Editors Note: This piece comes from contributor Laurie Thompson.
A few days ago I went to a local bar to hang out with some of my college buddies. I had a good time, met some new people, and it was generally pleasant. At a certain point in our conversation, the topic of religion naturally arose. I learned that one of my new friends was Christian – a member of one of the fairly progressive denominations. My new friend learned, of course, that I was an atheist.
This is a fairly common occurrence in my life, and in the lives of many other atheists – there are a lot of Christians out there. What followed was a fairly equally commonplace conversation about religion, science, morality etc. It was actually quite pleasant and productive, as far as conversations about religion go. I feel that I left the guy with a better overall impression of atheists, and he posed a number of interesting questions for me to ponder – so far so good. It was at the end of the conversation that things turned a little strange. You see, he said he’d pray for me. I responded, “Don’t do that, that’s weird.” But he insisted. I tried to explain that when someone says, “I’ll pray for you,” I hear “I’m going to set aside a few seconds to think about you, sending my thoughts toward my invisible friend, who I hope will stalk you and intervene in your affairs.” I wasn’t raised on religion – to me, this isn’t normal. But then I thought, maybe I should give Christian culture the benefit of the doubt and just go with the flow. After all, it’s not like praying does anything, so why should I care?
Since then I’ve thought some more about it, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it is the responsibility of a considerate Christian to honor a non-Christian’s desires when it comes to being prayed for, not the responsibility of a non-Christian to just play along. In fact, praying for someone against their wishes, whether you tell them about it or not, is arrogant and encourages blind faith in the believer. It’s the equivalent of baptizing a person “by proxy” – thanks, but no thanks.
In general, many of the more progressive Christians believe that sin is bad not simply because god says it is bad, but because it is intrinsically evil on its own. Thus, if one of God’s prophets said that murder was ok, the proclamation wouldn’t make murder ok, rather it would indicate that God was wrong or that prophet heard God incorrectly. Moral Codes, according to these Christians, must have some secular, reality-based justification. As another example, it’s not acceptable to argue that homosexuality is wrong because of such-and-such passage in the Bible. This is a rather sensible position for a theist to take, as it encourages skepticism and may prevent one from accepting beliefs that lead to cruelty (e.g. “Suffer not a witch to live”). In essence, when considering one’s own actions, a theist is well advised to ask himself/herself the question, “would this still be a good idea, provided God didn’t exist?”
Let’s apply this concept to the statement “I’ll pray for you.” If God doesn’t exist, praying for someone obviously isn’t going to do anything to help the…prayee? In fact, praying won’t do anything at all, apart from making the kneeling Christian feel better. Yet, one might ask, where is the harm in praying for an Atheist – it certainly cant HURT them, can it?
Well, no, it won’t materially hurt them in any direct way. But think about the phrase, “I’ll pray for you,” implies. This is something you would say to someone who is down on their luck, or someone with a grave illness. It implies that the atheist is somehow missing out on life, or maybe suffering from a sort of spiritual disease, simply because they don’t believe in God. As if they must be depressed or mentally ill, or maybe they just aren’t smart enough to see the proof of God’s existence, or they’re too weak to resist the temptation of premarital snuggles and sleeping-in on Sunday. This is the kind of unhelpful attitude that Atheists have to face sometimes, and it’s never clear to us how we should respond. Imagine if you were one of just a few Christians in a nation full Jedis, and someone said to you, “Oh, you’re a Christian….I’ll pray to The Force for you.” It’s a bit of a backhanded compliment, even if you mean it as a favor.
On another note, let’s consider why praying for an Atheist could possibly make a Christian feel good. This is the other non-supernatural benefit of prayer. On the one hand, perhaps Christians are upset that their new, friendly Atheist buddies are, according to their faith, headed to hell. They’re praying that God will help the Atheists become Christians in order to save their souls. A noble goal this might be, but it merely prevents these Christians from confronting the cognitive dissonance that upsets them to begin with. According to their own beliefs, the hellfire-Christians’ “just” God is doing something unjust: He’s sending a seemingly good person to eternal torture (or at the very least, to a non-heaven place) because they chose the wrong answer to the question “Who is Mary’s secret lover?” Some of these same folk continue believing, unwaveringly, that gay is evil, whilst still claiming that they have “a few gay friends.” As an Atheist and skeptic, I refuse participate in such corrosive reality-denial, even as a mere recipient of hate-tinged prayers.
Let’s give the Christians a bit more credit than that, though. Surely some of them are reasonable types who just want me to discover the love of God, and they are praying for God to intervene and, you know, do me a solid so I know he’s there. Or maybe they just want him to write, “Yes, I exist. Love, God,” on my lawn in four-leaf clovers, or something nifty like that. This attitude is a bit arrogant. It assumes that a relationship with God is something to be desired in every case by every person, and that they, the believer, can know this is true with enough certainty to call in a celestial favor. I would hope is that this kind of arrogance is directed only at Atheists and other “sinners,” not at people of other faiths. If I told a Christian I believed that the Christian God were in truth an evil Devil, I would hope that he/she would have the good sense not to say, “I’ll pray to God for you…”
In any case, if a Christian were asking for a favor from someone other than God – anyone else – they wouldn’t pull strings like that, not against the wishes of the recipient. If someone said to you, “Hey, I’ll ask the boss to give you a raise. I’m his friend.” You might respond “No, don’t do that.” Maybe because you feel that’s unethical, or maybe because you already make too much money, or you are unemployed and you don’t know what this person keeps going on about “the boss” for – the reason doesn’t matter, if someone offers to do you a favor and you decline, the reasonable response is “ok, never mind.”
Of course, there are some Christians who believe they live in a privileged reference frame, so to speak. To them, morality is defined chiefly by God and requires no reality-based justification. These folks would offer to pray for a non-Christian, or offer to pray for a “cure for homosexuality”, and would consider the ensuing outrage unreasonable. After all, they believe with their whole soul that no faith-based initiative could ever do harm – god wouldn’t allow it. It could never be an unreasonable intrusion to pray for someone or to proselytize, because these actions are imbued with the magic of God. They fail to ask themselves the question “would this be a good idea if God didn’t exist?” and as such, their actions can be immune from common sense and empathy, provided God is involved. If any of you readers fit into this category, and you want to pray for me, I know I won’t possibly convince you not to, so I’ll just offer you a bargain: I’ll let you pray for me if you let me think for you ;).
Editor’s note: While I agree with much presented here, I do not share the belief that believers have a responsibility to respect the wishes of people who do not want to be prayed for.