Prayer is mean. I mean it.

1 Mar

“You know the insults I receive, and my shame and dishonor; my foes are all known to you…  Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them… Add guilt to their guilt; may they have no acquittal from you.  Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.”

– – Psalm 69 19, 24, 27-28 An “Imprecatory” Psalm

“As far as I’m concerned, all prayers for conversion are imprecatory. They are secret wishes that someone you care about will become a slave.”

– – Tony VanderHeyden

If you are a non-religious person, at some point in time you may have encountered the believer who promises (usually publicly) to “pray for you.”  If you haven’t encountered this yet, don’t worry.  You will.  If you are a believer reading this, then first and foremost welcome and good for you!  Secondly, at some point in time you most likely prayed for someone, for either their physical, emotional or spiritual health. Believers are persistent about the power of prayer in all matters: health, happiness, prosperity and spiritual well being.   This begs the question, why are there so many unhealthy, unhappy, economically challenged, malcontented people on this planet?  The ineffectiveness of prayer is a topic for whole separate article.  In this post, I want to focus exclusively on how prayer, like faith, is something that is often taken for granted as a good and necessary thing.  Upon closer investigation, prayer (even the well-intentioned prayers of a kindhearted believer) is not only irrational, but immoral.

I love you, and I will pray for you. This is what I heard from a family member the other day in response to my challenging her statement that Jesus lives in her heart and that she cannot live without him.  My challenge wasn’t vicious, I simply asked her to substantiate the claim she was making by providing some evidence.  Since the evidence was all “in her heart” she was unable to do so.  Whether out of genuine concern or because she lacked a more substantive response, she said she would pray for me.

I’ll admit I never quite know how to behave when someone says they will pray for me.  The soft, sweet cupcakey part of me wants to be grateful.  The person is saying, in the only way she knows how, that she loves me and is concerned about me.  On the other hand, the not-so-cupcakey part of me gets peeved at the condescension of it.  As though my non-belief is something to be pitied.  When you really think about it, if friends or family members are praying that you will find faith they are effectively saying you are not good enough the way you are.  You could be a wonderful mother or father.  You could be warm, hard working, loyal to your friends, helpful to your community and an all-around kickass person to be with.  It doesn’t matter to the person praying for you.  To them, you are lost without god.  They are praying for you to abandon reason and turn to prayer just like them.

In short, they are hoping not that you’ll lose your mind, but that you’ll willingly set it aside.

It isn’t just prayers for conversion that set me on edge.  It is the concept of prayer in general.  People who are praying believe that they have a direct line of communication with a magical being somewhere who will consider their requests and possibly grant them wishes. This makes me massively uncomfortable because someone who believes they have a power like that on their side are not likely to look at difficult situations through the lens of reality.  Consider, for example, someone who has a sick family member. Many friends will say “I’ll pray for you” or “You’re in our prayers.”  If that sick family member recovers, the person might say “Thank you for all your prayers!”  What a prickish, selfish thing to say.  Do the prayerful not consider the doctors and nurses who devoted themselves to years of medical training?  Are they not mindful of all of the people out there who were also prayed for but who did not recover? It is a trick of the mind to selectively remember only the successes and to disregard the times when prayer doesn’t work.

Even worse are the people who attribute the success of prayer and the intervention of a supernatural being to the most mundane and inconsequential occurrences.  Thank god I found my missing ring under the sofa!  God heard my prayer!  Thank you, god, for letting me find exact change in my car seat at the drive-thru.  God is good all the time! Thank you, god, for letting me win that raffle. Praise the lord!  The belief that a supernatural being intervened on your behalf to help you solve your ridiculously petty problems while letting millions of people around the world suffer hunger, disease, and misery is completely deluded, self-centered and insulting to the rest of humanity.  It is dehumanizing and immoral.

When I was religious, I used to pray for others.  Now that I am an atheist, I have a difficult time remembering what exactly my intentions were when I was praying.  I think they were good.  Still, I have come to view prayer as a particularly wicked manifestation of a selfish and twisted worldview.  I can’t help but look at the world around me and see beauty alongside suffering. I predict with confidence the lives of every single person reading this blog post will be filled with moments of overwhelming joy, debilitating sadness and whole lot of in-between.

It is almost as though there is no guiding hand at all.  The universe operates exactly as it would if there were no godly intervention whatsoever.

I chose to respond to my prayerful family member not with vitriol but with an appeal to her sense of humanity.  I asked to trade my prayer time for something practical.  I suggested that instead of praying for me, she could spend the time she would have spent in prayer volunteering at an animal rescue or reading to children at the library. After all, it is up to us to make the world a better place for one another.  No god is going to do it for us.

DISCUSSION QUESTION:  How do you, the reader, handle it when someone says they will pray for you?  If you are a religious person, how do you feel about praying for someone else?


13 Responses to “Prayer is mean. I mean it.”

  1. MikeTheInfidel March 1, 2011 at 12:58 pm #

    I do think it’s horribly condescending. But from another perspective: some of these people believe in a literal hell and think we’re going there. I’d be more afraid of them if they couldn’t be bothered to try to keep that from happening.

    Of course, some people say they’re going to pray for you just to be dismissive and allow themselves to ignore you.

  2. Duxall Inarow March 1, 2011 at 9:04 pm #

    There are a number of us out here in Cupcake Land who belong to an Atheist Moms group. Our response when we hear of someone in need of emotional support is simply, “I’ll bake for you!” Very few stressors in a person’s life don’t respond to cake, and baking (or cleaning, sending cookies, and so on) seems to go a lot further in helping someone in need than the facile “IPFY” response. 😉 Nurse Dux

    • Cupcake March 1, 2011 at 10:34 pm #

      First of all, I like the idea of Cupcake Land. That kicks ass. Secondly, I love the “I’ll bake for you” idea. I hope you don’t mind if I add that to my repertoire. 🙂

      • Duxall Inarow March 1, 2011 at 11:03 pm #

        Which would you rather see, a neighbor promising to pray for you, or a neighbor bearing a chocolate layer cake? We’d love to have you join our movement—we bake for all. 😉 Dux

  3. givingnottaking March 1, 2011 at 9:10 pm #

    I have mixed feelings when someone prays, blesses me as in reality they are just words that have no influence or effect on anything, so usually my first thought is a feeling of disappointment that they need to live in a world of delusion, then I think well they are just being polite or pleasant. The other day I remarked to a lady in a shop “What a wonderful day it is today” and instead of a follow-up comment about how she will spend her day etc, she replied “The lord has provided that for us, we should be thankful” I didnt respond but felt like saying that if this is correct, then he also provided the recent earthquake in New Zealand that has created havoc, many lives have been lost,and the community left to pick-up the pieces.

    • Cupcake March 1, 2011 at 10:36 pm #

      Yes, I encountered something similar today. I was discussing a local tragedy where I live. Some children died in a home day care fire. Someone said “They are good Christian people so I know they’ll pull through.” I thought to myself the same god that is going to get them through is the one who could have prevented the tragedy in the first place, right? It is funny how people are always ready to credit their god with the good things that happen but unwilling to place blame for the bad.

    • Nicole Schrand March 5, 2011 at 6:07 am #

      I just wrote a rant myself about this kind of thing, as it is something I am hearing constantly lately. If you give someone/something credit for all the good it’s supposedly causing, how can you deny blame for all the good it could be causing, but isn’t?

  4. Melissa March 2, 2011 at 2:48 am #

    I got sick of this very quickly when I came out as an atheist. My community is in the bible belt, so I hear this stuff nearly daily. When I’m in a bad mood, I usually reply with, “And I’ll think for you!” Sometimes, I try to explain why they are being rather insulting or why prayer just won’t work, but I’ve yet to meet a christian that gets that.

    Most of the time I just wander off without a response. I would prefer the “I’ll bake for you” mentioned above.

    • Katharine March 6, 2011 at 7:10 pm #

      Oh, I really like the “I’ll think for you” retort. (I like the “I’ll bake for you” one, too, but … I’m not baking for all those nuts.)
      It’s very right winged around here and I hear that “I’ll pray for you” comment almost daily.
      I mostly wanna smack them, so thank you for a workable reply.

  5. Mark March 11, 2011 at 10:54 pm #

    When Christians say they’ll pray for me, I usually take it gratefully – because I know they’re trying hard to empathize with me in whatever they’re praying for. I’ve never thought about it being immoral until I read this post; I still don’t think most of my Christian friends have poor intentions.
    I don’t think prayer accomplishes anything in the sense that a deity hears and answers, but I think it does help the prayer empathize and be aware. Maybe like meditation in a sense.
    One thing I’m trying to find balance in:
    You said “As though my non-belief is something to be pitied.”
    I’m thinking it’s a (sad) fact of life that believers will pity non-believers, and that non-believers will pity believers.
    I don’t believe, and I pity the belief of those I’m close to, and I know they’re pitying me as well. I wonder how this pity cycle could come to a stop?

  6. Melissa March 14, 2011 at 6:53 pm #

    For me, this issue is touchy. As a consultant, I deal with lots of different folks on a weekly basis. Most, if not all, are devout Christians. I get the “IPFY” response all the time when they ask how things are going with my business. Or if I’m putting on an event for them they’ll tell me that they are praying for good weather, high attendance, increased revenue and whatnot. I certainly don’t want to upset them with my non-believing views (as they are the ones who sign my checks) but I don’t want them to think that I go along with their beliefs either. So I tread carefully.

    Right now I just say “Thanks!” and leave it at that. Or I make some off-handed joke about needing a lot more than prayer to get me through. Once I told a client that instead of prayer she should get me a bottle of vodka. She did not appreciate that.

  7. Matt Collins March 14, 2011 at 10:48 pm #

    This doesn’t happen to me much, but something came to mind when I thought about the problem. If someone truly is trying to be condescending toward you, you could always use an “Aw, how cute~” as they’re just so adorably ineffective. =P

    Other than that, though, I’d probably just do what you did. Try to explain and/or suggest they do something USEFUL with their time. X3

    • Matt Collins March 14, 2011 at 10:49 pm #

      (When I said “This doesn’t happen to me much,…”, I was referring to people saying they’ll pray for me, not about thinking. X3;)

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