Pray For Me?

July 15, 2010

prayerLast October I was struggling to get over a particularly stubborn cold; week after week, I’d show up for my Spiritual Direction course at Loyola University’s Institute for Pastoral Studies and try for three hours to refrain from interrupting a lecture on psychology and teleology by hacking up a lung. Inevitably a sneeze would escape and I’d be immediately greeted by a chorus of “God bless you!”s.

It didn’t bother me (and not just because I once heard an unsubstantiated claim that the origins of the expression are Norwegian) because I understand that the impetus for their achoo-ed call and response was good-natured concern. Everyone in that room knew that I didn’t believe in God, yet still told me week after week that they were praying for my health. To which I would respond with a smile: “thank you!”

Jesse Galef of the Secular Student Alliance just posted a blog over at the Friendly Atheist after seeing a tweet I published last night in which I commented that I don’t mind when religious people say a prayer for me — after all, what’s the harm? I appreciate the good intentions and kind thoughts. My tweet was a response to an article on CNN reporting on Christians who are praying for notorious Atheist author Christopher Hitchens, who was recently diagnosed with cancer.

It seems Jesse and I are more or less on the same page when it comes to how we internally react to prayer — he too appreciates the good intentions of those who pray — but we differ in that he also thinks it is important in such moments to assert to the individual offering prayer that it won’t work.

My first thought as a perpetual Agnostic is that we cannot say definitively that prayer never works; and there is some legitimate merit to the idea that positive thought makes a real impact (just one example, a piece from the New York Times), so until there is sufficient evidence that prayer doesn’t work 100% of the time, I don’t even want to try to make that argument.

But more importantly: why does it matter? So my classmates at Loyola think that prayer works and I remain unconvinced. Why should I try to dissuade them from that belief? Seems self-important and unnecessary to me. And, more importantly, their kind intention actually means a lot to me. We have a relationship of mutual concern and care — why would I want to go and ruin that by trying to assert my so-called “intellectual authority”? I’m a lot more interested in the fact that they care enough about me and my well-being to take a moment of their day to wish me well.

What do you folks think? Leave a comment — even if it’s just to let me know that you’re praying for me.

23 Responses to “Pray For Me?”

  1. Andrew Lovley said

    You’re a good Man, Chris

  2. I tend to agree with you on this (though when I was younger I would have cited the harm that can come from thinking prayer will help in that it may keep you from doing things that will actually help). That said, one possible reason to dissuade them from that belief is how often prayer-ful-ness can lead to smug douchebaggery like this:

  3. Hitch said

    I don’t mind if people pray for a good cause. Unfortunately in the case of Hitchens it’s likely a political move. It’s not just to wish him well but it’s also to get a leg up.

    If everybody just had nice, good intentions, listened to each other and sought the best for everybody there would be no contention. But even believers do not manage to do that and sometimes mean-spirited ideas are packaged in platitudes of well-meaningness and piety.

    I think it’s a tricky topic. But that people write articles about praying for Hitchens is not a value-free gesture. If a personal friend away from the press and public discourse prays for Hitchens, or anybody else, that is a very different matter. One might well be PR, the other is much more likely sincere.

    As for effectiveness of prayer:–Religion-Examiner~y2009m4d10-Scientific-Studies-on-the-Effectiveness-of-Intercessory-Prayer

    This compares 4 studies on the effect of prayer in detail. One study in 2006 funded by Templeton received a lot of publicity. Templeton seeks to bridge faith and science and is often perceived as biased towards religion. However their big and well-controlled study showed no observable effect of prayer.

    It is fair to say that we have fairly extensive evidence against the effectiveness of prayer and no strong counter-indicators. Given that it is rather fair to conclude that we know rather very well that well-wishing prayer does not work.

    It may be better to encourage people to donate to cancer foundations, or just send well-wishes and spend the remaining time solving other problems.

    • Anti said

      Great read Chris. As a Christian, I always find it interesting when agnostics or atheists or whoever, say things like “Bless you”, “OMG!” or exclaim “JC!”. It seems to me that in a matter of seconds they undermine their very own beliefs, or non-belief rather. It’s interesting to read what people think from the other side of the table; I hadn’t really thought of it that way. Contrary to what Hitch thinks he thinks, I don’t know anyone nor have I or would I say, “Bless you” or “You’re in my prayers,” for a political advantage or to ‘get a leg up on someone’. And personally, I find that sort of thinking to be cancerous. It’s a common courtesy, and a small act of kindness, not a way to perpetuate hate (or sickness). I will say this though, “Thanks for the laugh, Hitch!”

      Hitch: “AaaCHOOoooo!”
      Me: “Donate to St. Jude’s & get well soon!”
      Hitch: “Thanks..”


      • Hitch said

        It’s a common courtesy to not mischaracterize another person’s position and then ridicule them on a position they do not hold.

        In fact it is actively hateful and unkind to do so.

        I think you are fine to hold any opinion you want and express it in an open discussion but you are not fine to be rude and disrespectful.

      • @Anti: “Bless you,” “OMG” and even “Jesus Christ!” can be (and usually are) simple colloquialisms. If you really think that they invoke god when atheists say them, then I caution you to not yell out “OhmyGOD” while having sex, unless you are invoking god.

        Also, you don’t have to use prayer to political advantage, of course, but lots of Xians do (see my link, above).

      • Anti said

        @jeffliveshere: I’m sorry, but if you think invoking the name of God in any manner is a simple colloquialism, then you most likely do not wholly understand what it means to be a Christian. I am not a liberal Christian; I do not rationalize the Bible to fit my personal feelings, therefore in my opinion words and statements like “OMG”, “JC!”, “Bless you” & “Marriage” are holy. To use them out of the context they were intended for is unholy, immoral and not only deny, but defile Him. Having sex as a married Christian couple (which honors God) and spouting out “OMG,” wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.

        @Hitch: I may have misread your reply and I do apologize if I made you feel hated, disrespected & ridiculed. That wasn’t my intention. I simply read your words and the first thing that popped up in my mind was that little script. I thought it was funny, and I still do. In all seriousness though, after our last encounter on that other blog, I do find it difficult to take you seriously. I am glad that you’re talking ‘to’ me now though. And as far as studies on the effectiveness of prayer go, I’m sure that if there was one iota of proof that it was effective, you would work day and night to find another study to discredit and deny it. You’re already surrounded with all the proof you need, inside and out, and yet you still deny Him.

  4. Xtine said

    There are also studies that show that people who know they are being prayed for are worse off. It all comes down to playing mind games. Prayer gives the person praying the round-about idea that they can Control the person they are praying for – so it is about Control and Power. If the praying person prays in private and does not pass this information on to the prayee – then it is more a form of meditation – but once you start telling people you are praying for them – it is a form of condescension and displays a need to be in control – or think they are in control – of a given situation. Prayer as a means to focus the mind – in private – is different than public prayer used as a passive-aggressive Power Tool.

  5. Michael M. said

    Leaving aside the political grandstanding of the Christians praying for Hitchens, here’s a personal take on the matter. The day after my Mom died, four years ago, my cousin and I went by the nursing home where she had spent her last months to collect her belongings. The woman who ran the place, whom I liked and had had numerous discussions with over the months, embraced me and told me how my Mom was in a better place and how she was watching over me, yada, yada, yada. I was certainly in no mood for a discussion about my atheism (nor, for that matters, my Mom’s) nor my thoughts on the afterlife. I chose to take her expressions as her clumsy attempt at comforting me, even if she was really comforting herself, and to appreciate as best I could at that painful time the spirit in which she offered her comments.

    Flash forward several months, and I’m talking to a guy I’ve just met at a social gathering. He had just lost an aunt to whom he was very close and in some pain about it. He immediately launches into the same religious platitudes about his aunt being free of pain, in a better place, and watching over him. It was almost eerie how similar his language was to my would-be comfort-giver’s. It brought back my painful memories, not just of my Mom’s death, but of having to stifle myself with a stupid grin on my face while this woman babbled her irrelevant beliefs. It made me realize how much resentment I had suppressed while trying to cope with overwhelming grief. And what could I do in the situation I now found myself, except of course stifle myself again, listen to him expressing his own views, offer how sorry I was for his loss, and extract myself from the conversation as quickly as possible? I wasn’t about to tell someone who is obviously suffering that I don’t think his coping mechanisms are particularly valid and that I have an entirely different take on the matter. That would have been rude, and I sincerely doubt he would have wanted to hear it from a stranger, or would have taken it well.

    So that’s my answer to your question, “why does it matter?” It matters because it is rude. I would argue that someone with whom you really “have a relationship of mutual concern and care” would respect you enough not to shove their beliefs in your face without knowing whether they are your beliefs. It’s one thing for someone you know and who knows you to say, “I know you doubt whether it does any good, but I’m going to pray for you because I hope it helps you, and anyway it will make me feel better.” I can accept that with the grace, dignity and mutual respect with which it is offered. But too often, that isn’t how the situation in which prayers are offered, or religious views expressed, can be characterized.

    Also, I’m curious as to whether you would join in prayer if asked, under any circumstances. Suppose a believing friend who’s battling serious illness asks you to pray for him or her, knowing full well that you are a non-believer. Would you do it? Would you feel it is an affront to your beliefs?

    • I’m sorry to hear about your loss and can sympathize with your reaction. But to answer your question: I absolutely would pray with a friend, ill or not. But perhaps that’s because it doesn’t feel like an affront to my beliefs to participate in another’s that differentiates from my own. Diverging beliefs needn’t necessitate conflict – to oversimplify, we can agree to disagree. I’ve had religious friends come with me to Humanist meetings, and I’ve joined them at their worship services. We recognize that there are very real differences between our beliefs and how they manifest, but instead of pretending they don’t exist or just avoiding discussion or practice of them around one another (which results in less-than-full personhood and a loss of social capital), we acknowledge the places where we disagree but prioritize our care and admiration for one another. In other words: I may think that my Christian friend is praying to an idea that doesn’t actually exist, and they might think I’m a godless heathen (to be crass) — and we will both acknowledge that — but that doesn’t mean we should exclude one another from our particular value-based practices. In fact, I might be more insulted if my Christian friend DIDN’T pray for me, if prayer is one of the deepest expressions of their care. Does that make sense?

      • Michael M. said

        I think that’s an area where we’d have to agree to disagree, 🙂 I see an inherent contradiction in engendering mutual respect and being asked to participate, proactively, in a method of worship that you’re ill-equipped for. I’ve certainly attended church services, church and temple weddings, church memorials, even a few Seders, and done so without misgivings. There’s a shared understanding at a memorial or wedding that we are gathering in honor of the deceased or betrothed, and that not everyone necessarily shares the same belief system, even if the service itself follows the tenets of a particular belief system. None of my Jewish friends invited me to their Seders with the expectation that I might convert, or even pretend to believe temporarily. I presume they expected that I wouldn’t dishonor their beliefs by behaving inappropriately, which I certainly wouldn’t do.

        But I see a difference between that and being asked to pray. For one, I’d feel like a phony if I tried — pray to what, or whom? For another, I’d feel insulted. I’d feel like my values are being belittled. I just don’t see that as a sign of respect, anymore than I don’t see asking someone who says he’ll pray for you not to bother as a sign of respect. It’s also different from being, say, at a religious memorial service and the minister says “Let us pray,” when you can sit there quietly and contemplate the passing of your friend without having to pretend to ask a deity for the deliverance of her eternal soul.

        The point of my story about the nursing home lady and the fellow who’d lost his aunt is that respect needs to be a two-way street, but too often it isn’t. To borrow from donumdei’s analogy in his comment below, the chess club president better be willing to play checkers with the checkers club president, if he is going to invite him to play a game of chess. In our culture, too many people feel like they can foist their religious views onto anybody in any situation, do so with impunity, and that alone will make the situation better. You reinforce that privilege when you claim it is “self-important and unnecessary” to challenge those views. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t. In some situations, avoiding discussion of them is preferable to one person being able to assert her beliefs while the other cannot, but in my experience anyway, religious people rarely see it that way.

  6. @Anti:

    Anti said: “I’m sorry, but if you think invoking the name of God in any manner is a simple colloquialism, then you most likely do not wholly understand what it means to be a Christian.”

    Ah, good, the self-righteousness brought into the light. Do you think that everybody who says “god” is a Christian? Even folks who use “god” in ways other than colloquially might be of other faiths. Also, you most likely do nto wholly understand what it means to be a user of language.

  7. Anti said

    Ahh, Jeffy wants to play! Do you know what self-righteous means? If I am self-righteous because I am certain that there is a God, and that He is my God and yours (regardless of whether or not you believe it), then yes, I most certainly am. Thank you for the compliment. However, it takes one to know one in that respect because it sounds to me like you’re quite certain He does not exist, and even though you can’t back it up you have no problem proclaiming such. And I’m sorry, I should have used “OMg” or “omG” instead; I wasn’t aware your contextual ignorance of trivial semantics. Now I know. And to answer your question, I do not think that everyone who says ‘god’ is a Christian. But I will suggest that you go back to the top of your browser and slow-read the title and body of this blog so that you might comprehend the topic which we were all commenting on. Last I checked, I’m pretty sure we were talking about praying to God, not god, on the behalf of others. That being said, I’m certain you don’t wholly understand how the ‘reply’ link works in this blog.

    • @anti: *you* were talking about atheists who say “OMG”–my point is that they aren’t praying to god when they do that, while you say that it means they are somehow hypocritical.

      Also: “Jeffy wants to play”? What are you, 10?

      • Anti said

        Oh, I see now. That completely clarified the whole thing. You being as anti self-righteous as you are speak for every atheist, agnostic, secular and person with an undisclosed religious standing when they say, “OMg” or “omG”. Got it ; )

        Also, you start serving up insults without provocation and you’re asking if I’m 10? Classic liberal ideology.

        And speaking of hypocritical, I found this in your blog:

        WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2009

        It’s daring not to shut anyone out of our hearts, not to make anyone an enemy. If we begin to live like this, we’ll find that we actually can’t define someone as completely right or completely wrong anymore. Life is more slippery and playful than that.–Pema Chodron

  8. @Anti:

    Yeah, it would be daring to not define you as completely wrong in this case: I never said I was that daring. I am trying to be more open to (some) religious folk, even ones that are self-righteous, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to draw any lines at all around self-righteous folks like yourself. You obviously enjoy the bullying aspects of religion, as lots of religious folks do (“Jeffy wants to play” is classic taunting bullying language, and I’d hazard a guess it’s not the first time you’ve used such language as a grown up).

    I never claimed to speak for all atheists. In fact, my original comment was: ““Bless you,” “OMG” and even “Jesus Christ!” can be (and usually are) simple colloquialisms.”

    • Anti said

      You obviously enjoy the bullying aspects of your religion as well. Touché.

      Here are some nifty examples:

      “That said, one possible reason to dissuade them from that belief is how often prayer-ful-ness can lead to smug douchebaggery like this:

      “Ah, good, the self-righteousness brought into the light.”

      “Also, you most likely do nto wholly understand what it means to be a user of language.”

      Looking back through those replies it occurred to me that I should’ve just typed “Wah, wah, wah” after all of your replies. You could’ve said everything you’ve said to me without me having to type a single, coherent sentence.

      And I missed something on your previous reply. I wasn’t saying those types were being hypocritical, just that in my OPINION it appears that way, and I wonder if they even realize what they’re saying. Makes the mind wonder, or at least it does mine.

  9. Hey folks (Anti and Jeff), this doesn’t seem like a particularly productive exchange. I think it’d serve us all well if we all tried to adopt a respectful tone across the board. Let’s try not to allow dialogue to devolve into inflammatory name-calling. Or, at least, the webmaster of this blog would appreciate it. 🙂

    That said, I appreciate that this is prompting a discussion. As long as we’re trying to learn from one another, not just pick a fight, then the discussion is appreciated.

  10. donumdei said

    I think the confusion often comes from the understandable yet nevertheless erroneous conflation of the act’s (prayer) nature and its manner. The nature of the act is an expression of affirming recognition, namely: that you are a person and thus meaningful, that your apparent illness is a source of suffering which nobody prefers to thriving, and that these two truths result in an empathetic desire to help you however possible. Simply put, the prayers being made for your benefit are, to the faithful community, a credible means of caring for you.

    As to the manner of this care, it is being offered from a community whose beliefs you do not share. In most areas of life this would result in the natural and appropriate response of appreciating the intent the act was born of, say how a lawyer might respond to a doctor’s offer to help him prepare for his (the lawyer) case. The lawyer may very well believe (rightly or wrongly, it is irrelevant) that the doctor’s skill set is incompatible with the circumstances of his need. But it would be most likely be appreciated for what it was, an expression of affection for him (be it as a human being, colleague, friend, or otherwise) and thus his well being at a certain level that compelled the doctor to offer what aid he could.

    The conflict which seemingly arises when a believer offers an atheist, agnostic, or believer of another creed prayers from within his own tradition is born out of the assumption that, in offering it, the believer is somehow usurping the issue for an opportunity to proselytize. Admittedly, some believers are doing exactly that in these situations. This is inappropriate and represents an unsolicited attempt at coercion masquerading as concern, soiling not only the professed offer but the creed the believer espouses. Concern for your fellow man, which is really affirmation of man’s worth, is the ultimate sentiment. But when that concern is used to justify infringing upon another person’s will –his very own right and authority to decide his own life’s course– that concern tramples upon itself. Even the most devout of believers (at least within religions of The Book, Judaism, Christianity, & Islam) admits that their God respects human free will even when it causes harm to those very agents who enact it. Offerings of prayer in this vein for another that are meant as a jab, a judgmental commentary, upon the recipient are not actual offers of prayer at all. They are in fact a self-righteous, and thus most likely an insecure, person’s propping up of themselves by means of putting down another.

    That being said, not all prayers are offered in this false manner, indeed most aren’t. The sad truth is that most people who say “God bless you” are doing so out of cultural rote reflex. But turning to those whom are in fact offering sincere prayers, they are doing exactly –and only– that. There is no commentary, proselytizing, judgement, or arrogance whatsoever. It is indeed possible to offer prayers for an atheist, agnostic, etc. without doing so in a manner which entails commentary (recall the doctor from the above scenario). Because at its root level such a prayer is an affirmation for your worth and thus the desire to alleviate you from whatever condition is harming you. The fact that this affirmation is being directed to an entity (be it divine or scientific) which you do not recognize is ultimately irrelevant. It is not about whether or not you believe, it is about whether or not you deserve to be well, which the true believer and atheistic alike will always answer with a resounding, “yes!”

    Too often atheists in this situation (or members of a differing faith tradition) are quick to assume the proffered help carries with it unsolicited commentary and thus judgment. With all due respect to such people, your are the only one’s thinking about your particular creed in this situation. The believer offering your prayer is thinking about your well being and you should too. If I run a chess club and invite you, the president of the checkers club, to a meeting, am I thereby passing judgement on your preference? Or am I simply living within my own beliefs, as is both our rights, and inviting you to a good natured board game? If believers are passing judgment every time they act in accordance to their preferred beliefs, than so is every person who orders differently than you at the dinner table, majors in another field of study, marries another person, plays a different sport, and goes to bed at a different time.

    I think you have it exactly right when you ask, “why would I want to go and ruin that by trying to assert my so-called “intellectual authority?” The only reason to do so, with all due respect to Jesse and his beliefs, is if it is believed that the people who offer to pray for you are somehow asserting their own “intellectual authority” or free will over you. This is not the case. And by stating to them that “it will not work,” such a person is committing precisely the crime he justly seeks to avoid being the victim of himself. Turning and doing it to the other is worse since, not only is he committing the act while the other was not, but he is also taking the opportunity to not only pass judgement on their choices but is also deeming himself worthy enough to “correct” them regarding their own life beliefs. If a person really was spouting judgement upon you every time they acted within a differing belief system than your own, everything from favorite foods to political ideologies would be cause for anger. We tend to realize the fallacy of this perspective on the first half of that scale, conflating our choices with our sense of self-worth on the latter end. Equating our sense of self-worth with our chosen preferences, however, is foolish. It is born of the mistaken belief that we are only as good as our actions/choices/beliefs. And while there is something to be said for “actions speaking louder than words,” they never speak louder than our sheer humanity and intrinsic, infinite value. This is why fundamentalists and absolutists often times espouse the most radically divisive beliefs. There is no room for another person’s beliefs or interpretation of what you hold to be sacred if your entire Being is linked to being correct. If you admit that somebody else might be saying something of value in contradiction to your own opinions, than you have created the uncomfortable equation of being less valuable yourself for having thought otherwise. And nobody wants, or deserves, to be deemed less than spectacularly valuable.

    I hope you are feeling better Chris. I stumbled upon your entry while randomly typing in Loyola, I attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.

    Take your medicine & I’ll say a prayer for you.

    • donumdei said

      PS – While fundamentalist faith may advocate prayer or “God alone” at the expense of medicine/nonreligious methods, most faiths do not advocate this stance. For instance, within the Catholic Church and most other mainstream faiths, it is expressly forbidden to observe fasting during the High Holy days if an individual is a child, elderly, or suffering from any sort of medical condition. A faith of “God alone” so literally held negates the need to ever leave your house, let alone get dressed in the morning. Why wear clothing when you can trust God will keep you from illness, let alone too hot or too cold elements? True faith recognizes that God’s quite capable concern is for you and that scientific means of improving your situation are man-made instances of God’s own provision for us through our God-given abilities… like the printing press that makes the Talmud, Bible, or Qu’ran. It is only when man-made means begin to infringe or possibly infringe upon humanity’s integrity that responsible religion begins to raise questions, such as with abortion, euthanasia, stem cell applications, DNRs, etc. And the “answers” to those issues vary widely from faith to faith, even within the same religion. But that’s a whole other conversation. Sorry, didn’t mean to take up so much of your comments space. But as believer (or more accurately, one who believes while constantly questioning) I always hate to think somebody, be they believers, atheists, or agnostic, feel poorly judged by a member of the faith. Real faith is not like that, neither is real religion. And painful interactions born of misunderstandings on either side paint each party in a poor light in a world that could use a lot less strife, be you religious or not. The more arrogant believers and atheists alike garner the most attention and do a disservice to everybody while the rest of the quite reasonable populace goes on living in peace… thus being more easily left unseen and assumed to not exist.

  11. […] readers to a conversation regarding the nature of such situation. (The original post can be seen here.) What started out as a brief comment by me, however, quickly became a rather long sharing of my […]

  12. […] with. And whether it is the decision to cover one’s head with a hijab, to believe in God or pray, or to utilize childcare while pursuing a career, I am grateful to live in a diverse and […]

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