Ask Richard: Atheist’s Father Demands He Pray for His Mother March 7, 2011

Ask Richard: Atheist’s Father Demands He Pray for His Mother

Note: Letter writers’ names are changed to protect their privacy.

Dear Richard,

I never thought I’d have reason to contact you. My family is well aware of my atheistic leanings, and up until recently it caused me no harm.

I live in Australia, and everyone else (mom, dad, two sisters) in the midwestern USA. Yes, there’s a time difference, but despite that I made it my duty to contact my mom and dad at least weekly, on my dime, at a time amenable to them, usually late Saturday evening.

I was raised in a relatively benign religious environment (Anglican) and again, up ‘til now we never had religious issues. Over the years, I expressed doubt, then became Pagan, and eventually just gave it all up and realized what we all now seem to feel, that “none of the above/no belief” fit best. Ma and Pa understood, and seemed to accept. My parents are actually good in that regard-they went out of their way to make us feel accepted. If I were gay, I’d have no problem outing myself to them.

However, on my last few calls, well, things started to change. I suppose the fact that my mother is facing a few serious health issues might be a reason for tension, but being a health professional herself, she knew the risks (serious, but manageable) and wasn’t really sweating it.

Then dad got involved.

Please understand. My father is a very intelligent man. He’s a high school teacher in Biology, and up until this event was my hero. He was all I could hope to achieve. His acumen was even the driving force behind my finally coming to terms with Atheism, and having the courage to finally just say it to the world: I’m an Atheist. He himself holds no particular belief, and jokingly referred to himself as an atheist during my childhood as a way to get out of Sunday morning duties.

But, during our last call he called me out, as it were and demanded I pray for my mother during the upcoming procedure. I politely said I wouldn’t pray, but I would hold her foremost in my thoughts and hope for a successful outcome. This wasn’t good enough for him. He insisted I pray for her, and NOW. I felt like someone had just backhanded me with a chain mail glove. This man, this paragon of rational thought, this man I held dear and was my basis for all I could hope to be was blackmailing me emotionally. Although mom (who was present for the entire exchange) said nothing, her silence was palpable. I did the only thing I could, I politely asked him to get off the subject or I would hang up.

He laughed.

I did. Mom has since sent me an apologetic letter, and asked to forgive and forget. I’m willing, but… Why? How could a sane, rational intelligent man be reduced to such bigotry? How has it come to this-and how can I ever look at him again with the respect I feel I owe him?

I know he’s under pressure, and is possibly facing the loss of his one true friend (they’ve been married for over forty years) and is likely under stress-but to take it out on ME? Over something as trivial as theism? This man was my hero. I cannot see him in such light any more.


Dear Mitchell,

Your father is scared. The fact that your mother isn’t sweating this, doesn’t mean he’s unaffected. What’s worse, especially for a man, he feels helpless. Men often have a very tough time with helplessness. It’s linked even to their sexuality. The word “impotence,” despite its sexual usage, simply means powerlessness. Men are trained their whole lives to be doers, fixers, and fighters.

Even if the worst outcome is not that likely, he’s facing the possible loss of the woman who has shared most of his life, and he is not equipped to do, fix and fight the menace that is threatening her. What he’s experiencing is not just pressure, it’s a primal instinct: “Protect your mate.” Such a combination of anxiety and powerlessness can sometimes make otherwise intelligent, rational people behave emotionally. Under the right circumstances, any of us could find ourselves in such a state.

Your father has not been “reduced to bigotry,” he feels desperation. Despite the fact that his interest in religion has been minimal to nonexistent, it is clear that he is not an atheist, and he now feels the need to draw upon what he hopes is a resource. He wants all the help he can get, and I suspect that having been so competent all his life has made him not very graceful at asking for help. So he was clumsy, demanding, defensive, reactionary and brittle when he asked you to pray.

When distraught people appear to deserve compassion the least, that’s when they need it the most.

Mitchell, it’s important to get clear in your mind that his recent behavior is not about you, it’s about him. It’s not about his value, just his humanity. Your worthiness as a son is not on trial, and his worthiness as a father is not on trial either. None of what he said over the phone takes anything away from the excellent things he did to raise you to be who you are. You can continue to admire him for the fine parent he was. The scared husband he is currently being does not cancel out any of that. He can still be your hero, and I think he still deserves that honor.

I suggest that you consider writing to him rather than calling him. Writing allows you to choose your words carefully, to be uninterrupted, and to avoid getting into the emotional feedback loop that both of you were in at the end of the last phone call. While it is understandable that you hung up on your father when he didn’t accede to your demand to drop the subject, still it was not productive. You were both caught up in a father/son power struggle and had lost focus on your mother’s needs. Her silence, which you say was palpable, might have been about feeling forgotten.

Completely disregard anything about prayer. Don’t get stuck in arguing about it at all. There are those who might say just tell him you’ll pray so he’ll be satisfied, but you’ve clearly refused, so if you tried that now, he probably wouldn’t believe you were sincere. Besides, that still wouldn’t heal what is really hurting in your relationship with him.

Instead, reach into yourself for your empathy. Find your own feelings about this. They may be less intense, but there are feelings you can identify with him. In your own words, write any of this that is true for you:

Dad, I know you’re scared about Mom, and I’m a little scared too. And I know that you feel helpless, and I do too. But we can be helpful for Mom by staying calm and helping her with things she needs. She needs us to be level-headed and working together. She also needs us to be well-informed. One thing we can do is to learn all we can about her diagnosis and about the procedure. We will feel less helpless, and we’ll be able to make wise decisions and provide good care. I’ve read several articles about this, and here is a list of the ones I think are the most useful. Because you know so much about biology, I would really appreciate your thoughts about them.

Finish by telling him that you love him, and how you’re grateful for his intelligence and good judgment while raising you. Tell him just as you told us why he’s your hero. Maybe he doesn’t know that. Dads need to hear it.

By learning all you can about your mother’s challenge, and then appealing to your father’s talents and strengths by asking for his educated opinion and advice, you’ll build a bridge. Then neither of you will be taking your fear or frustration out on each other. You’ll be coming together for the sake of the woman you both love.

I wish you, your father, and especially your mother the best of outcomes.


You may send your questions for Richard to AskRichard. Please keep your letters concise. They may be edited. There is a very large number of letters. I am sorry if I am unable to respond in a timely manner.

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  • martha

    My brother, who is very religious, had an ankle injury where the bone started to die. He was going into surgery and asked for the prayers of his siblings. I told him that I would pray for him.

    I felt like I was lying so I actually did say a prayer. Awkward and weird.

    Richard gives good advice.

  • Andrea

    “When distraught people appear to deserve compassion the least, that’s when they need it the most.”


  • The turn to anything that even MIGHT give some hope is, unfortunately, one of the strong selling points of religion.

    My son, a believer, and I, an atheist, had no real problems in that area until he was diagnosed with MS. Now, he’s got his eyes on heaven and “there’s nothing that can be done in this life”…his answer to everything. His daughter cuts herself trying to get his attention; nothing to do with him, god will fix it. His sons smoke dope and are producing babies like rabbits; nothing to do with him, god will fix it. And if he hadn’t been accepting of my non-belief, he wouldn’t have been stricken with this disease.

    Sorry for the hi-jack. But I think your father probably got contacted by whatever local church contains friends of their family. He had someone to listen to him and share the burden (which, as a decent father, he didn’t want to put on your shoulders) of his fear, pain and feelings of helplessness. Then he was probably told that this was god carrying him through this time of trouble and if he’d just pray he would keep this feeling of calm. Desperate people will clutch at straws.

  • ACN

    When distraught people appear to deserve compassion the least, that’s when they need it the most.

    Well said sir.

  • Rich Wilson

    @martha I too have prayed for people. It may not mean anything to me, but it means something to them. And having said I’ll pray, I’m not going to toss it off. They know I’m an atheist, but they also know that if I say I’m going to pray, I really will.

    It does raise an interesting ‘dancing on the head of a pin’ question. Does God listen to the prayers of atheists? And if so, do they hold any more or less weight than that of believers?

  • Noel Ang

    And having said I’ll pray, I’m not going to toss it off. They know I’m an atheist, but they also know that if I say I’m going to pray, I really will.

    It does raise an interesting ‘dancing on the head of a pin’ question. Does God listen to the prayers of atheists? And if so, do they hold any more or less weight than that of believers?

    That isn’t an interesting question at all. It’s a non-question with no cognitive status.

    If you’re an atheist, then praying isn’t compassion, but it’s exact opposite, cruelty. Compassion, honesty, respect, and justice, for them and your self-esteem, demand that you acknowledge the objective truth, in sickness and in health.

  • JB Tait

    Start your prayer with: “Dear God (if You exist)– My father asked me to pray for my mother, but they also believe that You “work in mysterious ways” and you “have a plan.” If my supplication tips the balance of Your will, then let it be known that I humbly ask for my mother’s recovery and good health.
    If there is no god, then it won’t matter one whit, and if there is, I am sure He will accept the conditional nature of the entreaty and the compassion that motivated you to give it a go, even though all the evidence indicates that He will proceed with His plans anyway. The only difference in the outcome is that your father will have the comfort of knowing that everything possible was done. Regardless of the outcome, or the efficacy of prayer, if your dad thinks it will help (and it certainly can do no harm) then it would be a gift to him to comply with his wishes.

  • I was raised in a pretty secular home – nominally Jewish / no god talk / lots of ham.
    I had a friend, however, who came from a very strict RC family – father a respected cardiac surgeon and a regular church goer.
    I was visiting my friend over the Easter break the weekend he told his father that he didn’t believe in god.
    The family went silent, expecting the inevitable angry outburst from the head of the table.
    My friend’s father put down his cutlery and said, very slowly, “That’s your decision, and you shall have to face the consequences when your time comes. But it should be clearly understood that anyone who sleeps in my house and eats at my table attends church on Sunday.”
    He then picked up his cutlery and resumed eating his dinner.
    Make no mistake…I got out of bed and went to church the next morning.

    When someone says, “I’ll pray for you,” I don’t bother explaining to them that I think they are wasting their time and there must be something better they could do if they want to help. I just say thank you.
    And if someone in a stressful situation were comforted by my lowering my head and folding my hands while they mumble invocations, I don’t see it as even a slight compromise to accommodate them for a few minutes.
    Given that you’re in Australia, it would be, in my view, a perfectly acceptable “White lie” to say, when your father asks that you pray, “I’ll do that, Dad.”

    Desperate people may clutch at straws. It would be a different matter if the father were saying, “Forget about the doctors, all we need to do is pray.”
    That is not the case. There seems to be no question that everything that CAN be done is being done. I see nothing to be gained from confronting a desperate person with the argument that their extra (perhaps vain) efforts are pointless. Truth is not the ONLY value here.

  • littlejohn

    Good lord, man. Do you tell the truth when your wife asks you if she looks fat?
    Lies are an important part of life, and that was the perfect time to deploy one.
    What harm would have been done had you replied, “Of course I’ll pray for her,” then forgotten it?

  • I could see this father as being my father at some point, too. From what I understand from other people, he leans towards agnostic because of the positions and actions of many churches (especially the catholic church). He was very involved in the religious ceremony when my grandmother (his step mom) died. We don’t talk at all right now (for many other reasons), but he is the type of reactionary person who would probably do just what this father did, but because he has never been able to express or talk about his emotions.

    I think the best route for anyone in this position is to find a positive source to discuss what he is feeling, but my grandfather was so anti-emotions that it is unfortunately embedded in my father. The issue is trying to convince those people to seek out these outlets.

  • Mitchell,

    Each religious person has a line that they draw concerning their notions of God. Evangelicals tend to draw it so that thoughts of God are included in almost all their activities. Moderates tend to draw it so that thoughts of God are only for really important things. Your father views the health of his wife as really important and you just found where he draws his line in thinking about God. You probably won’t be able to change where he draws his line. Just remember, that for all other interactions with him (that aren’t quite so important to him), he will be the same person you have always known. You have learned a little bit more about him. Adjust your perception, but don’t throw away the good.

  • And having said I’ll pray, I’m not going to toss it off. They know I’m an atheist, but they also know that if I say I’m going to pray, I really will.

    Forgive me, but how is this even possible? I’ve never prayed, so maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t get it.

    From Merriam-Webster:

    1: to make a request in a humble manner
    2: to address God or a god with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanksgiving

    It’s my understanding that prayer means you believe you’re talking to a deity. If you’re an atheist, you can say the words to a prayer, but you’re not actually praying. If you don’t believe deities are real, then you are fully aware that you’re just talking out loud to yourself. Such a situation strikes me as more than a little ridiculous. I can understand an atheist lying and saying that they will pray to appease a distressed person (not what I would do, but no judgment), but I simply can’t understand them deciding to mimic an actual prayer.

  • Jon

    I wish you, your father, and especially your mother the best of outcomes.

    I don’t understand this statement Richard. Why write anything at all if we all have the same outcome? Death.

  • libratheist

    @ Jon: Don’t be absurd. Yes, we all die. No, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care whether someone recovers from illness or not. If this life is all we have, then all the more reason to hope that everybody has a long and happy one. Your comment sounds like a gross misrepresentation of atheism.

  • Rich Wilson

    @Noel Ang

    If you’re an atheist, then praying isn’t compassion, but it’s exact opposite, cruelty.

    Have a nice day!

  • Darwin’s Dagger

    I don’t understand this statement Richard. Why write anything at all if we all have the same outcome? Death.

    There are interim outcomes in advance of death where we hope for health and long life.

    A bigger question is: Why do people who think they’re bound for glory and the kingdom of heaven seek medical attention at all? If the good lord decided to inflict some fatal disease upon you, maybe that’s just his way of callin you home. At the very least it sound like a fantastic opportunity to get into paradise early. Why fight it?

  • Jamssx

    I wonder how many of the readers of this blog shout at the TV when their team is winning or losing. Or stand in a casino playing blackjack or roulette chanting or sub-vocalizing please let it be 7 or whatever. We rationally know that these actions have no impact to the outcome, yet I bet we all do them. Praying should be treated exactly the same way. It is a release of emotion and tension. The problem only starts when one thinks that it will actually impact the outcome. Indeed putting your needs or desires into some structure can definitely help you.

    Now in this situation I agree with @littlejohn . The correct response was of course I will. But since we’re past that point I think you should just keep checking in on her state which I am sure is your primary concern. Research her illness as that helps putting things and risks in context. Just avoid being the slightest bit confrontational with him. Stay off the subject until she’s completely recovered which as I say should be everyone’s main desire. Even then considering the stress he’s under I would quietly try to let the whole thing slip…

  • Silent Service

    I’d just let it drop for now. No point in stirring things up. If dad presses on it in the future just say that you’re worried too and that you’re doing what you can. I think that’s really what he needs to hear.

    The more important thing is to be there as much as you can for your mom. If you show her all the respect and love she deserves in what must be a pretty rough time for her, that’s what counts. Dad should come around.

  • Jon

    There are those who might say just tell him you’ll pray so he’ll be satisfied, but you’ve clearly refused, so if you tried that now, he probably wouldn’t believe you were sincere.

    This was probably the only advice necessary.

  • Anansi

    Talk is cheap. And all prayer is is just talking (to yourself) so it costs you nothing, not even your integrity to answer “yes” when someone asks you to pray for them.

    When someone is emotionally troubled, knowing that someone else is thinking about them and their situation gives them some comfort. In these circumstances that is what prayer is — it is not beseeching some imaginary entity for a favour, but providing emotional support for a living human.

    When I visit my parents and eat with them, they maintain the custom of saying a prayer before meals. Often my dad will call on me to “return thanks”. I have no problem doing that with honesty and integrity: Firstly, I don’t begin with “Dear [deity]”, I just start in listing things I am grateful for, such as being with my parents, thanks to the cow who gave up it life so I could eat it, etc. Consciously expressing gratitude for things in life we often take for granted IMO is a good exercise and doesn’t have to involve any imaginary beings.

    The bottom line is that prayer has never really being about gods, but about humans. Whether it is a loud preacher publicly proclaiming his piety (something Yeshua of Nazareth criticized) or providing comfort to someone who is emotionally trouble, focusing and settling your own troubled thoughts, or just taking a moment to recognize the good things in your life instead of fretting about things that aren’t as you would like.

    “Prayer” at its most basic, with or without appeals to deities, is really just thoughtful reflection.

  • TFM

    I think Richard’s advice is good for this emotionally charged situation, in which deciding to butt heads about the meaning and/or efficacy of prayer would likely increase the tension between Mitchell and his dad.

    In less intense “Please pray for ___” situations, my standby is to go with, “I’ll keep ___ in my thoughts”, which I can honestly say and do without compromising my beliefs, but more importantly, it still lets me connect with that person by giving voice to my empathy and desire for a positive outcome. Similarly, when someone tells me I’m in their prayers or something like that, I just mentally translate that in my head to their way of wishing for a positive outcome, and that empathy/hope/understanding feels good even though I don’t actually think their wish will summon divine help. I get the feeling that most believers do the same kind of mental translation without realizing it and think I’ve just said I’ll pray for them, but I can live with that. I can’t remember anyone ever being unsatisfied with that response yet, but if it comes up, like “Thoughts aren’t enough, why won’t you pray?” then my next line of defense will be something like, “I don’t believe putting an ‘Amen’ at the end of my thoughts makes a difference, but if God is all-knowing, it won’t make a difference whether I consider it thinking or praying. Either way, ____ matters to me and I’m hoping for the best just like you.”

    It would be nice if we could just ask the prayer-requesters to consider how they’d feel if we specifically asked them not to pray about someone or something we both cared about, but I don’t think that would have the desired effect most of the time.

  • Joan

    Sometimes when my friends are facing serious problems and ask for prayers, I tell them I will send out an agnostic’s prayer for them. And then I do it. Yes, it feels a little silly and awkward to me, but it can’t hurt. It’s really just the same as hoping for the best.

  • Jon

    Over something as trivial as theism? This man was my hero. I cannot see him in such light any more.

    So the writer considers the issue of theism trivial, YET, the act of considering changing how he views his father based on his request, seems very non-trivial. An extreme reaction to what he himself stated he considers a trivial issue. The author felt his father blackmailed him emotionally, but his dad was just asking for something he really felt he needed at the time. It seems like the author esteemed his need to promote his atheism over the needs of his father, no matter how ridiculous they are. What should the author have done? Hell, I have no idea. Praying insincerely seems to be an even worse alternative than not praying at all.

    I’m just disheartened that the author was not willing to budge one bit to satisfy the emotional needs of his dad, i’m not saying he should have prayed but i’m also not seeing ANY effort on the part of the author to assauge his father’s pain. None whatsoever, no “I tried doing this for my dad”

    So to sum up, his own suffering mother sends him an apology letter…and not only that, but he’s willing to RELINQUISH HIS FATHER’S HERO STATUS based on the triviality of theism. Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

    This letter wasn’t about his parents, it wasn’t even about concern for his parents, it was about affirming his atheism under the guise of sending a letter asking for advice on how to deal with it so he could give himself credit for his atheism. This is true. It’s fucked up, but it’s true. This is the purpose of 90% of the letters that come to the site, people are trying to give themselves credit for their atheism in the face of a harrowing situation.

    The author writes:

    but to take it out on ME?

    Let me tell you something bud, right now, it ain’t about you. It ain’t about standing up for your atheism in the face of your father’s request, a man you built up in your letter only to tear him down on what you say yourself is a TRIVIALITY. It’s about putting aside your differences to love your parents in the best way you can.

    And this is the action you want credit and acknowledgement for:

    Yes, there’s a time difference, but despite that I made it my duty to contact my mom and dad at least weekly, on my dime, at a time amenable to them, usually late Saturday evening.

    Golf clap.

  • Because there is no god, when people pray all that they are doing is perhaps, thinking of someone in a positive manner. When I am asked to pray, I keep this in mind. Normally, I agree to pray but I don’t talk to a nonexistent deity. I merely think good thoughts about the person. Often, I would have done this anyway.

  • Jon

    There was no need for the author to write this letter, none at all. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.

  • Annie

    I thought Richard’s response was spot-on.

    The only thing that I would add is why I think Mitchell was so hurt by the prayer request: I think this request made him feel rejected by his father. His father knew he was an atheist (and Mitchell thought he was fine with that), but the request for prayer led him to think otherwise.

    Mitchell gives the example of being comfortable enough with his parents that if he was gay, he would be comfortable coming out to them. So imagine he was gay and they said and did all the right things to make him feel their continued love and acceptance. Then imagine, a few years later, Dad tried to set him up with a girl. Maybe not the best analogy, but I think that’s what the prayer request did here… it made all that earlier acceptance seem insincere to Mitchell.

  • Auntie Bodhi

    I happened upon your blog when I was engaged in a search for images of the billboards from the wecanknow people (the apocalyptic Christians who believe the Rapture will happen on May 21st of this year). After reading that article, I decided to wander around, and found this wise and gentle letter to a suffering person worried for his family.

    Like many, I was particularly struck by this line: “When distraught people appear to deserve compassion the least, that’s when they need it the most.” Beautiful words, sir, as is the rest of your advice.

    To others who suggest lying to family or friends who request prayers, or who think praying means you’re asking something of a deity…

    No, do not lie- if you feel you can’t honestly pray, then don’t. You don’t need to actually SAY you won’t, either. If they insist upon you telling them whether or not you’ll pray, tell them that your thoughts are with them and that you’ll hope for their recovery. It’ll often be assumed that those things will mean “prayer” anyway- your compassion is what’s being asked for, after all, not conversion to a belief you don’t follow.

    Regarding prayers being requests of a deity- not always so. In my opinion, you can send out your hopes and desires- “prayers”- to the impersonal Universe, expressing your hurt, your fear, your gratitude, and still not be sending that to any god. If it helps to think of it this way, consider that your “prayers” are going to the collective intelligence we all create simply by being alive.

    And, yes, I am an atheist. 🙂 I’ve been a Christian, a Pagan, an Agnostic and finally after a search of many years, an Atheist (though I’m still rather fond of Buddhism). I have many rude opinions and views regarding religion that would require the use of a number of swearwords, so I think I’ll keep that nastiness to myself. :-p

  • Jon

    Even Richard has the unconscious realization of the author’s non-action, hence the advice:

    Finish by telling him that you love him, and how you’re grateful for his intelligence and good judgment while raising you. Tell him just as you told us why he’s your hero. Maybe he doesn’t know that. Dads need to hear it.

  • I thought that Richard’s letter was very respectful and compassionate.

    Jon, it sounds as if the son was taken by surprise when his father asked him to pray.

  • JulietEcho

    @ Jon,

    the son is going through a hard time too, and we have the benefit of (1) not being involved in the situation emotionally and (2) a perspective where nothing’s at stake.

    It sounds like the father was demanding that he pray for his mother over the phone, out loud, so they could both hear it. He doesn’t pray – it’s not something he does, and his first instinct isn’t going to be, “Okay, I’ll fake that for you!” it’s going to be “What!?” It sounds like he was completely caught off-guard and put on the spot. Not many people are (naturally or trained) quick enough to think through the ramifications of the situation, step back from any emotions they might be feeling, and fake a religious ritual they haven’t done for decades at the drop of a hat.

    I think Richard’s advice is great. I also think that your five comments so far only indicate that you have some serious trouble understanding the way people react to the unexpected.

  • To those telling Mitchell that he should have just said he’d pray: maybe you’ve forgotten that it is exactly this type of guilt trip that is used to keep people mired in religious trappings.

    Oh, so what if you say you don’t believe in god, just come to church anyway because it’s something we do as a family. You’re still a part of this family, aren’t you?

    If Mitchell was okay with selling out his values in order to feel accepted or to avoid making someone else feel uncomfortable, he likely would not be an out atheist in the first place.

    I think Richard’s take is spot-on. Both the dad and Mitchell need to remember that this isn’t about them or their hurt feelings, it’s about Mom’s feelings and being there for her in whatever way she needs. We had to remind many family members about that during my mom’s final illness. Also, they shouldn’t take Mom’s apparent nonchalance at face value. I think it’s likely that she’s internalizing her feelings because she just doesn’t want to cause more stress for either Dad or Mitchell. That’s certainly how my mom was for a while. They should encourage her to open up, ideally to them, or if she’s not ready for that, to a trusted advisor or counsellor. (Yes, including a religious one, if that’s what she wants.)

    It’s so hard for men of that generation to show their emotions. For most of their lives they were told that crying and sharing your feelings is for ladies only, so those feelings get bottled up and often manifest as anger.

    If his dad has a hard time opening up about what’s really bothering him (namely, his wife’s illness), Mitchell should encourage his dad to take walks or engage in some other type of physical activity appropriate to his age and physical condition, which may help alleviate his stress to some extent. His dad should definitely talk to his mom about his feelings, though, at the very least. It’s like the elephant in the room: no one wants to be the first one to bring it up, but it will help both of them to acknowledge their feelings about her illness. When my mom was sick, each of my parents was so worried about stressing out the other by talking about it that it’s amazing that they didn’t both die of stress before she died of cancer. Before the end, though, they talked to each other about their feelings and both felt better for having done so.

  • Kristi

    I always love Richards responses. I agree with him here… Dad is just desperate and is clinging to any and every hope, chance, opportunity he can think of to ensure a good outcome. There is not much else he can do and that scares him, so he is grasping at straws and wanting everyone close to him to jump on his wagon. I can’t say I blame him…. sure maybe he should not take it out on his son… but who else CAN he take it out on? As they saying goes “We hurt the ones we love the most”.

  • LStevenson

    The one and only time my father and I ever got into an argument over religion, he said that what bothered him the most about my being an atheist was if my mom was on her death bed and needed just one more prayer to save her, I wouldn’t pray for her.
    I agreed, and it’s the last time we’ve discussed the subject. The idea that prayer would overcome medicine to heal my dying mother, theoretically speaking, astounded me even then.

    There’s no harm in being true to your atheism in the face of challenging times, even when others cling to and demand your participation of their religion. There’s also no harm in being honest about that.
    Were I in your shoes, I would probably have done the same.

    What I believe is important here is making it, as Richard says, not about religion, but your mother. No matter what your father says, that’s where the focus of the conversation should be and remain.

  • LL


    Some may appreciate and maybe even admire your brutal honesty, but please… don’t ever quit your day job to become a counselor.

  • Jon


    Regarding the not being able to react to the unexpected. I didn’t look at it that way, so there is definitely an element of that in his reaction.

    However, the whole letter speaks of atheistic indignation (which honestly, looks a lot like Christian hypocrisy). And I don’t mean that on negative terms. As if the son was sooooo appalled at his father for even questioning his mental acumen.

    I still do not see effort on the part of the son to console his parents except for a measly weekly phone call. And if you are a good son, isn’t that something you should do anyway without calling attention to it?

    Is there no truth to my post?

  • Jon


    I also think that your five comments so far only indicate that you have some serious trouble understanding the way people react to the unexpected.

    The author of the letter wasn’t reacting to his father when he was writing this email/letter asking for advice. So I don’t think we can view the letter itself as reactionary as the request for prayer. He had the TIME to gather his thoughts, to write this letter and send/email it out. Therefore I believe we can get a more accurate glimpse of the author, Mitchell’s, inner workings, which to me seem selfish.

    Richard’s advice was good in this regard. When you write, you have the time to sort out your feelings inside you. And boy did we get a view of Mitchell’s inner feelings. Basically:

    1) His father’s hero status was based on him not being congruent with Mitchell’s atheism (mind you, this request for prayer was just a few moments of time, and not a long evangelical diatribe) HE WAS WILLING TO RESCIND EVERYTHING HE THOUGHT GOOD ABOUT HIS FATHER BECAUSE OF THIS

    2) This fact still holds true. There was no apparent effort on behalf of Mitchell to offer an alternative course of emotional support. Instead, he threatens to hang up on his father. For the admirer of logic Mitchell seems to be, this was quite emotional wasn’t it?

    3) I know this sounds wordy, but he reacted to his father’s emotional reaction to his mother’s condition with his own reaction.

    So here I am, being derided for not understanding how people react to the unexpected, and yet, the author Mitchell, who reacted in an unempathetic manner by threatening to hang up, is almost being commended for it? Maybe the way he IMMEDIATELY reacted to the request tells us what he’s really like, you ever think about it that way? Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

  • Jon

    I can’t stand it. I’m being derided for being NOT understanding, yet the most unempathetic, un-understanding action we have seen THUS FAR is from Mitchell!!!!!

    His dad was in emotional distress (this is understandable), made an out-of-character request for prayer, and you know what

    This wasn’t even an surprise phone call…this was an almost schedule weekly phone call, so the element of

    Never mind. I was told I was I was being not understanding. You should have told that to Mitchell @JulietEcho.

  • gsw

    Many years ago, my daughter was close to dying. Fortunately, it was a French hospital – so no priests or ‘well-meaning’ theists were present.

    At no point did anyone ever suggest that pray would be advisable. I have always considered praying not only a complete waste of time but also a desperate attempt to console someone when the last hope is gone. As said, I was lucky that there was nobody there who suggested that particular level of hopelessness.

    My daughter lived, due to the excellent skills of the medical staff and her and my belief that she could survive if she fought. Praying for her, if she had known about it, might have undermined her will to survive – or at least her confidence in making a full recovery.

    I suggest he tell his father that – since he is an atheist – his mother might consider his hypocrisy as a sign that she has no chance of surviving – and, much as he loves his father he won’t do that to his mother.

  • Richard Wade

    Jon, you asked,

    Is there no truth to my post?

    Yes, there is truth to your post, and good insight. And I don’t think that you should be derided. I think people who are objecting to your comments are reacting more to your method of delivering the truth that you see.

    I agree with you that Mitchell needs to expand his view further beyond himself. I think his letter to me was an attempt to start that process, rather than his letter being almost entirely wanting to strike indignant postures about his dad’s behavior, and/or superior postures about his own atheism. Yes, there is some of that, but I try to encourage the best in people rather than beat the worst out of people. When I want to influence someone toward compassion, I try to do it in a compassionate way. Harshly telling someone to be gentle is not an effective technique to promote gentleness.

    I also agree with you that his initial tossing out of the esteem he held for his dad was strangely overreacting, and self-contradictory about the triviality remark. The incongruity of this sudden falling from grace makes me suspect that are more conflicts between them that are not alluded to in the letter, and perhaps are not fully conscious. I think this is likely to happen between two so intelligent males who both seem a bit detached from their feelings. I was hoping to lay out a method by which Mitchell might start a rapport with his dad on an intellectual level while focusing on his mother’s medical needs, but hopefully the two men would begin to include some emotional rapport as well, since they’re dealing with someone they both cherish.

    To accomplish that, I think Mitchell needs more practice with his empathy. That’s why I spent so much time talking about his dad’s possible feelings, and I specifically mentioned empathy.

    So I sincerely thank you for your truthful post, and I do not partake in any derision of you. Saying the truth brutally is quicker, and when it’s from a detached person it’s easier, and I used to do it that way all the time. But I found that people didn’t often actually make positive changes when the truth was bashed over their heads. So instead I try to demonstrate the behavior I want to see in them even in the way I talk to them. I don’t actually hold back the truth that I see. I don’t kid people, I coax them toward seeing it for themselves. It takes a lot more talking, and I know that can be tedious when you’re standing outside, and you see the truth clearly. You want to just shake the person and scream the reality they’re missing, while Richard goes on and on. But generally, it’s only in the movies that a dramatic wake up slap in the face results in actual, long-term positive change.

    Even though I know that Mitchell will read my comment here too, I’m still presenting the truth that you see in a way that reflects the consideration, empathy and patience that I hope he will apply.

  • Jon

    Thanks Richard, as much as I hate to admit it, because I like to be right all the time, those really were some good “nuggets” of wisdom.

  • Jay

    Hi Richard
    I firmly believe in God, and I thought your response to the ‘Mitchell’ situation was excellent. He should not be railroaded into prayer – what value would that have?
    His father has lost his compass a bit, and under the circumstances, that is quite understandable.
    In fact, as M says, his father did not have any particular belief, and he may have some mis-guided and uninformed notion of how prayer should be employed. The over-riding point that I see here is that it is the father that needs help. This is not about mother, she knows what is happening, Mitchell accepts it too, it is father who is struggling to come to terms with events out of his control.
    Anybody who cannot sympathise with the father (despite his clumsy demands) has lost sight of their humanity.
    I applaud you Richard for your kind, sincere and intelligent reply.

  • ACN

    Are you being sarcastic?

  • TMJ

    My initial reaction to Mitchell’s letter was the same as Jon’s. I just wanted to tell Mitchell to Grow Up. It ain’t about you. Your parents are going through a trying and difficult time and your father’s request that you pray for your Mother was essentially the same as asking for your support. Instead you whine, pout and act like a child by hanging up.

    Fortunately Richard had a more thought out and compassionate response.

  • SWare

    Anytime I’ve been in a group of people that chooses to pray, be it grace at the dinner table or reciting the rosary at a funeral, I silently do not participate. I don’t bow my head but patiently wait until they are done. I’ve never been given any guff about it either. I was still a “person of faith” when my grandmother passed away though it occurred at a time when I had begun to seriously question the whole idea of religions and gods. She was a devout Catholic and all that chanting & bead rubbing and whatever only served to make me feel worse about her passing. I found the whole thing to be creepy and bizarre as I viewed my deceased grandmother in her coffin, not looking anything like the wonderful woman I remembered her to be in life. My personal consolation came in the form of memories of how funny she was and that she was a strong generous woman.

    I wouldn’t deny them their means of consolation but I also don’t find it fair for them to assume I would or should feel that in the same way. If they truly believe in some deity, then I suppose I’m rather surprised that they wouldn’t be insulted if they felt I was just playing along humoring them with my charade.

    Only once have I ever flat walked out of a group praying. I attended a group discussion related to religion in politics. After spending a couple of hours in this group and being the only true skeptic among them, they closed by saying, “let’s all join hands in prayer”. I said “OK it was nice meeting you all. See you around.” Then I left. A couple of them had extended a hand to me too. I just felt like it was a gotcha moment or something where they would feel like it was some lame personal victory to get the atheist to pray with them. I refused to give them that satisfaction. Especially after debating arguments from people who, “will only ever vote for someone who believes in god because that means they have moral standing.” Baaahhh!

  • Ah parents. When we are tiny they can do no wrong and as we grow they are revealed as the flawed human beings that they are, that we all are. Let the Old Man be a dick once in a while, he’s no more perfect that you or I. Let him worry, say stupid things and be unreasonable every now and then. He’s deserves that much for his efforts over the years.

    What he cannot expect is to tell an adult what they should do or what they should believe. It is probably not the best time but that needs to be clear. Just say “I don’t pray. I don’t believe in gods. Is there anything else I can do?”

    Maybe Mum would like some more photos of the grandkids or a hand made card wishing a speedy recovery. In this day and age a short film wishing them both well is easy to produce the effort that goes into it will be appreciated.

    If there is nothing that you can actually do then do something that will make the person feel appreciated. Better than wasting time on silly prayers.

  • stogoe

    “When distraught people appear to deserve compassion the least, that’s when they need it the most.”

    Crapola. When distraught people appear to deserve compassion the least, that’s when they need a kick in the junk.

  • Richard Wade

    Stogoe, are you distraught? Right now you appear to deserve very little compassion, because right now you appear to be capable of very little compassion. But I’m not convinced of that. You often show great compassion in your remarks. I hope that nobody kicks you in the junk, because that wouldn’t make you any more compassionate. Instead, I hope somebody invites you out for coffee.

  • Cortex

    Thank you for posting this, Richard. It’s given me new perspective on a conflict of my own.

  • TFM

    Richard W. wrote:

    So instead I try to demonstrate the behavior I want to see in them even in the way I talk to them.

    I’m not one who remembers a lot of famous quotes, but that echoes one of my favorites, from Ghandi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I think it’s great all-around advice, but especially true when it comes to encouraging people to be more kind, compassionate, tolerant, etc. Like so much good advice, it’s easier said than done. In this reply, Richard, nicely done!

  • Robster

    Prayer for the deluded minions is more of a “in brotherhood / sisterhood” type of thing. TV news is full of politicians offering a prayer because it garners votes and indicates an empathy. They don’t really believe it’s going to make an iota of difference.

  • Deepak Shetty

    Mom has since sent me an apologetic letter, and asked to forgive and forget.

    Sound advice. Your dad needs your support as does your mom.

  • Brian Macker

    I’m sure the son believes that far more people would be saved from death than just his mom, if only people would denounce and reject the concept of god.

    I betcha he never once asked his dad to denounce god to actually work in the direction of saving all those people.

  • L. Foster

    The whole discussion reminds me of what may be my all-time favorite XKCD comic:

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