“I’ll pray for you.”

Recently, I saw this image on Facebook, a quotation attributed to stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress, and I shared it with the heading, “LOL!”:

Hannibal Buress on prayer
Hannibal Buress on prayer

It actually did make me laugh out loud, hence the heading.  One person, who is a Christian of some sort (a rather liberal sort, as far as I can tell) and is both a “Facebook friend” and an IRL friend, posted this comment:

What if the person is your mother…. bet you do not put her down…;o)

Right off the bat, I have a problem with a comment that is basically equivalent to “but would you say that to your mother?”  Guess what: my relationship with my mother is different from my relationship with other people and, therefore, what I will and will not say to my mom is, quite obviously, very likely to be different from what I will and will not say to others.

Here’s how I responded on Facebook:

My mother knows I’m an atheist and she knows that I think prayer is useless (except that it might temporarily make the one who prays feel a bit better). She does sometimes tell me that she prays for me but she does it respectfully, with none of the arrogance I’ve come to expect of evangelicals. She doesn’t go on about it; she expresses her feeling on it and then we move on to talk about other things.

She knows me better than anyone else, obviously, with the possible exception of my wife, and she has done more for me than any other human being. That earns her more lattitude regarding what I will accept from her than someone else who doesn’t really know me but feels that they need to “witness” at me.

I’m honest with her. When she told me that she was praying that God would somehow touch my heart and bring me back to faith, I respectfully told her that I don’t think that is possible because, unless I lose the ability to think rationally, I simply cannot believe in any God without strong, testable evidence and it’s pretty clear to me by now that the likelihood that such evidence exists (or can exist) is vanishingly small.

Our relationship is such that I can say that to her. And that’s really the point, here. Whether or not someone can rightly expect a response from me that is sensitive to their feelings depends on how appropriate what they’re saying is to the nature of the relationship. Not all relationships are equal; not all responses will be equal.

If anyone else tells me that they’re praying for me, my response will depend on the nature of the relationship. If I don’t know them well, it’s likely that I simply won’t respond. That might be awkward for them but that’s not my problem. If I think they’re being arrogant or, on the other hand, if I think they can take a joke, I’m likely to laugh and assure them that they’re free to talk to the empty air as much as they like as long as they don’t bother me about it.

Regarding what Mr. Buress is quoted as saying, he’s a stand-up comedian. The nature of the relationship between a stand-up and his or her audience is that one must expect him or her to say things that some people will find outrageous. One should also expect it to be funny. Personally, I find the bit that is quoted here to be very funny. Your mileage may vary. [shrug] So it goes.  I share things that I find interesting or amusing.  Those who would read what I share on Facebook are free to look at them or not and to comment on them or not.  They’d do well to be aware, though, of the paragraph that follows this one.

Some people seem to think that religious feelings deserve a special category of respect. I disagree. I think religion is silly, often harmful, and a legitimate target of ridicule, humorous and otherwise.  If you are religious, I am able to respect you if your attitudes and actions warrant it.  I am not, however, able to respect your beliefs.

That last paragraph sums up what I think is one of the most important contributions of the “New Atheism”, which I think is really just the “Old Atheism” but a tiny bit more assertive.

One Reply to ““I’ll pray for you.””

  1. re “special catagory of respect”…
    I definitely do not advocate deference. I do not pretend to share beliefs that I do not share.
    Leaving the hypocrites and nastholes aside… for many people, religion is a way of understanding and relating to their own best profound experience of life. The experience is real experience and worthy of respect. I hope that if we can communicate that we respect without agreeing we can also communicate that non-believers are as likely to be spiritually whole as believers are, although we frame it in human terms.

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