Not “I’ll Pray For You” But “I Love You”

Joe Bob Briggs from The Wittenburg Door visited a convention of atheists last year.  The Wittenburg Door is primarily a satire magazine written by Evangelicals with a sense of humor and perspective which I remember fondly from my teen years.

So, writing for a “with it” sort of Evangelical publication, Briggs’s barbs at the atheists in whose company he spent a few days are measured and infrequent (and mostly ineffective as far as I’m concerned).  I may in the future address some of what he observed and some of his criticisms of it as it’s a really, really interesting and extensive article.

But for now, I just want to focus on this one great passage:

One of the most touching moments (for the atheists) and troubling moments (for me) came on the final evening of the convention, when Daniel Dennett was presented with the 2007 Richard Dawkins Award . . . by Richard Dawkins. (Yes, things were getting ridiculous by then.) In presenting the award, Dawkins told the story of a life-threatening illness that Dennett had suffered through the previous year. During Dennett’s time in the hospital, he was upset by the number of people who said “We will pray for you.” He thought the focus should be on the wonderful staff and technology available in the hospital, not on appeals to a fictitious force in outer space. Dawkins tells this story with great admiration, and the audience agrees–what a brave and honest man.

The name for this is stoicism, and they’re committed to it. They don’t even realize that when people say “We will pray for you”–sometimes even non-religious people–it means they have run out of any other thing to say to you. They’re overwhelmed by the enormity of what you’re facing, and what they’re facing, and so they use this phrase to mean “I love you.” I think most people would instinctively know this. I can imagine few people on the planet who would be offended or upset by the offer of intercessory prayer. I don’t even think that most people offering intercessory prayer at a time like that intend to follow through on the prayer, at least not in any formal way. There’s a connection made at that moment, and it’s recognized by both parties as love.

Several thoughts—first of all I think Dennett and Dawkins are exactly right that our attention and gratitude should be directed at the real human beings working tirelessly and employing amazing technologies to save us, rather than invoke deities.  Briggs’s indignance about atheists not getting the real reasons people say they pray is misdirected.  I was moved when Briggs pointed out that what people mean when they say, “I’ll pray for you” is really usually only “I love you.”  I always wondered what I should say to people to express my concern since I don’t pray and don’t have any interest in even paying lip service to the idea that prayer is an appropriate response.  But saying I love you sounds just about perfect.

And Briggs shouldn’t direct his contempt and “troubled” feelings at the atheists who are looking for a way to express their feelings that is consistent with acknowledging reality head-on and eschewing habits of superstition, wishful thinking, and desperation.  The real target should be our cultural habit of sublimating what we really feel through myths.  If what we really mean is “I love you” then why are we saying the much less powerful “I’ll pray for you.”  If what we really mean is I love you, why not just say that instead, why not just make a practice of exposing ourselves vulnerably and honestly and communicating our love directly to the one we love.

Don’t blame atheists for “not getting it” that many people falling back on a promise of prayer don’t really believe in prayer or hope in it.

But then came his closing line for the paragraphs cited above, and it’s just nonsense:

This may be the main reason atheism has no long-term legs. It has no cubicle for love.

It’s ridiculous to expect “atheism” to cover all the ground religion does.  Atheism is not a religion, it is not a theory with much constructive content, it’s not a set of rituals or practices, it’s not inherently a communal affiliation, it’s not inherently an entire view of life.  Atheism is a specific rejection of a specific belief (the belief in gods).  As an intellectual and a cultural movement it is a natural ally of other secularist and naturalist movements and systems of thought.  But atheism need not be in the business of fulfilling every function religion served and atheists are in no way refuted in our arguments against the epistemological correctness of belief in God simply because, qua atheists, we offer no necessary replacement rituals or community structures to make up for religious ones.

I am excited about the attempts to deliberately build networks of secularists and atheists which can help people replace some of the church networking.  I am excited about attempts to found explicitly secularist children’s camps, charities, reading groups, and organizations focused on secular conceptions of ethics.  I do want to see the tremendous amount of ethics insights which need no reference to God become more mainstreamed and part of the cultural discussion.

So, yes, I hope for, and want to help contribute to, constructive atheism which helps people think for themselves in coherent ways about issues that religion addressed and which helps serve some of the needs we have for ritual, meditation, charitable networks, psychological support, and ethical discussion for which people presently turn to churches.

But that does not in any way mean that atheists live impoverished lives meted out in neat “cubicles” and designating no room for love.  Such a stereotype is thoroughly unimaginative and out of touch with reality.  It’s a symptom of thinking of one’s Other in the terms only of one’s own life and categories.  Just because some religious people want to interpret all love as flowing only from their religious sources does not mean that irreligious people are at all strangers to love.  And atheism itself need not “provide” the love.  We are psychologically and socially well-wired to love and all one’s atheism need do is give no obstacles to those natural tendencies.  And nothing about the lack of belief in gods leads with any necessity or even likelihood to a reduction in our natural tendencies to love.  I love my parents and my friends no less simply because I do not believe in any gods.  I hope for the flourishing and improvement of all humanity no less because I do not believe in any gods.

So, when I freeze not knowing what to say to someone I care about has given me cause to worry about them, because our social conventions gives me only the phrase “I’ll pray for you” which is not an accurate way to express my thoughts or feelings, this does not mean I do not comprehend or have any room for love.  And when I am irritated that people offer to pray for me, it’s not because I’m obtuse to love but because I’m genuinely concerned that people in general and those close to me in particular think and live truthfully.  And while I appreciate their love and its expression, I still would rather it didn’t come with the reminder that they are superstitious or wishful thinkers.  I would rather they faced reality with me, rather than retreating from it when they addressed my pain leaving me alone with reality in that moment.

But the problem is not that I am obtuse to love.  It’s that I say what I really mean and I take others to do the same.  I’d only say I’d pray for someone if I really believed it was efficacious and someone is listening and so I assume those who say it to me mean the same or that they are trying to make themselves believe the same.  I’d rather they just tell me they love me or that they are thinking about me and feeling concerned for me and I’d rather just give them the same honest expressions of my feelings, hopes, and love than take the occasion of misfortune to indulge in wishful thinking, superstition, sublimation, and/or denial of inevitable realities.

Finally, for someone who went to the atheist convention to miserly and contemptuously tease a minority group of people for their attempts to band together and form a constructive community based on reason and humanism and opposition to superstition, it is rather hypocritical for Briggs to mock their lack of developed accounts of love and it is not fair when he and others begrudge atheists our attempts to be an organized voice in our culture.  It’s not expansive love that wants atheists to just silence our rationally defensible objections to religious beliefs and their practice.

And it talks out of two selfish sides of the mouth both to chide the attempts to do something constructive as a community while also mocking the supposed lack of full-blooded, communally agreed upon understandings of, say, “an atheist account of love.”  Either you accept and applaud atheists’ attempts to organize ourselves into a constructive force to accomplish good things as a community or you drop the pretense that you’re interested in our well-being and just admit that as a religious person we’re you’re enemies and you don’t love us nearly as much as you want to “save” us and protect your flock from us.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • George

    “I’d only say I’d pray for someone if I really believed it was efficacious and someone is listening and so I assume those who say it to me mean the same or that they are trying to make themselves believe the same. I’d rather they just tell me they love me or that they are thinking about me and feeling concerned for me and I’d rather just give them the same honest expressions of my feelings, hopes, and love than take the occasion of misfortune to indulge in wishful thinking, superstition, sublimation, and/or denial of inevitable realities.”-Dan

    When I went to friends houses for dinner growing up I’d rather their parents serve Pad Thai than meatloaf, I’ll sadly profess…they did not. What I’m getting at is in past posts we have agreed that a good rule is to “meet them where they are”. Does this not extend to the courtesy of taking well wishes at face value? Do we need to split hairs over what seems to be a difference of symantics? Should Mr. Dennett be “upset” that someone shows compassion toward him in a way that is relevant to them instead of him?

    To me it’s just a question of intention. We should be upset when the intention is to convert us or undermine us, maybe even when religions plant missionaries in hospitals in an attempt to covertly comfort people in what is certainly a vulnerable moment. Just as I choke down my meatloaf knowing that my friends parents intended to feed me a good meal, so too must we humble ourselves long enough to be thankful for well wishes even if we don’t agree with the religious overtones. Meatloaf was a favorite dish at my friends house; those sentiments at the hospital bed were, in context, the best they could muster.

    The atheist dilemma is that we are mirroring our reaction to religion as a default language in the manner in which those same theists have condemned humanistic language. We have no reason to be so defensive. Centuries of indoctrination did not abolish atheism. Centuries of economies and societies built on the backs of slaves did not stop emancipation. What scares religions is that they know the zeitgeist is changing, that Natural Law has inevitable consequences. Ideas are powerful things….

  • Switchhttr

    It’s not always easy to tell if “I’ll pray for you” is simply meant well or uttered only “because our social conventions gives me only the phrase” in certain stressful situations–or if there’s schadenfreude and /or proselytizing behind it. It is this ambiguity that makes me uncomfortable with people saying to me, “I’ll pray for you,” and I’m certain I’m not alone in that. There’s no truth in labeling law for people.


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