Monday, November 29, 2010

Don't pray for me

Some atheists don't mind when Christians say they'll pray for them.  But I do.  I think it is inappropriate in virtually all contexts.

I feel like I could stop right here already.  I don't like it, therefore it's impolite to pray for atheists.  Nobody needs to know why I don't like it.  They just need to know that I and other atheists don't like it.  If the intended message of prayer is to show that you care, you should show that you care by avoiding praying for people who probably don't like it.  There are secular alternatives ("You're in our thoughts" instead of "You're in our prayers"), or you could just pray privately.

But this being a blog, we'll dig deeper even though we don't need to.

Tangent: This is one of those situations which resembles post-hoc reasoning (ie, starting with a conclusion, and then finding justifications for the predetermined conclusion).  I feel an emotional reaction against people praying for me in front of me.  I can only figure out why I feel irritated by thinking about it afterwards.  Thus, the conclusion ("I feel irritated") comes before the justification ("Why am I irritated?").

But it's not quite post-hoc reasoning, nor is it a fallacious argument from emotion.  I may be using my emotions as evidence, but I am not trying to prove a fact about the external world.  I'm merely trying to prove something about my internal state, that I feel irritated.  And when I talk about reasons for why I feel irritated, this is not supposed to prove the predetermined conclusion that I feel irritated.  We already agree that I feel irritated, and we don't need further evidence for that.  Instead, this is an exploration of what part of prayer I think is most irritating.

One possible reason prayer could be irritating is simply because of philosophical disagreements.  As a skeptical atheist, I obviously don't believe in any of this prayer stuff.  There's at least one kind of prayer that I disagree with so much that it irritates me to see it: intercessory prayer intended to heal people

Tangent #2: Intercessory prayer, prayer meant to call on the supernatural to intervene on our behalf, is anti-skeptical.  Without going into details, the best studies show that prayer does not make people better.  Many people claim that these studies show nothing because prayer can't be analyzed scientifically.  But if a claim can't be analyzed scientifically, not even by phenomenological studies, that places very tight constraints on the claim, constraints that are completely ignored in practice.  There's no place for this kind of nonsense in matters of health.

In short, people are just making excuses for magical thinking in the face of positive scientific evidence.  Intercessory prayer is the reason why we can't have good things.  Intercessory prayer is the reason why there's a fairly good case against the compatibility of theism and skepticism.  And in the rare case where intercessory prayer is offered as a replacement for real help, that's just adding injury to insult.

But outside of this kind of intercessory prayer, I have more tolerance for disagreement.  If you want to believe that prayer allows a divine being to pat you on the back, I think that's silly.  But I'm not as irritated by it, not so irritated that I would declare it impolite.

The thing is, prayer can make for some very awkward social situations.  If someone starts praying in front of me, what do I say?  I feel like a prayer calls for a certain mood, one of reverence, respect, or sympathy.  But prayer does not put me in any of those moods.  Prayer puts me in a cynical, critical, or apathetic mood.  So I have two choices: either pretend that I'm in the same mood as everyone else, or rudely break the spell.

There are few things in an atheist's experience which are as alienating as being in the middle of a group prayer.  It makes me think of our vast philosophical differences.  It makes me think how I'm experiencing this differently from everyone else in the room.  And if I speak up, that's when all the cultural misunderstandings come out in the open.

This happened in a recent episode of Glee...
I know you don’t believe in God, and you don’t believe in the power of prayer, and that’s okay, to each his own. But you’ve got to believe in something. Something more than you can touch, taste, or see. ‘Cause life is too hard to go through it alone, without something to hold onto and without something that’s sacred.

-Mercedes to Kurt in front of a church
Glee isn't exactly known for its realism, but parts of this episode seemed all too familiar.  Here, Mercedes is naively trying to translate religious concepts into nonreligious ones as if there were a one-to-one correspondence.  That's not even true between different religions, much less religion and atheism.  Kurt doesn't say anything about it, but then, who would say anything in front of a big church praying for your dying father?

Incidentally, I didn't like praying when I was Catholic either.  It wasn't really my cup of tea.  I only ever did it out of religious motivation, not personal motivation.  I've often wondered how common this experience is among Christians, and if such people ever get annoyed by prayer.


David said...

I occasionally find myself in a situation where a room of people are 'giving thanks' for their meal (this is usually some family friends of my wife). As an atheist of a similar disposition as yourself, I simply stand there quietly until the prayer is over and we can all eat. I don't bow my head, clamp my hands or close my eyes, I don't leave or make any objection. In this situation I'm a guest in their home. That said if anyone asked me my thoughts I'd give them freely. Were it my home I'd object and suggest they thank their god privately as Jesus suggested in Matthew 6:5-6, however I haven't had the chance to flop that one out.

In the situation where someone offers to pray for me (in an intercessary sense) I usually thank them and rephrase what I am taking from their words, eg 'Thanks for your good wishes, I'm grateful for your sign of support'. It is only if they push their preferred version will I point out they are doing nothing while making themselves feel as though they have done something.

Larry Hamelin said...

In general, if you (the generic you) want to do something for me, you have to do something or give me something that I want. If you give me what you want to give me, it's about you, not me. Why should I thank you for buying yourself a cup of coffee?

It's not that I don't think you should do things for yourself; quite the contrary: I think you should do more things for yourself. But it's irritating when you do something for yourself, pretend you're doing it for me, get your nose out of joint when I don't fall over myself to thank you for it.