“I’ll pray for you,” when spoken by a Christian to an atheist, often makes the atheist angry. Christians usually incite this anger when they use the phrase to indicate that they are going to use God to influence the behavior or thinking of atheists against these atheists’ will. Several Christians, as well as some more peacefully-minded non-Christians, claim this anger is unjustifiable if the atheist states he or she does not believe in God. Christians may build on this claim by stating – or, at least, privately thinking —that this anger is a sign that, deep down, the atheist really DOES believe in God. But does this claim make sense? If atheists really thought prayer was a good and wholesome activity that gave them the ear of the Almighty God, wouldn’t they pray themselves? There are more plausible possibilities, and here are seven of them.
1: We’re Concerned About Who You’re Talking To
Try not to take too much offense at this honesty, but the bare fact is that when you say, “I’ll pray for you,” I, as an atheist, don’t believe in God, so I see it as you talking to yourself. As a result, from my viewpoint what you’re telling me is, “I’m going to go talk to myself about you.” This is particularly frustrating when you do this in a discussion on religion, because you’re basically saying that you aren’t going to listen to us anymore, but that instead you’re going to go talk to yourself to restore your version of who atheists are. Such wall-building makes the context of understanding that many atheists are trying to create impossible, resulting in understandable frustration.
2: It Seems Arrogant
When you say, “I’ll pray for you,” you seem to be (and, I would argue, actually are) trying to say that you’re superior to me. Now, atheists don’t believe in God, but when someone is unduly arrogant towards us, we become as angry as the next person. “But,” you say, “Atheists are arrogant towards ME.” OK, then make yourself a test case – did you get angry when they exhibited the arrogance that they, as a fellow human, were somehow superior to you? Assuming a “yes” — next question: Did you really believe you were inferior? No? But yet you claim it bothered you? The parallel is that atheists are similarly (and often more) rightfully angry when the Christian exhibits the arrogance of having a personal line to God that the atheist doesn’t have access to. Not because the atheist believes in God – that would be absurd, because in that case the atheist would simply pray to God himself. No, the anger is frustration at your arrogance, which you are in a position to understand, having experienced arrogant behavior from others towards you, yourself. P.S. If your response to this is, “But why would it bother you if you didn’t believe it,” please read this reason again; I did address this.
3: We Don’t Think It Does Anything
Most of these reasons are focused on use of “I’ll pray for you” during a conversation that has to do with religion. A lot of atheists may appreciate the phrase when you use it as they’re going through a hard time — but some atheists won’t, and they have a fairly upstanding reason for why: We atheists simply don’t think prayer really does anything. It doesn’t automatically make our situations better. In fact, in the most recent thorough study on prayer, which was done on cardiac bypass patients in 2006, letting a patient know they were being prayed for actually INCREASED the number of complications, probably because these patients had more stress because of “performance anxiety.” So we may be upset that you are doing what is, in our eyes, an ineffective and potentially harmful activity instead of engaging in practical solutions and real relationships.
4: There’s No Reason For You To Tell Us…Except…
We’re often upset that you TOLD us you’d pray for us. Many of us atheists are familiar with Christianity, so we know that Jesus said to keep your prayers to yourself in several places in the Bible. So, we figure, if you sincerely wanted to pray for us, there was no need to tell us. And we don’t believe in God, so why would you need to? We’re not getting anything out of it. Telling us you’ll be praying, then, seems to be a blatant attempt to tell us that you’re not convinced that we don’t need intervening from God (who we often see as, with all due respect, something of an imaginary friend), and to rub in your argument that you think we deserve your pity more than your respect (because, honestly, we think that if you respected us you would be more prone to keeping those prayers to yourself).
5: It Separates Us
The phrase often underlines your separation from the atheist. For example, if you knew the atheist before their deconversion, and the atheist is already upset and angry at the way you view them now, saying “I’ll pray for you” may emphasize the fact that the relationship between yourself and the atheist has changed, and the atheist’s anger may be grief. This is not grief that you are actually going to talk to God about them (because the atheist doesn’t believe God exists), but grief that your use of the phrase underlines the difference between you. This angry grief is likely to be even more intense if there is reason for the atheist to believe you used the phrase intentionally to highlight the difference between you and the atheist.
6: It Seems To Be An Attempt To Manipulate
For us as atheists, the effect of prayer is purely psychological and social. There is no God making it work, so any changes of mind that may come about due to someone saying “I’ll pray for you” will come through human interaction. If you have no strong reason to back up your statements in an argument, “I’ll pray for you” seems like a cheap trick to psychologically intimidate the atheist into either feeling inferior to you or into feeling he or she is in a position of shame or pity, or to otherwise emotionally manipulate the atheist into coming closer to your position. For many atheists, then, especially those who were formally Christian, this seems like an underhanded move, and they will feel justified in calling you out on it.
7: You Know These Reasons Already, And You Still Think It’s OK
Honestly, it often seems to us as atheists that Christians are fully aware that the phrase “I’ll pray for you” bothers us, and at least some of the aforementioned reasons WHY it bothers us, and yet use the phrase anyway. It seems to us that the reason for your use of the phrase is that, in your mind and in much of culture, that phrase has been kept immune from any moral judgment, so that you can use that phrase on the offensive in an argument (fully aware of all the “reasons” on this list) and walk away from the conversation looking like a saint. Due to the “angry atheist” stereotype, the atheist often does not have the same luxury to be seen as morally justified when responding to the phrase “I’ll pray for you.” This unfairness is frustrating, and one of the ways some atheists have dealt with this frustration is by expressing it honestly, in spite of any negative consequences and any perception from Christians that they are “angry.” In any event, the growth of the non-religious and the gradual shrinking of fundamentalism seems to be making the phrase “I’ll pray for you” in an inappropriate context increasingly unacceptable.