“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?