I know you mean well, I do. I know that “I’ll pray for you” is Christian for “I care about what happens to you.” It’s especially handy for a go-to response when someone shares a concern for which there are no clear solutions.
But part of caring for people is taking into consideration their own way of seeing the world because empathy is an integral part of love. That means this isn’t just about you and what you believe. If you really care for the people to whom you say this, then it behooves you to at least try hearing the things you’re saying from their perspective.
Whether you realize it or not…
1) You’re telling her you don’t value her perspective, or at least that yours is more important than hers. You do realize she thinks you’re talking to yourself when you pray, right? Or have you even stopped to think about it long enough to realize that’s how an atheist would see prayer?
People who don’t believe in invisible spirits generally don’t think prayer does anything except make people feel better. They see it like a security blanket or a stuffed animal that you sleep with. It doesn’t actually protect you from anything, but it makes you feel secure anyway. And yes, I know that’s not what you believe, but does it matter to you that the other person doesn’t see it that way? Have you ever considered that announcing to her that you’re praying for her is essentially dismissing her perspective as unworthy of acknowledgment?
2) You are asserting the dominance of your beliefs over hers, most likely at a moment when she is feeling down. That makes this move particularly exploitative. There is a parasitic element in religion which predisposes it to pounce when people are down in order to capitalize on a moment of emotional vulnerability.
Remember toward the end of the original Star Wars movie when Luke Skywalker was heading off to blow up the Death Star in what by all accounts amounted to a suicide mission? Han Solo stopped him to say “May the Force be with you” even though he himself had previously admitted to believing it was a “hokey religion.” That was an empathetic moment for the cynical smuggler, and under the circumstances it was a magnanimous gesture.
Now imagine if Leia had done the same thing at the end of the next film when Han was about to be frozen in carbonite. Imagine if, instead of simply saying “I love you” she said “May the Force be with you.” It doesn’t work at all the other way around, does it? At Han’s most frightening and vulnerable moment, that would have rung quite hollow given that he himself didn’t put any stock in the belief system.
It’s always good to offer help, but what if you’re offering something which you know is meaningless to the person to whom you’re offering it? Whom exactly are you helping? Is this even about her, or is it about you and your religion? Take at least a moment to consider that prayer doesn’t mean anything to an atheist, and telling her that you’re doing it is an egocentric move on your part.
3) You’re offering a confusing mix of love and passive-aggression. Or as William Hamby points out about the phrase “Bless your heart,” it’s a kind of micro-aggression. That phrase was initially coined by Chester Pierce to designate the subtler forms of racism. He defines micro-aggressions as:
…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative…slights and insults toward people.
I once allowed an apologist friend to leave comments on my Facebook wall only to discover that he couldn’t stop passive-aggressively proselytizing me even when what I posted had nothing to do with religion. I would post cute pictures of my daughters and he would comment, “You’re so very blessed!” On the surface that’s a compliment, right? Of course it is. But if you knew the history of our interaction, you’d know the wording of this compliment was deliberate. In the larger context of our ongoing conversations, this was yet another subtle way of reminding me that he believes I should be giving credit to someone else—someone invisible—for how my girls turned out.
Moments like these always make me wonder what he would say if my girls had turned out unhealthy, or ugly? Would he say, “You’re so very cursed!” Obviously not, but wouldn’t that be consistent with what he’s saying? Then again, I know consistency has never been highly valued in the realm of theology.
4) You are demonstrating disregard for what Jesus told you to do. Jesus had nothing but criticism for people prone to making a show out of prayer. He instructed his followers to pray in secret, trusting God to hear them and to respond.
When you insist on making a public demonstration of your prayer life, you’re revealing something about who your real audience is. If your prayers are really to God and not to people, then why must you tell others that you’re doing it? If you truly believed prayer did anything, then you wouldn’t even have to tell anyone that you’re doing it. You would just do it and the results would speak for themselves. Clearly you don’t trust that to happen, so you’re taking matters into your own hands, announcing what you’re doing in order to make sure other people know that you’re doing it. Your real audience is obvious.
5) You’re demonstrating remarkable ambivalence about the notion of free will. And I don’t blame you for that one. It’s a terribly convoluted belief structure anyway. Let me see if I can show you what I mean…
Let’s say you believe that your friend will one day be punished for not believing the things you believe. Clearly you feel that is a choice she can make because, if belief isn’t a choice, then it wouldn’t be fair to hold her responsible for what she believes. If you’re one of those who believes God doesn’t choose whom he saves and whom he doesn’t, then you see God as somehow limiting himself in how far he will go to coerce someone into faith. But if that’s what you believe, then what are you now asking him to do? And what are you yourself doing?
You are essentially telling your friend that you are going to use your influence to convince a God in whom she doesn’t believe to do something for her that he wasn’t already going to do, something which according to your own theology he’s not really supposed to do. You’re also doing it in an ostentatious way so that if things turn out the way you want, your religion will get the credit. Score one for your team!
Hamby ties all of this together superbly:
When you say you’ll pray for me, you’re telling me that this isn’t about me, it’s about you. You’re suggesting that of all the things you could do, the one that will make the most difference is casting a vote for me in the Heavenly Miracle Lottery. You’re making this about your little religion, not what I’m going through. You’re tapping into a kind of hubris I can’t muster by suggesting that of all the thousands of gods and religions, yours is the correct one, and you’re in so good with your god that you’re actually going to change his mind.
Well, What Should We Say Instead?
Honestly, I can sympathize with the problem this presents. Non-theists like me encounter the same problem when we see friends suffering and discover there’s not much we can do about it. You want to say something to comfort them and to express sympathy. We particularly feel it when friends lose loved ones. They’re experiencing a pain that you can’t fix, and you search for words to comfort them in their loss. At moments like this, Christians stand ready to assure them that they’ll be reunited with their loved ones at some point in the future.
On the other hand, skeptics like me must find other ways to comfort people without promising them things for which we have no evidence. It’s no small challenge. But there are still other things we can say and do.
- You can still tell a friend you’re there for her.
- You can still offer to help with anything your friend needs.
- You can offer the gift of your nonjudgmental presence in the midst of a friend’s suffering or loss.
- You can offer material help, cook meals, help move furniture, mow a yard, collect clothes, and watch children.
- You can offer a listening ear, or tell your friend you’re rooting for her, you’re on her side, and you want the best for her.
There are so many practical ways to help a person, including learning things to tell her which don’t require that she belong to the same religion as you.
Now would be an excellent time to learn to offer sympathy free from traces of proselytization. Now would be a great time to offer help without attaching strings of any kind. Now would be a perfect moment to practice empathy toward people who see the world differently from you.
Perhaps you’re not accustomed to doing that. It takes some work, especially if you’re used to circulating primarily among your own kind. Maybe you’re accustomed to saying Christian things to Christian people and it’s a lot of work to have to recontextualize your affection for the benefit of someone who is outside that camp. If you really care for her, that won’t stop you, right?
Learn to offer encouragement and comfort that would be meaningful even to people who don’t belong to your own limited tribe. I’m not promising it’ll be easy. But it’s not really helping if you’re the only one who believes in the things you’re saying.
While you’re at it, you can check out this recent article in the New York Times about that very thing. I think we all still have plenty to learn about how to help people who aren’t exactly like us.
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