Responding to "I'll Pray for You"

As an atheist, I don't particularly like to hear "I'll pray for you" or "You're in my prayers" but, when it is a sincere expression of sympathy, I'm grateful for the kindness behind the words. It's the other "I'll pray for you," the one that silently adds because you are an atheist who is going to burn in hell, that offends me.

Let's consider these two general expressions separately.

"I'll pray for you" during a difficult time, a.k.a. "You're in my prayers"

When someone is going through a difficult time, such as facing a serious illness or grieving the loss of a loved one, it's hard to know what to say. People often feel helpless in the face of someone else's pain and want to say something to express sympathy and/or empathy.

For religious people that may mean offering prayers for you and your family. This is usually a sincere expression, based on their belief of the power of prayers, yet atheists may have a more negative reaction to hearing these words.

For me, it comes down to the intention behind the sentiment. When people are trying to be kind, I accept "I'll pray for you" the same way I accept "I'm thinking of you" or other expressions of sympathy. A simple "thank you for thinking of me" is often the best response.
With closer friends and family, the offer of prayers may feel more emotionally charged--particularly when there has already been tension about your differences in belief.

However, when people try to provide comfort, they may offer platitudes (including prayer) without thinking them through. If you believe they meant well, but are uncomfortable with their prayers, try to explain the situation honestly.

Depending on what you want to say, it may help to start the conversation with one of these statements:
  • I appreciate the sentiment, but I'm uncomfortable with you praying for me because ______
  • I appreciate that you are thinking of me, but could we please not discuss our religious differences right now?
Of course, your negative reaction could be coming from another place, such as feeling that their offer of prayers isn't very supportive. If that is the case, acknowledge their kindness and ask if they could also help you in a more specific way, such as picking up the kids, giving you a ride somewhere or just spending some time with you.

"I'll pray for you" because you're an atheist 

This "I'll pray for you" is completely different than one offered as sympathy during a difficult time. The religious person who offers these prayers may claim that they are well-intentioned, but they are actually more about them than you.

When someone says "I'll pray for you" because you are an atheist, what they really mean is: "I plan to pray about you and I'm doing it for the support of my own religious beliefs."

These prayers about your non-belief may appear to come from arrogance or ignorance, but I tend to think they are more likely rooted in fear.

Loved ones may honestly be afraid that you are going to be punished for not believing in god and also afraid that it means they won't be reunited with you in their afterlife. This might seem ridiculous to you, but, if it's what they honestly believe, it's a scary thing indeed.

Those who are less worried about your immortal soul may still be threatened by your atheism. In this case, their fear is not for you, but rather fear that your non-belief will raise uncomfortable questions for them, anger their god, or draw more people away from their faith.

Depending on the situation, your response to this expression of "I'll pray for you" may vary. Here are some suggestions:
  • No, thank you.
  • Are you praying for me or about me?
  • Thanks, but I'm happy with myself the way I am.
  • Will that make you feel better?
  • Go right ahead, but it won't change my mind.
For religious people, it may be difficult to think of "I'll pray for you" as anything other than an innocuous expression. As atheists, we have the choice of accepting the kindness implied by an offer of prayers or explaining how the phrase could be offensive. Typically, that decision depends on context and situation, and is one more aspect of navigating life as an atheist.


4 comments:

  1. My response: You are wasting your time.

    It is just a response, and means very little, regardless of how they take it.

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  2. How about, "You keep praying, I'll keep voting."

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  3. It's not my original idea, can't remember where I heard it before, but I prefer the comeback: "Go ahead, and I will think for you."

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  4. I really like the "Thank you for thinking about me." I just got a really detailed prayer as follows: i believe in the power of prayer and that you must put out there what you want. Please our dearest and most beloved God, power of all, be with Michelle at her time of need, hear her concerns, give her Your healing hand. Please guide the surgeons eyes, hands and mind to remove all the damaged tissue. In Your name I pray.

    I really needed to come up with a response, because as a non-believer it felt so uncomfortable. I don't think she knows I'm an atheist, so I didn't want to call her out on it or challenge her, but wanted to respond with the kindness with which her message was meant. "Thank you for thinking of me" is just perfect.

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