Part three of my series on life after faith. Click here for part two.
Today’s topic: Prayer.
How do you respond to prayer requests? What about praying before a meal? Is it polite to ask a well-meaning friend or family member not to pray for you?
Let’s talk about these one at a time.
Someone you care about is going through a hard time. At the end of their email or Facebook post they ask everyone to pray.
How should we respond to this? It seems dishonest to say, “yes! I’ll pray for you” if you don’t pray or believe in any gods (although getting out of that habit was really tough for me).
What is someone really asking for when they post a prayer request? Finding comfort in their religious beliefs is definitely a major part of it but I think there’s also a social aspect.
Most of the time friends and family don’t begin and end their side of the conversation with prayer. Advice or practical assistance – babysitting, bringing over a hot meal, helping with chores or errands that cannot be postponed- are usually offered as well.
Navigating the religious angle of it can be really awkward but anyone can offer to help in other ways.
This is probably one of the most common reasons that non-theists become a captive audience to prayer. It can also be something that is more difficult to opt out of discreetly if you are uncomfortable participating.
Usually I’m happy to sit quietly while others pray. A notable exception to this are prayers like this:
Thank you, God, for this food. We love you so much. Please teach us how to serve you better for the rest of our lives. Amen.
because they assumes a relationship that at least one of us doesn’t actually have with the speaker’s god. Your mileage may vary but I’m not ethically comfortable being included in someone else’s relationship with their god.
Promises are also something I take extremely seriously. If I say I’ll be somewhere or do something I’m going to be or do it. The last time I broke a promise was last fall when a nasty bout of the flu left me too weak to do what I had agreed to do…and I still felt guilty for staying home that night. 🙂
So what are your options when you’re in a situation where the prayer before the meal becomes uncomfortable?
You could talk to the prayer leader about it. I wouldn’t recommend this in 99% of cases, though, especially if the meal is hosted by the person who will be praying. It’s far too easy for these things to be blown out of proportion.
In my experience people cannot be forced to understand how someone outside of their beliefs sees certain things. If it comes up in conversation I’ll share my thoughts but I haven’t seen much good come out of bringing it up personally.
Another options is to offer to host. Anyone who visits my house is welcome to pray silently or in a small group before the meal begins.
Also consider meeting at neutral locations like a restaurant or park. The more casual the event the less likely that public prayers of any kind will take place and almost everyone loves a picnic or barbecue!
I’ll cover this in depth in an upcoming post but one of the other most common reasons for a Christian to mention praying for you is when something bad happens. Someone dies, loses a job, is diagnosed with a terminal illness.
Some non-theists do not find this a comfort at all. I completely understand why it would bother someone. Maybe I’m a bad Agnostic ( 😉 ) but I would only find this personally offensive if it was followed up with any hint of pressure to join that person’s religion or talk to his or her spiritual advisor.
Saying “thanks” and then switching the topic is one of my favourite ways to respond to this sort of thing.
Basically it all comes down to the intentions of the person offering or asking for prayer.
Does he or she want to convert you?
Is bringing up prayer a passive agressive act for this individual?
Is he trying to offer comfort?
Is she expressing sincerely held religious views?
Is prayer simply a habit for this individual?
There are many Christians in my life who would never cross that line. They sincerely respect my beliefs and are given a great deal of leeway when it come to these things.
Sometimes there are those who choose less respectful approaches. As I’ve mentioned in this series before, relationship history matters. You are the expert in figuring out what is happening with your friends and family.
Non-theists, theists, and everyone in-between: what have been your experiences with this?