Monday, August 18, 2008

Why Are They "Praying For You"?

In much of my work, emails come asking about the correct way to respond when someone says something directly attacking, or passively disparaging to Atheists. A majority of this is regarding the phrase, "I'm praying for you". The comment, often supposed to imply that you are in someone's thoughts, is remarkably thoughtless. It's as if someone said to a woman without arms, "Why can't you hug me?" It just doesn't make sense to Atheists, and it certainly doesn't mean anything to us. Yet, we don't always have any visual clues during everyday interaction with most people as to beliefs, or lack of beliefs.

Those who wear religious garb, or specific tattoos, or even jewelry give us some indications of their thought process. As a species, we're trained to judge others by appearance, to determine ally from foe, family from stranger, business from casual. But, we're not trained nor do we seem to understand that our own methods of communicating our needs aren't clear. For example, teens who want to be different, wear the same black garb today that they did when I was in high school over 20 years ago. Parents often seem the same age as their children, and grandparents, which once used to illicit images of grey hair, and warm smiles, are now indistinguishable by age range. The forty-four year old next to you may be a first time parent, or a third time grandparent.

As we continue in our lives, we notice that stereotypes once held are now completely blurred. Where once it was taboo to marry between races, now it is difficult to know how many cultures exist within one household. So it is true with our view of those who are religious. Just looking at someone won't tell you Atheist from Catholic from Wiccan from Buddhist. In as much, our language has also blurred. The phrase after someone sneezes, "bless you", which came about during the days when plague was prominent, was also a pagan hex to ward off evil spirits. Atheists are just as guilty of using this phrase as anyone, simply because it has become a colloquial statement of "wish you aren't sick" ingrained in our culture from our earliest social interaction. It really doesn't mean anything, and really doesn't need to be said.

However, when someone says "I'm Praying for You", it doesn't feel quite the same way. It may indicates the speaker could be ashamed of your beliefs, and therefore wants you to change them- with his or her power of prayer. It could be a statement of "I have nothing to offer you that will help you, but this one thing I know I do for myself." It could be a statement of simple, genuine concern. The manner it is stated, and the circumstances which brings that comment out has as much to do with the words as the intent.

James Randi stated that he believes in the Good Neighbor Policy of Atheism. He assumes everyone is Atheist and doesn't preach the lack of belief to anyone unless challenged to do so. "Screaming at someone and telling him that you don't have beliefs and why is just as bad as screaming at someone and telling him what religion you have and why they should be 'saved'." He also gets very insulted when someone "blesses him or offers prayer" because it is "very assumptive to assume that you have enough power to bless me or change my life through your words."

Yet, when the phrase, "I'm praying for you" is uttered to us we aren't always clear on the response. It is dependent upon the circumstance, the speaker, the intent, and the manner in which it was spoken. Degrading another person isn't the Good Neighbor Policy, of which Randi spoke. But, there are times when hearing these words repetitively can be curtailed forever, simply with the response, "I can't accept your prayers, but I can accept your thoughts." Without insulting someone, or preaching the logic of Atheism, you succinctly state your needs. You relate to him on a peer level, and you don't disparage his way of life.

But what do you say when the comment is made as an insult or "lesson" to you as an Atheist? How do you politely tell someone that you are sick of hearing his wishes to convert you, or turn you away from what he may think is heathen path to hell? What if he is an employer, or family member? What can you say that will stop the prayers, and continue the relationship? You state the truth.

The truth is the easiest solution, and will keep that phrase out of conversations. You state, "I appreciate that you live your life as you wish, as free will is something I also hold dear. It's wonderful we can be adult enough to accept our differences." Then change the topic. Completely stop talking about the idea that prayer is part of his life and not yours. Don't bring up a church, or a time when you left a church. Don't carry the conversation farther than the fact of, accepting the person for who he is, and gratefully accepting yourself for who you are. You may need to say this several times, in several instances, but the message will eventually get through.

Cathe Jones is the author of the book, Godless Grief, and the moderator of the writing group, Las Vegas Quill Keepers. In September, she hosts a workshop on Godless Grief at the Atheist Alliance International conference at The Queen Mary, in Long Beach, California. She is represented by Janet Rosen of Sheree Bykofsky and Associates.


Don said...

I think there are varying circumstances that require varying responses. The simple, "I'll pray for you," is not, in my opinion, offensive. It is probably a gesture by someone who feels it is an offer of a valuable tool. It is not unlike my offer of a wrench to a plumber who only believes in using pipe pliers. It is a nice thought, but wholly unnecessary.

Where I have difficulty is when someone asks me to join them in prayer. Now they are imposing upon my beliefs. It would be like forcing that plumber to use my wrench when he could not only get along without it, but do a better job on his own.

One offer is made from concern and caring while the other is made from arrogance.

Jim Aikin said...

A simple response to "I'm praying for you" would be, "If it makes you feel better to pray, I'm happy for you."

This acknowledges the importance of prayer in the other person's life, and in an affirming way, while specifically denying the power of prayer.