So the question was posed, “Zack, how would you respond when people say they’ll pray for you?” My response was some variation on, “Thanks, but I actually don’t believe in prayer.” This, to me, seemed simple and honest. The discussion on my Facebook wall involved several people suggesting that this, or any response that is not wholehearted acceptance of the offer, would be considered offensive and even a “slap in the face” to people who are simply trying to show their love to me. It wouldn’t matter how out of my way I went to express my gratitude for the sentiment; if I say anything about how I think about prayer, I’m being disrespectful and a bad example for atheists.
The truth of the matter is: I don’t want anyone to pray for me. I really don’t. The discussion on my Facebook page gave me a lot of opportunity to think about it, and I thought I’d offer an organized comprehensive explanation in this post.
First let me clarify: I’m not ungrateful. I think the reason why people want to pray for me is (usually (hopefully)) quite lovely. I greatly appreciate any demonstration of hope, optimism, and encouragement. I think that knowing that other people care enough about me that they are going to keep me on their minds is an incredible source of comfort. But, I don’t want them to actually pray for me.
There’s a difference between thinking about someone and praying for someone. For me to feel better, all people have to do is say they are going to keep me in their thoughts. Whether they actually do or not is irrelevant, because for me it’s just comforting to know that they might. When people commit to the actual act of prayer, this is a whole different level that I actually have a few problems with.
Let’s be honest here: prayer doesn’t work. People who think they are praying are not talking to God; they are talking to themselves. When people hear God reply, they are hearing themselves talk back. It might be different levels of consciousness, but it isn’t anything supernatural and it sure isn’t “God.” That observation isn’t “offensive” or “disrespectful,” and if you think it is, check yourself. If you have valid evidence to refute what I have said in this paragraph, then let’s have a debate about it, but if you simply don’t like my blatant portrayal of what actually happens when people pray, well then tough. The truth hurts. And if you say, “Well, I don’t care, I like how prayer makes me feel,” well then great, realize that prayer is delusional and reorient yourself to meditation and other forms of introspection. You might be surprised how much more rewarding it is to take the mask off your subconscious.
And while we’re at it, let’s just seal the deal on prayer. A recent study was done attempting to measure the effects of prayer, to see if people who are prayed for actually benefit. The results were an unsurprising blow to prayer. The cardiac patients who had the most complications were those who knew they were being prayed for. Even the people who did not know they were being prayed for had more complications than those who were not prayed for at all. I’m not suggesting prayer has a negative impact (though knowing you’re being prayed for might cause psychological stress). The study simply shows that prayer had no apparent effect whatsoever. Of course, believers often reject things like “facts” and “evidence” that don’t align with what they believe, so consider that study how you will.
So basically, point 1: The physical act of prayer is a waste of time. I appreciate your concern; it means a lot. I’d also appreciate it if you didn’t waste your time on my behalf doing something that’s actually not going to have any effect on me.
Following the rejection of logic that faithful prayer depends upon, it is also easy to observe how uncritically prayer is discussed. Prayer always gets credit when it works and never gets blamed when it doesn’t. How many successful athletes or celebrity award-recipients have you seen say, “Thank you, God! My success is your answer to my prayers!” You don’t think the other team, the other team’s fans, or the other nominees didn’t have anyone praying? Those prayers were not “answered.” But nobody seems to care when prayer doesn’t work, because “prayer works.”
Well, no, it doesn’t, and more importantly, I don’t want the events in my life to somehow suggest to anybody otherwise. If I experience the positive outcome that people prayed for, then that will validate the power of their own prayer. My own personal worldview is that critical thinking and skepticism—exploring the full capacity of the human mind—is the ideal, and to a certain extent, I’ll concede that I hope to “evangelize” by promoting others to think more critically. When people pray for me, they are in a way using me (against my will) to possibly validate their own beliefs. So really, when people tell me they are going to pray for me, they are also saying, “I want to support you, but I will pay no heed to honoring your worldview; you only get my support the way I want to give it.”
If you aren’t quite seeing this point, here’s another way of looking at it. People telling me they are going to pray for me inherently assume that I want their prayers to be answered. Obviously, what they are praying for is the desired outcome in my life, so naturally, I would want their prayer to work. Since I don’t want them to think their prayer works, the opposite is actually true. I similarly hope for the desired outcome, but I have no such wish that their prayers be validated. By asking them not to pray, I am simply correcting the false assumption they made about me (an assumption that reflects the privileged expectation that everybody believes in God).
So, point 2: People praying for me actually dishonors my own identity as an atheist. If anything, this is most evident by those who don’t want me to even inform or remind those who are praying for me that I am an atheist. How dare I infringe on their method of supporting me? If someone were beating the crap out of me, should I be grateful that they are dedicating their time and energy to me? I know, that’s not a very fair comparison, but I’m not keen on this notion that I should be grateful for things that don’t respect who I am or what I stand for.
You might have seen this one coming, but we’ve quickly arrived at point 3: Prayer is selfish. Prayer doesn’t benefit me, it actually disrespects me, and it “benefits” the people praying. I already know the retort to this, so follow me through this:
1. People pray because they want to support me. It’s how they show their love.
2. I’m suppose to appreciate their prayer because they believe it will help me.
3. If I don’t graciously accept their prayer, I am not showing respect to what they believe in their heart of hearts.
4. Oh wait! The whole point of this blog and my outspoken atheism is to challenge the “undeserved respect” that beliefs have in our society.
It really comes down to respecting belief. My whole worldview is constructed around not respecting beliefs, not being subjected to them, and openly questioning them. Apparently, since prayer is not my thing, I have no say in whether I am incorporated into other people’s beliefs against my will. Prayer is about the person praying. When people say they will pray for me, the slap in the face is to me; they are going to pray for me whether I like it or not. That’s certainly their choice (which I do respect), but suddenly it’s about them, not me. That’s really not a considerate show of support, is it?
» I greatly appreciate the sense of support that motivates a person to want to pray for me.
» I welcome such encouragement, but I do not want people to actually engage in the physical act of prayer on my behalf.
» Prayer is a waste of time. If people want to truly show they support me, they should do something better with their time.
» Prayer does not honor my worldview. If people want to truly show they support me, they should not subject me to support that I have no respect for.
» Prayer is a selfish act. If people want to truly show they support me, they should show their support in ways that actually support how I feel, not just how they feel.
What is really more important to people? Is it supporting me, as a fellow human being, or is it seeking support for their own beliefs? If we take a step back from the details, we can see that this whole social conundrum exists because of religious privilege.
A person says she’ll pray for me. (This is an expression of religious belief that is normalized and accepted.) I tell her I appreciate the sentiment, but that I don’t want her to pray on my behalf. (This is an equal but opposite point of view on a religious belief.) At this point, everything should be okay. She could say, “Oh, I understand that isn’t a kind of emotional support that actually helps you,” or “I respect that you would prefer I not include you in my prayers.” Maybe she doesn’t understand, but she could politely ask so that she could learn more about my point of view. The mere fact that my offer of a contrary position is considered “offensive” or “disrespectful” is evidence of the inherent privilege.
My request that people not pray for me is an exercise of my religious freedom. I do not want to be incorporated into other people’s beliefs. My saying so is deemed “offensive” because it is resistant to the norms of religious prevalence in society. It’s not actually offensive; it’s just contrary. I see no valid reason why I should keep my atheism “closeted” if I am able to discuss it politely the same way others discuss their religious beliefs openly.
And that’s why I do.