comments supposed to be working? I clicked the “Notify” box when I posted my comment and have yet to receive a single email. Does it work for anyone else?

  • SickoftheUS

    There’s another issue here, too, which is: Does the person who’s telling you they’re praying for you know that you’re an atheist?

    If they don’t, my inclination would be to try to see it in the best possible light — as a sincere positive wish — and give a polite, entirely secular reply, as Jesse suggested.

    Why do you give them a pass for *assuming* you’re a co-believer? If the other person started ranting to you friendlily about the wetbacks or the n*ggers, would you give them a pass because they were just assuming you’re also a racist?

  • SickoftheUS

    One might argue that an “I’m praying for you” takes little energy and sacrifices nothing. But if it takes little energy, it’s offered mindlessly.

    That’s very poor logic. It takes little energy for me to say “Thank you very much!” to someone who offers me a compliment. That doesn’t mean I’m saying that “mindlessly”. When I’m complimented I’m genuinely grateful and I wish to sincerely offer my thanks.

    Compassion or caring for someone else does take real energy and mental focus, more than is expended by any kind of brief social nicety. If a believer thinks someone’s problem at hand is significant enough that they are in need of divine intercession, then it’s probably the case that the problem deserves more attention than what is offered by a passing “I’m praying for you” or “You’re the best!”

  • I like the gorilla theatre tactics of Naked Ape (don’t pray for me I’m in the control group) and Shawn (“Apparently Andy is responsible for my wife getting pregnant.”)

    That aside, I must admit that I pray, and frequently. Now I self-identify as agnostic, not atheist, so I don’t see any real contradiction there. And like any good agnostic, I find that prayer has the same look and feel as talking to a wall. Why do I do it? I just do. Maybe it’s just a case of old habits die hard.

    And I DO NOT do prayers on behalf of my friends.

  • .

    Why do you give them a pass for *assuming* you’re a co-believer? If the other person started ranting to you friendlily about the wetbacks or the n*ggers, would you give them a pass because they were just assuming you’re also a racist?

    The difference is that currently, religion is still ubiquitous and racism is not. Its on the same level of a fellow Montrealer assuming I’m a Canadiens fan. People tend to live in their own microcosm.
    Personally, I’d correct his misapprehension, but I’d let the presumption slide in this context

  • Gibbon

    One question for all those who object to a person offering prayer:

    Isn’t it little more that an assumption that the only purpose of prayer is to control the situation, like when a person is ill and someone prays for them to get better? Surely it needs to be recognised that there are multiple reasons for making a prayer, such sentiment, or support.

    With this whole discussion on prayer I’m reminded of a scene from a 6th season episode of M*A*S*H. In the episode Major Winchester is informed by Father Mulcahy that one of his patients has pulled through after surgery, and after the Father expresses how his prayers were answered (also expressing ‘Thank God’) the Major states condescendingly that it was his surgical skills that saved the patient. At that point Father Mulcahy responds by saying that that is what he prayed for.

    A rather humorous scene and admittedly one of the reasons why Mulcahy was one of my favourite characters on the show.

  • Like a commenter from the last article, I feel that the phrase ‘I’ll pray for you’ is too often said as a plattitude and as a way to dismiss the atheist and to end the conversation. It implies judgement on the part of the one offering prayer. To them, it’s a way to disagree without actually saying, “I think you’re wrong.” I have more respect for the theist that can tell me I’m full of s***, than the one who dismissively says, “I’ll pray for you.”

    Sometimes the phrase is genuine. It’s hard to tell sometimes.

  • Mike

    I care about prayer because I think it sends and reinforces memes which are detrimental to society. As a glorified bastion of irrationality, religion does unnecessary harm to ethics, scientific discovery, and politics – fields with particular potential to alleviate the world’s problems.

    Full Disclosure: Atheist talking…

    I disagree with this. It is people (typically using religion as justification) who do ‘ unnecessary harm to ethics, scientific discovery, and politics.’ There are plenty of religious people who do many things to advance ethics, scientific discovery, and politics (do we really want to include that one?) as well.

    I also disagree with the false dichotomy of “if they’re praying for me they are not doing anything useful.” For all you know, the person praying for you could also be slipping the nurse a $20 to take extra good care of you, or planning on bringing dinner over or just stopping by your family’s house to offer moral support. I think it is disingenuous to assume that those who pray, will only pray. Or that only humanists will “be there for each other emotionally, — can support medical research, [and] can volunteer — time when it’s needed.” I fear you are simply projecting the worst of them on all of them.

    I also disagree with the concept of the “opportunity cost” of praying. Really? How long do you think these people are spending praying for you? I guaran-damn-tee you that the average theist (at least in the US) is spending far, far more time watching TV than praying. If you want to focus on opportunity cost, perhaps that would be the place to start…

    It seems hypocritical to me to want the religious to accept our non-religiousness and not try to convert us, yet we cannot accept their religiousness and we do try to convert them. What happened to Live and Let Live?

    “There is a difference. Evidence should convert. When they proselytize, they have none. When we tell them that prayer doesn’t have an effect, we do.”

    I’m sorry, I have to agree with Andrew. What “evidence” do we have? An article in the press? Did you (we) do the research? Did you (we) observe the research? No, we just reference an article that presents information that we believe in, because we believe in and trust science (and apparently the media). The same way that christians trust in the bible. (BTW, I’m playing devil’s advocate here.) Keep in mind, science (and the media) told us eggs were good for us, and then they were bad for us, and then they were good for us again. I’m not saying that science is worthless, but unless you are a scientist, almost every scientific thing you believe in, you believe because it was written in a book or someone told you about it. (BTW, I’m playing devil’s advocate here.) How do you know what you read or were told is true? (Did I mention I’m playing devils advocate here?)

  • SickoftheUS

    Why do you give them a pass for *assuming* you’re a co-believer? If the other person started ranting to you friendlily about the wetbacks or the n*ggers, would you give them a pass because they were just assuming you’re also a racist?

    The difference is that currently, religion is still ubiquitous and racism is not. Its on the same level of a fellow Montrealer assuming I’m a Canadiens fan. People tend to live in their own microcosm.

    So if you happened to live in a society where a majority of your social group are racists – whites in 1840s southern US, for example – then you don’t call out your fellow citizens’ racism because of some kind of majority rules thinking?

    Isn’t tyranny of the majority a big reason atheists’ civil rights are constantly abused, and why we need to NOT be silent?

  • What we’re all ignoring here is that “I’ll pray for you” is often said in a “fuck you” kind of way.

    My typical response anymore is a cheery, “Hail Satan!”

  • Jeff Dale

    @Mike, Esq., advocatus diaboli:

    What “evidence” do we have? An article in the press? Did you (we) do the research? Did you (we) observe the research? No, we just reference an article that presents information that we believe in, because we believe in and trust science (and apparently the media). The same way that christians trust in the bible. … almost every scientific thing you believe in, you believe because it was written in a book or someone told you about it. … How do you know what you read or were told is true?

    We don’t have to be scientists to know that published, peer-reviewed scientific papers, though not infallible, are vastly more reliable than religious texts. We believe what we read about science because we know there’s a good process for acquiring knowledge and carefully screening out nonsense. Media reliability is another issue, but mitigated in the case of science because of how much generally goes on behind the scenes before scientists even come forward with a story. Not everything we read about science will turn out to be true, but it’s generally a pretty safe bet. In the case of religious texts, we have both their obscure ancient origins in ignorant, unscientific, barbaric peoples and the epistemic fog of modern adherents not eager to uncover or face the truth about those texts. These people actually make a virtue of blind faith and dogged insistence on incredible and unverifiable claims. I don’t have a hard time deciding which side to trust.

  • Anuja

    I didn’t realize this whole “how to respond” bit was as big an issue as it seems to be. Typically, I’ll assume good intent. (If the intent is passive aggressive or less-than-positive, I don’t really care what they believe and I’m not going to waste time thinking of a response because what they’ve said are just words, no matter how uncomfortable; I will ignore them just like I ignore other uncomfortable words such as “what’s up, baby?” from complete strangers.)

    Assuming good intent, I generally respond similarly to Jesse’s sample responses, closer to the first. I suppose I could also remind them that I certainly don’t intend to pray for myself, so they don’t need to, but if they would like to pray, that’s fine. In an emotional, irrational forum, it’s not my place to check these beliefs. In a forum for intelligent discussion (or when I’m angry at the guy who proselytizes outside my local Panera), I’m happy to challenge these beliefs. Yes, they’re irrational, and yes, they make me uncomfortable, but if prayer does no good, it can’t do any harm beyond reinforcing a stupid belief system. And there are better places and more dignified ways to challenge that belief system. When I have limited time and am expected to respond politely, I’d prefer not to prompt a knee-jerk anti-atheist response.

    The other big problem is that prayer is a freebie– it’s a way to claim you’re helping without needing to actually buy, make, or do anything. If I were to ask the same friend to refrain from praying for me, but spend the same amount of time making me a handmade card (for free, using anything they had lying around at home), I’d be considered greedy or just weird. But the reason is that the “pray-er” would feel reluctant to do more work than just “praying,” and angry at me for asking, and then ashamed for not being willing to do it because they’d realize it was rational request or at least rude/hypocritical to say no, and then angry again because I made them feel ashamed.

    So, generally, I prefer a nice “thank you for thinking of me. I don’t really pray, but if you want to, that’s very kind. ” And if you want to follow it up with “and here’s how else you can help,” or “if I think of a way you can help, may I call you?” or just a “let’s keep in touch and go for coffee sometime (so I can have this full-length conversation about my beliefs with you),” then I think that’s quite alright.

  • muggle

    Anjua, I like your response best of all I’ve read so far.

    Jesse, please tell me this is your last post on this subject; it’s getting a bit old.

    Do I really have to repeat yet again it depends on the circumstances, whose saying and how they’re saying it.

    But this:

    “My family will appreciate knowing that you care. It’s so important to have friends and neighbors who support each other.”
    “Thank you for the thought. I sure hope the surgery goes well, too – those doctors are impressive. We should really donate to the hospital.”

    is far more benign than I thought you were driving at and more than acceptable answers as long as said politely. So I’ll refrain from lecturing yet again.

    However, please, enough with this same topic every two days.

  • Mike

    We believe what we read about science because we know there’s a good process for acquiring knowledge and carefully screening out nonsense.

    Do we? Or have we been told there is?

    Will someone swat that little devil off my shoulder already!

  • Jeff Dale

    Do we? Or have we been told there is?
    Will someone swat that little devil off my shoulder already!

    Heh heh. Silly atheist. You know there’s no such thing as devils. 😉

    I’ll put it a different way. Consider the case of evolution and its deniers. In order for evolution not to be true, it must be the case that there’s a massive conspiracy and cover-up to pretend that evolution is true. Thousands or millions of scientists, in various countries around the world, across over a century of time, across all the various disciplines that touch on biology, involving vast amounts of time and wealth invested in research, countless published articles and books, results duplicated and articles peer reviewed by other scientists (also in on the secret), along with all the friends and relatives of these scientists (to whom presumably some secrets must slip from time to time), and with all that, supposedly this great secret has never come to light in the media, never been exposed by someone’s disgruntled spouse or academic rival, never been exposed by a scientist with a conscience, or a biology major not yet in on the conspiracy, or a document left lying around, or a careless email. Deniers do offer “evidence” that they think casts doubt on evolution, but no evidence of the kind of conspiracy and cover-up to create a massive and total scientific fraud on anything like the scale that’d be necessary here.

    So if you or I or anyone else wants good scientific results to support evolution, there are plenty of places we can go to get it. And even if we haven’t done that ourselves, millions of people have been exposed to the evidence as they progressed thru their education and careers. It’s utterly beyond believable possibility that nobody in all this time has ever been exposed to the evidence and discovered part of a worldwide fraud covering the entire discipline. We would’ve heard about it long ago.

    The case for religion is almost the exact opposite. For millenia, skeptics have looked for evidence and asked for evidence, and not received any. It’s utterly beyond believable possibility (not impossible, but extremely unlikely) that nobody in all this time has ever found real evidence and not made it known to the public. We would’ve heard about it a long time ago.

  • One question for all those who object to a person offering prayer: Isn’t it little more that an assumption that the only purpose of prayer is to control the situation, like when a person is ill and someone prays for them to get better? Surely it needs to be recognised that there are multiple reasons for making a prayer, such sentiment, or support.

    Yes, but if those people know I’m an atheist, it wouldn’t be very supportive of them to pray for me, or at least to tell me that they’re praying for me. If they didn’t mention it, then it couldn’t bother me, and they would still feel better about themselves and believe that they’re helping in some spiritual or emotional way.

    Of course, this is all hypothetical. As I commented above, no one has ever told me they’re praying for me, and no one has ever asked me to pray for them. Prayer is just not something that comes up in my life. If it happened, I wouldn’t really be bothered unless something that was said came across as blatantly offensive.

  • Kimberly

    Maybe it is just me (I just skimmed the comments so I might have missed if someone brought this up) but I don’t like when people say they are praying for me. Here is my reasoning.

    My sister lost her baby a few months ago. Many people had this response: “I am praying for you. This is all part of God’s plan” or something like that. Since this was an emotional time, I am probably blowing this out of proportion but if you truly believe god killed her baby for a reason (harsh words, I know), then why would you say you are praying for us? Isn’t it kind of adding insult to injury to say that you are praying to the thing who did this to her in the first place?

    That is when I kind of wonder if they feel they have a special relationship with god and may be able to change his divine will (like some of the other comments mentioned).

    As a side note, this situation also made me hate abortion billboards even more than I already do. She saw one when she was traveling once and it said “You have one job. Keep her safe.” Not a good sign to read when you blame yourself for losing your baby (it wasn’t her fault but people always wonder if the death might have been because of them).