So you’ve just been told. “I’ll pray for you!”
And you’re not really sure how to respond in this situation. Maybe you mutter a “thanks” and feel like a dufus as you walk away, wishing there was something more clever you could’ve said. Or maybe the context was different – the person was being sincere, and you want to say you appreciate the thought even though you don’t agree with it. But you’re not sure how you should word that sentiment or if you should even express it. So maybe you say something that didn’t quite fit to your satisfaction in that instance, either.
Before going any further, I should state that it’s trendy, especially among lifelong atheists or those who have been atheists for a long time, to say that you shouldn’t feel angry about the religion you came from (in this case, Christianity) — so someone saying “I’ll pray for you” in any context should be no big deal. On the other end, I know some of these atheists who aren’t angry are probably reading this carefully to see if I am endorsing a position of anger towards well-meaning Christians — an endorsement that is likely to alienate some atheists who claim they just don’t feel angry at the religion they came from.
I’m going to say – you owe it to yourself to be honest about your feelings here. If you’re angry about Christianity (as I often am) you owe it to yourself to admit that to yourself and figure out how to best express your honest feelings to other people. If you’re less angry and more diplomatic, or even apathetic – then you can admit where you are on that spectrum, as well, and act accordingly.
Because atheists have such a wide range of reactions against religion, there isn’t a single one-size-fits-all-people-and-situations strategy. So I’m going to offer several possibilities to help you out. Knowing where you fall in the continuum will help you know how to respond – not only to phrases like “I’ll pray for you” but other Christianeze staples, too, like “Why are you so angry at God?” “How’s your heart?” “Maybe you just need to humble yourself?” “You must have a secret sin in your life/ You just want to sin” and so on.
OK, let me go over some possible scenarios.
Scenario 1: The sincere “I’ll Pray For You” in reference to a tragedy
You’re at a funeral, bawling your eyes out because your father died. Your teenage niece comes up to you, reaches out and touches your shoulder consolingly, and hesitates as she looks for something to say. She looks at you a long time, and she knows you’re an atheist, but she cares about you deeply and this is, by necessity, a very religious moment for her, and she’s torn. So she says something because it’s better than saying nothing at all, and it’s the only thing she can think of to say in this context. “I’m so sorry. I’ll pray for you.” How should you respond?
Regardless of how angry you are as an atheist, the best response is probably a simple “thank you.” Even if you don’t agree with her beliefs, chances are you appreciate the sentiment, regardless of how angry at religion you are. And you’re not lying or being dishonest – you probably honestly appreciate the thought and the care she’s expressing for you. It’s a lovely moment between you and her – just something she said to make a beautiful relationship moment happen between you – not something she did to insult you or make you upset. And you can, probably, embrace that moment without believing in God.
(Note: If you’re one who tends to be angry at religion and someone says “I’ll pray for you” with an intent that is less than this innocent later and brings this moment up as proof you should be OK with it – yes, these scenarios exist, especially in families – discuss the differences in intent and specific contexts in your rebuttal – the previous paragraph may give you some pointers.)
Scenario 2: The genuinely concerned for how you’ll get along as a nonbeliever “I’ll Pray for You.”
Someone who thought you were a Christian finds you aren’t. They seem disturbed and surprised, and you guys have a civil five-ten minute or so conversation about it. They’re obviously concerned. At the end of the conversation, they say, “I’ll pray for you.”
“I don’t need prayer” may be more abrasive than you want to be, and “I’m OK” basically communicates the same sentiment, anyway. It also reinforces the fact that your relationship can continue – no one needs to pray to make you “OK”; you’re already there. It’s short and to the point, and can easily be said at the end of a conversation, as the person’s walking away, without seeming rude. Also, “I’ll think for you” (another oft-suggested response) may be more abrasive than necessary for the conversation, and it likely won’t register in the person’s head if their primary thought is “I want you to be OK.” Saying “I’ll think for you” also focuses the conversation on the other person, underlining what separates you instead of what unites you. Saying “I’m OK” is unifying and nullifies the “I’ll pray for you” sentiment. Finally, saying “I’m OK” here opens up a door for you to see the other person’s intentions – their response back can show you whether things are cool as far as they’re concerned, or whether they’re intent on letting you know you’re not “OK” enough to be friends with.
It’s two words, but I think they’re fairly effective here.
Scenario 3: The rude “I’ll Pray For You.”
Someone knows you’re an atheist, and you’re in an argument with that person that is filled with insults from them about how arrogant you are, how much you need God, how ignorant you are, that you’re in danger of going to hell, etc. You make a fairly strong point and they leave the conversation – and, in their parting words, they say, “I’ll pray for you” but it feels like “Fuck You.”
If you’re apathetic or insistent on being a passive atheist, you might think the best response here is to simply say, “I’m OK.” And that’s you’re choice; you can do that.
However…that might not, exactly, reflect your honest feelings.
Here are some more confrontational responses with their probable reaction.
1. “Why?” or “Why would you tell me that?” or a similar question can continue the conversation, if the person used “I’ll pray for you” to end the conversation and you want to keep it going. “Why” leads to a conversation on the meaning of prayer if the person wants the insult to stick. “Why would you tell me that?” shows that the announcement is unnecessary, and you can, from here, press home the point that they told you because it’s about humans trying to convince each other; it has nothing to do with God.
2. “OK — if you want to talk to yourself, that’s your deal” or something similar. This shows you don’t value their judgment much more than scenario 2’s suggestion — it’s an insult that effectively separates your viewpoints. Sometimes, such a fence may be useful.
3. A simple chuckle and a “you do that” can be dismissive and do the trick without ruining the vibe of a dinner party. I find this short, sweet, and effective in communicating that prayer does nothing for you and asserting your own stance without strongly attacking the other person.
Note: Often, Christians state that the phrase “I’ll pray for you” makes atheists angry because atheists actually secretly believe in the power of prayer, but there are more plausible possibilities. For my earlier blog post that I wrote to help Christians understand WHY Atheists get angry at the phrase “I’ll Pray For You,” click here: 7 Reasons The Phrase “I’ll Pray For You” Makes Atheists Angry