This is a guest post written by Phil Zuckerman. Zuckerman is a professor of sociology and secular studies at Pitzer College. His most recent book is What It Means to Be Moral: Why Religion Is Not Necessary for Living an Ethical Life.
Dear Nice and Well-Meaning Woman We Saw Recently on a Warm September Night,
I am sure you recall us: My wife and I had just gotten out of our car and were heading towards the grassy, tree-lined area for our evening walk.
You noticed my wife’s debilitated condition. She had a stroke seven months ago, losing all movement in her right limbs. She’s improved since then — thanks to intense rehab, tons of physical therapy occupational therapy, speech therapy, medication, and her good health prior to the stroke. Indeed, she’s improved so much that she’s walking now — albeit precariously and with the need of a cane.
Seeing her compromised state, you wanted to express your sympathy. And you wanted to help. I assume that’s why you approached us and asked if you could pray for her.
Now, here’s the thing: My wife and I are atheists. We do not see any evidence or proof for the existence of God, nor do we think prayer works.
But clearly you meant no harm. So, when you asked, “May I pray for your wife?” I thought, why not? What can it hurt? “Sure,” I said, “go ahead.”
That’s when you stiffened your spine and pointed your finger with commanding determination directly at my wife, and declared: “Dear God, in the name of Jesus, heal this woman! Restore her, Lord! I pray that you heal her, God, in Jesus’s name — bring her to full health, Lord, now!”
And then you and your husband went on your merry way.
My wife and I tried to appreciate your prayer. But, in the end, we didn’t. I’m sorry to be ungrateful, but in truth, the whole thing felt like show, like bluster. Like it was more about you making yourself feel good, rather than expressing genuine support or altruistic care for me and my wife.
I feel like you haven’t really thought through what you did.
First off, do you believe — concerning prayer — that proximity increases efficacy? That is, do you think a prayer works better if it is done closer to the one being prayed for? For example, if you were two feet away from my wife, would the prayer have a greater chance of working than if you fifty feet away? If yes, proximity does matter — why would that be the case? And if no, proximity doesn’t increase efficacy — then why did you choose to do it right in our faces? Why not just stay on your side of the street, or even wait until we had passed a bit, to say your prayer from a distance?
Secondly, do you believe that volume and intonation increase the efficacy of prayer? If you do — why would that be the case? And if not, then why not just pray silently for my wife?
Third, if you really wanted to help me and my wife, why not offer something tangible? For example, you could have offered to cook or order a meal for us one night; you could have offered to pick up something for us from Trader Joe’s; you could have asked if we needed a hand with any yard work; you could have offered to donate ten bucks to our GoFundMe account. Or you could have simply smiled and said, “Keep it up! You’re doing great.” Instead, you prayed for us — or rather, at us — and that was that.
I think you did it because it made you feel good about yourself. That’s OK; many of us — including myself — do charitable works because it makes us feel good to help others. But did you really help us?
If you think your prayer worked, then that means you believe in a deity who might not have helped my wife if you hadn’t happened to prayer for us. Does that seem reasonable to you? What kind of a God must be asked in order to alleviate the suffering of others?
My wife and I didn’t feel any better from your prayer. We felt like you sort of used us and our tough circumstances to puff up your own spirit, to demonstrate your own religious fervor, to impose your personal version of God upon us as we were out for a walk.
True, you did ask if it would be OK. I appreciated that. And I did consent.
But next time someone comes up and asks us if they can pray to us, I think we’ll decline.
They are free to pray for us anyway. I’m sure it’ll make them feel better about themselves — which is of some good, to be sure.
Hemant’s note: You can donate to the GoFundMe page for Phil’s wife here.
(Image via Shutterstock)