In the last couple weeks, various atheist bloggers here at Patheos have tackled the topic of whether they would pray with loved ones if requested. I want to write about several aspects of this issue. But just covering the first one I wanted to treat meant a full post. Hopefully I’ll write about the other aspects. What came out first and most passionately for me was my rejection of atheists condescending to and lying to religious people out of a paternalistic sense that they know what is best for them.
As a formerly devout religious person, I bristle to imagine people placating me by pretending to engage in something that was as filled with true belief and passion as prayer was when they didn’t really believe. When I deconverted and one of my outwardly Christian leader friends revealed himself to be a closet atheist living a lie to paternalistically influence our Christian peers, I felt repulsed and betrayed. I am, frankly, sick to death of atheists who consider themselves high minded and tolerant for treating religious people like they are incapable of encountering people who forthrightly contradict their beliefs and decline from their practices. I hear more than a whiff of condescension when Matt Faccianni says, “Maybe when your friend is feeling better you can have a conversation about religion, but if they are at a really low point I don’t see any harm in being supportive of their own coping styles.” It’s psychologizing them. It’s acting like you know better.
You think that you know the reality is that they pray just because it’s their “coping style” and that it only helps them (insofar as it does) for psychological reasons that are different than what they think are the reasons it works. So whereas they ask you to pray in hopes of a true spiritual engagement with God and shared faith with another person, you consider them too incapable of dealing with honesty or even an alternative coping method that you both honestly believe in and have the same understanding of.
Instead you put yourself in the position of a benevolent caretaker of someone who cannot understand themselves; someone fragile and lacking in autonomy. You try to assess what mechanisms are working in their brain unknown to themselves and try to manipulate those mechanisms while misleading them into thinking you share their beliefs about what’s actually going on. You engage in an activity that they interpret with cognitive literalness and which they perceive to be about a factual engagement with both a very real supernatural being and a fellow believer, but you actually think is complete bunkum. And not only do you patronize them by pretending to believe in their God, you give them an extra illusion, that you are a fellow believer; likely that they have just shared a spiritual experience with a member of their faith community who shares their beliefs, values, and spirituality. How kind of you to cater to this mental weakling so generously; to multiply illusions for them and pretend to share one of the most bedrock identities that they have!
In dealing with literal mental delusions, perhaps there is genuine therapeutic value in going along with their delusions in cases where they cannot be reasoned out of them if they are confronted head on. One of my favorite movies is Lars and the Real Girl. It’s about a man who is so socially isolated that he orders a sex doll off the internet and has the delusion that she’s his real live girlfriend. The relationship is not at all about sex. In his mind, she’s even a Christian missionary and they are waiting until marriage to have sex. She sleeps in a separate bedroom and everything. In the movie, the therapist conscripts the family to play along with the delusion until he can work through his issues using this mechanism of his imaginary girlfriend at his own rate. Eventually the whole town picks up on the gist of this and they all help him by living in his shared reality with him until he can work his way out of his need for a doll girlfriend and be ready for a real one. The movie was beautifully poignant to me. (Here’s my review from when it came out.) I consider it one of the most humanistic movies ever made, and I mean the word “humanistic” in an honorific sense here. The vision of a world where we each learned to accommodate the mentally ill in ways that helped them as much as possible was very inspiring.
But as Matt stresses in his own work, religion is not a mental illness and religious beliefs are not literally “delusions” in standard cases. They don’t need people who don’t share their beliefs pretending to for their own good. There are a myriad of ways to help them in ways that express personal authenticity and compassion. You certainly shouldn’t take their moment of anguish to start a fight about religion. But declining to pray with someone is not starting a fight about religion. It’s being honest with them. You don’t have to give them the full honesty. You can evade the issue as a potential distraction or you can focus on being a sympathetic ear focused on asking questions about their feelings and values and beliefs and helping them sort them without interjecting your own in contentious ways. But you shouldn’t be so fundamentally inauthentic with them as to pray with them if it misleads them into thinking you believe in God or the literal power of prayer if you don’t while they do.
It’s only in a world of religious privilege that atheists assume that the default behavior around religious people should be tiptoeing and constant compromise of our own consciences, our own values, and our own authentic expression. It’s only because we live in a world of religious privilege that it would even occur to atheists to try to pass as religious people in the first place. It’s only because of the intolerance of some religious people that many atheists think so poorly of the average religious person’s ability to cope with expressions of unbelief. And it’s an elitism among atheists when they feel so enlightened that they presume that they can tell religious believers what they think they want to hear rather than trust them to be mature enough, thoughtful enough, and tolerant enough to be able to deal with atheists not sharing their beliefs.
And it’s in this context that the kinds of believers who want atheists silent and who want to conscript even non-believers into religious activities for the sake of dominance and the appearance of uniform religious belief so successfully get away with creating the suffocating climate of religious privilege in which we live. A climate of religious privilege where one is never short on atheists who are convinced that their well-trained deference to religious expression makes them especially tolerant people, whereas atheists who dare contradict a religious person, however civilly, are cruel violators of basic norms of decency. I get it why in such a climate, some atheists play along to survive religious privilege and religious intolerance and I support them protecting themselves in most such cases. But when they start preaching constant accommodations to religious expression and the systematic stifling of atheist expression as a matter of right principle, then that internalization of the norms of religious hegemony needs to be rebutted firmly.
Religious beliefs and values have consequences. Some good and some bad. To the extent that their beliefs and values fit well with reality they will work out well. To the extent that they rub badly against reality they will backfire. To the extent that religions have mechanisms for correction in the face of their beliefs and values working poorly or backfiring, they can rationally correct themselves. To the extent that religions have mechanisms that impede correction, religious people will suffer for the falsehood of their beliefs and values.
It’s not atheists’ jobs to help keep the appearance that religious believers’ false beliefs are so obviously true that everyone shares them. We shouldn’t willy nilly prop up that illusion. It only makes it more galling when after bad religious doctrines do have tangibly harmful outcomes and then these same would-be compassionate atheists make excuses, “Well, it’s because they were deceived by their family and church and friends and society–how much are they really personally to blame?” If not even atheists will be willing to risk minor pinpricks to their bubble, indeed how could religious people be to blame when specifically religious errors in their thinking lead them into trouble?
Finally, if we are not patronizing to people, if we do indicate that we will support our friends and families in ways that we truly believe in and that have tangible impact to their thriving, then should their religious beliefs sour on them, should they feel the trauma of disillusionment when lies about God’s protection prove false and they have to cope with that reality and feelings of abandonment, they will know who to turn to. And as someone who has given emotional support for countless deeply religious people going through their spiritually intense journey out of their false religions, I am proud that everyone in my life unequivocally knows that while I won’t pray for them, I will do everything in my power to help them make rational and constructive sense out of their lives should they ever lose faith in prayer.