Prayer: neglect without shame.

Reading the prayer requests on Mark Shea’s blog always fills me with bewilderment.  For one, their prayers seem like an indictment on the same god they worship for being oh-so-good.  I mean, you can’t think that you’re bringing the situation to god’s attention.  If the guy’s all knowing, he has surely been aware of whatever sickness you’re praying about and, despite being able to do something, has not done so.  The only reason you’d pray in this case is if you think he’s the type of god who won’t act out of compassion, but who might act once someone has engaged in sufficient groveling and begging.

Yeah, sign me up to worship that guy.

It’s always so weird criticizing religion in these cases.  Obviously I lament that people are suffering (far more than god, apparently), but that doesn’t make me despise religion and lazy thinking any less.  It’s bad enough when a person who, left only to the mercy of the almighty, would certainly die is taken to hospital built by mere mortals and treated by mere mortals using the ingenuity of mere mortals, and their combined efforts unmake whatever malady god decided his design needed, and god is given the credit.  It’s worse when someone acts as if even more divine negligence is the cure.

I almost threw up when I read this entry:

I seem to be asking a lot, but I could use any prayers you can offer. The bad news in my life is never-ending I keep finding myself at my wits end. Frankly, I’m not sure I can last another month in my current trajectory much less another year of this emotional and financial hell I’m in. Sorry if it seems like I’m emailing you every month but I honestly don’t know what to do.

Father, hear our prayer that my reader find good and steady work and get out of the difficulties in which he currently finds himself.  Grant him peace and trust in your providence.  Mother Mary and St. Joseph, pray for him. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.


Ok, pray if you must, but for fuck’s sake don’t leave it there.  This person is obviously severely depressed and they need a doctor or a therapist.  To merely dump some more begging at the feet of the same being who, in creating the cosmos, even conceived of depression in the first place (and decided this person needed it), before dusting off your hands and calling it a day is perhaps not god-level negligence, but it’s close.

That’s the problem with religion: allowing people to think they sound wise or that they are being helpful by leaving it to a god they’ve never seen.  It’s the same as neglect, just with more arrogance.  It would be inaction if not for posturing being an action.

I seem to be asking a lot, but I could use any prayers you can offer. The bad news in my life is never-ending I keep finding myself at my wits end. Frankly, I’m not sure I can last another month in my current trajectory much less another year of this emotional and financial hell I’m in. Sorry if it seems like I’m emailing you every month but I honestly don’t know what to do.

About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.

  • invivoMark

    I wonder if Tru Beleevers ever consciously decide not to pray for something.

    I mean, if I’m going to actually do something about a problem, I have to come at it with a measure of forethought. I’ve gotta do it right. That means I have to dedicate a certain amount of effort toward the various things that I know I can do, and I have to discriminately ignore some things that either I can’t do, or that I judge are not worth my time. If I divide my time among too many things, I know I will only put in a half-assed effort, and I will have done less good than if I had focused on only a few things.

    But praying doesn’t seem to have a cost, so there’s no limit of how many problems people can pray will get solved by divine intervention. If that’s the case, why not pray for everyone’s problems to be solved? If your prayer is limited to only yourself or people you know, doesn’t that make you incredibly selfish? If some problems are excluded from your prayers, doesn’t that mean that you don’t care about those problems, or the people who suffer from them? If there’s any problem in the world that you aren’t praying about, doesn’t that make you an asshole?

  • Jasper

    Look up some social services for the person. Donate a few bucks. Be a listening ear to let the person vent.

    Do SOMETHING that’s not talking to your imaginary best friend on the person’s behalf.

  • busterggi

    Remember – god nevers gives people more than they can handle so any suicide is part of god’s plan.

  • Ma Nonny

    This hits home and reminds me of bouts of severe depression I had as a kid, when I still thought there was a God out there. I even wrote really bad poems asking God why he wouldn’t help make my life any better and pleading for help (while making desperate, thin excuses for putting off suicide). Since nothing magically changed, the conclusion I came to at the time was that he didn’t care. This was absolutely devastating to me – both because I desperately wanted things to change while not seeing any change in response to my praying and wishing, and because I felt like there was just one more person (God) that didn’t care about me.

    If only I had known that maybe my life wasn’t divinely controlled, it would have saved me years of pain. It took a very long time for me to get the courage to make positive changes in my own life, and those only came after the conclusion that “well, God isn’t going to help, so I have to do it for myself.” It must be hellish (pun intended) to be stuck in a place where you think all the bad things happen for a reason and/or the “good guy” is just choosing not to help.

    So, I don’t care if someone prays for people in situations like this guy, but I absolutely will judge people for not doing something else to help as well. You don’t get to pat yourself on the back if you haven’t tangibly helped that person. (Although, I will also judge you if you insist it was your prayer that should get the credit and not the people who stepped in to help.)

  • sparkyb

    I was just thinking about this issue. A couple weeks ago a good friend of mine who is a competitive diver was in a trampoline accident while training. He’s in the hospital, still basically unable to move, not sure if he’ll be paralyzed, and also fighting some breathing problems and pneumonia that also resulted. Obviously this is traumatic for him, his family, and friends (of which I am one). He’s on the other side of the country so there’s not much I can really do, other than post positive thoughts and happy memories on his facebook page (which people read to him) to cheer him up. We never really discussed religion and he never tried to proselytize to me or anything but I know he is fairly religious as is his family and many of his friends. I’m trying to follow his recovery via facebook and via one of those special websites they set up, but every post about his status is also accompanied by prayer requests and most supportive comments say they’re praying for him or that God will help me. There was even mention of the doctors saying that they’ve done what they can and God will do the rest. Even though I’m sure he is getting the best care he possibly can, with some amount still up to chance, it sickens me to read all these people praising God to bring recovery, as if God existed it wasn’t he who did this to my friend in the first place. I’m not really sure what to do in this situation. How do you care about a friend and your advocacy of atheism at the same time? I feel like I want to say something, but I don’t know what and don’t really think that I should. Do you just put religious differences aside and care for your friend and his family on their terms even if you don’t agree just to not upset them? Even if I don’t say anything, I feel like I want to say on my Facebook page “If I ever get in a debilitating accident it is my wish that you not pray for my recovery”, but I’m afraid that my friend or anyone who knows both of us will know that my statement is a result of his situation and it will still come off as callous. What’s the ethical atheist protocol in this situation?

    • Bear Millotts

      By posting on his facebook page your shared experiences of friendship, you are doing more than the oft-repeated prayers. Be there as you can and as you have, as a friend and not just someone who just says “I’m praying for you.” Ignore the praying and the religion. Ignore the atheism. That’s not about anyone’s terms, that’s just being his friend.

    • invivoMark

      If you could snap your fingers and magically convince someone that there probably isn’t a god, and that prayer doesn’t work, why would you do so?

      Hopefully you’d do so because you want that person to have a better life, and you believe that being an atheist leads to a healthier worldview and a better, more fulfilling life. After all, you don’t need to “convert” others to atheism for your own benefit – you do so for theirs.

      The most important thing in the world right now is that your friend feels supported. Crippling injuries are among the worst things a person can possibly go through. So make sure that in every interaction with your friend, you let them know that you support them, that you care about them.

      And yeah, that means you shouldn’t mention religion. You shouldn’t proselytize, you shouldn’t post on your Facebook page about your atheism in a way that relates to your friend. Don’t compromise your principles, of course, but also don’t make jabs at the other people who are showing their support for your friend in their own ways.

      You want your friend to feel better. The best way to do that right now is to set your religious differences aside and put your friendship with this person front and center.

  • Tony Debono

    Even though I’m now an atheist I still sometimes feel the urge to pray. The urge was particularly strong when my dad was dying. In fact, the thought entered my head that God was just waiting for MY prayer (the atheist’s prayer) before he’d be willing to bring my dad back from the brink of death; latent Christian narcissism, I guess. I concluded that I neither needed nor respected THAT kind of god, anyway.

  • Ted Thompson

    It’s funny how you don’t see Joe Klein doing even the bare minimum and praying.

  • Mick

    Why would a 21st century human being think their problems can be solved with monthly prayer requests to an Internet blogger? Is that what religion is doing to people these days?

  • Kristjan

    Isn’t god supposed to be omniscient? And have a plan? And isn’t he
    supposed to be all good? Isn’t prayer in this case kind of blasphemous?
    I mean, you presume that he doesn’t know what’s happening to you. You
    presume that you’re important enough that he would change his eternal
    plan just because you asked him to. And you also presume that your
    suffering isn’t good for you. So what gives?