Monday, November 17, 2008

If you can’t say anything nice…

I recently had a medical incident causing my family members to send a rare contact. Most were thoughtful; but a few had to add they were praying for me. One went on and on about it.

I never know how to respond to this. Do I say, “Thank you”? I know this is how they handle difficulties and to them they are offering me a great and wonderful gift. “We took time out of our busy, busy commute when we would much rather be listening to local newscasters telling us once again the weather to turn off the radio and talk out-loud to a God who apparently needs constant reminding that humans actually like to be healthy and not in hospitals.”

I understand it is comforting to them. Not so much directions to a God, but a way of feeling like they are doing something rather than nothing and feeling useful.

Yet I can’t bring myself to say, “Thank you.” See—I am NOT thankful they are praying for me. I don’t care whether they are praying for me or not. Actually, rather than waste the time praying, I would rather they spend a 5:1 ratio in talking to me rather than praying about me. For every 5 minutes they spent talking to God, if they spent 1 minute e-mailing me it would be far more beneficial.

And I don’t think praying is doing anything. I view it much the same way as if they said, “Every time I mow the yard and go around a tree, I am going to scream out your name. Isn’t that wonderful?”

“Sure,” I would reply, slowly backing away.

And I could almost understand if they didn’t know me. Almost. Because of sheer numbers, it could be presumed the other person is a Christian and would appreciate the concept of being prayed for. Even though it is still presumptuous; it is a natural reaction.

They know I am an atheist. They know I find their prayers of little meaning. As if they are reiterating, “See? We are Christians and we want to subtly remind you once again of what that means.” To them it has meaning, truth and depth; and since it is true, my own personal feelings on the matter must take a far, far second to their “truth.”

But to me—atheism is true. Does this justify my making some smary comment in reply? “Hey, your prayers really helped. Well…in addition to the medicine. And the Doctors. And the Nurses. And the diagnostic machines. And the technology available to us today. I’m sorry—what was it you said you did again?”

If their “truth” trumps courtesy; can mine?

Or another example. My hospital roommate was a devoted Christian. I heard him praying out loud. As we talked, it was not a surprise when he started to share his faith. I became real silent. How do you tell an 82-year-old man who is having health difficulties his hope of an afterlife is pure fantasy? As make believe as Dungeons and Dragons? At one point he said, “Make sure you take the Great Physician with you. You know who that is, right?”

After a dramatic pause: “Jesus.”

The first thought crossing my mind was, “Well, I hope he has studied up some, ‘cause medicine has really changed in the past 2000 years.” The second thought was, “I wonder if my roommate knows how health was viewed in First Century Mediterranean, and it was a disassociation with one’s place in society, and not an illness as we understand it.” My third thought was “Er….thank you?” My fourth thought, the one I went with, was silence.

I find these statements awkward.

So what do you say? What do you think I should say?


  1. I'm in a similar boat. I'm *much* more polite in person than I am online. I mostly just smile and nod, and it doesn't kill me to say, "Thanks". If praying makes my relatives feel better, then good for them; it's no skin off my nose, and I'd rather they talk to God than to me. (I'm not big on family in general.)

    To them it has meaning, truth and depth; and since it is true, my own personal feelings on the matter must take a far, far second to their “truth.”

    Of course. But this applies to *everything* about your family (and mine, and everyone else's), not just religion. My late grand-uncle's retarded notions about sex and relationships are far more important than my own personal feelings. It's family; you suck it up and deal with it.

    And because you and I aren't doofuses, we are courteous enough not to inflict any of our own hobby-horses on them, be it atheism, liberal politics, or our vintage Matchbox (tm) car collection.

    I draw the line, however, when they ask me questions or insult or challenge me.

  2. Say "Thanks".
    Like getting a birthday card without the $5 bill in it, it's the thought that counts.
    Then politely tell them to contribute to the charitable foundation that seeks an earthly cure for the specific illness that has stricken you.
    Hope you're OK.

  3. Curiously, The Barefoot Bum, I wouldn’t have a problem if they challenged me or asked me questions. (My family is far too proper to insult another. To their face.) In fact, I would enjoy it. They don’t have even the remotest frame of reference by which to ask a question, though. They wouldn’t know how to ask or what.

    We each draw a line—just a different one.


    Well…maybe the thought counts. I am curious what the “thought” is sometimes. It is one thing to give a passing, “I’ll pray for you.” It is another to go on and on about how much they pray for me and where and when and how. At some point does the thought pass from a courteous greeting to a form of braggadocio control?

  4. I think generally speaking most people are uncomfortable when people are ill and they dont know how they can help. So it seems many only do the things they know, and for Christians and other people of faith, thats prayer. I get what you mean when they go on and on with it, pretty freaking frustrating but hey, thats all they know. Unless you are prepared to tell them how you feel they will only continue to do the only thing they know how. Heres a good quote for you.

    "Resentment is letting someone live rent free in your head."

  5. OK, I had to look up "braggadocio" but now know what you mean by the control thing. This is exactly the kind of "control" that is usually recognizable for what it is and as such can be accepted or rejected.
    Best to reject it internally to keep the peace, though.

  6. What I found interesting about this was that while the prayer is supposed to be demonstrating compassion towards the afflicted, in many ways, prayer is about making the person praying feel better about doing something. It's a little self-focused. Especially if your feelings regarding the prayer count for nothing.

    And that's why I would have a hard time saying 'thank you.' Because it doesn't seem like you as a person -- who you are, what you want, your worldview -- is taken into account at all. So how does one say 'thank you' to that when the praying can come across as incredibly dismissive?

    The other reason I have a hard time saying thank you to this type of prayer is because of the inclinations. Say three Christians prayed for you, and thus you recovered faster than what was expected. The Christians would give thanks to God. However, does this mean that God wouldn't have interacted in your recovery if the Christians hadn't prayed? That's always the conclusion I reach when I hear that "prayer works." If healing is the proof that prayer works, then doesn't the power lie in the person who is praying, and not the omnipotent, all-knowing, all-loving God?

    Thus, it becomes what the Christian has done on your behalf, and again, focusing on the Christian, rather than the person who is afflicted.

    Maybe your response could be just to smile politely, or nod?

  7. Thanks, Roman and OneSmallStep.

    Yeah, I do internalize it, smile and keep the peace. This just lets me vent a bit.

  8. I think being kind and nice is always a nice path to take - even in the cases of people praying for you or the old dude giving you some sort of pep talk - I think they are only trying to be helpful in some way (even if it may not be).

    I am kind of adverse to people praying for me - I usually stop them and tell them 'don't worry about it'. I feel prayer for someone should be followed with actions of compassion for that person also. Most prayers are 'self serving' as OSS noted and I feel true prayer is something where we pray for someone - but we also get involved in some way (thusly I rarely pray for what it is I can obviously do by getting involved).

    I am not big on prayer to be honest - I have nothing against people doing it - but I prefer my prayer to be the life i live.

  9. I don't think those mentioning they will “pray for you” are putting as much thought and analysis into their comment and its impact as you are. It is most likely a sincere offer of an action they believe will benefit you and is not about them trying to “convert” you or disrespect your atheism. Next time someone says that phrase to you when you're sick or in a tough situation, try responding, “What would be really helpful to me is if you would do/say _________.” Then it gives them something practical that will actually bring the effect they desire--to support you.