Religious Bullying: “I’ll pray for you.”

When I was younger, I used to say things like, “It’s easy to know if you are being bullied or not.” And I was wrong. With time, it has become exceedingly accessible to call people bullies, in the way that introversion and gluten-free diets have also turned into something more popular. Some people are taking the topic of bullying that affects a percentage of people and misapplying it to fit a broader range for purposes largely related to attention and the self. Now, anyone who disagrees with another person is a strong-fashion bully, just as how anyone who doesn’t like playing frisbee golf is suddenly an introvert.

In light of this aversion to the word bully, I want to discuss a phrase:

“I will pray for you.”

I have never been the type of atheist who grimaces at sayings like “Merry Christmas” and “God bless you.”

I hear the words “I’ll pray for you” or a paraphrased equivalent frequently. There are two ways this statement can be made. The first healthy way is to allow a person know that the speaker genuinely cares for the subject and wants him/her to feel relief. Prayer thus being the pursuit of healing (Part 1).

The second way a person can say these words is when the religious bully makes himself or herself apparent. When the religious bully says “I’ll pray for you,” that person is communicating two things:

1. I have a special relationship with God that you lack, because you are an outsider/sinner.
2. I will use my special relationship to see that you are forgiven or censured.

Both the religious and non-religious have heard the contempt behind “I’ll pray for you” at one point and the goodness behind those words at another. Sometimes, it’s difficult to know the connotations behind the phrase, and that is when discussion needs to occur and remove the gray area of assumption. When I tell someone I am an atheist and he/she replies with “I’ll pray for you,” I generally think those words are an unconscious statement of contempt in the guise of goodness; and that’s the thing to remember about contempt, it comes in many faces.

There are other equivalents to “I’ll pray for you” that include:

“I will hope for your eventual enlightenment.”
“Someday you’ll figure it out.”

These words are typically said when one person views another as lesser due to their lifestyle, views, choices, etc. At that point, “I’ll pray for you” or a similarly correlating statement becomes a verbal tool for judgement and personal denouncement.

So what exactly makes “I’ll pray for you” religious bullying then?

In this instance, the bully connotation comes from:

  • Creation of a power imbalance
  • Assumption of authority or precedence over another person
  • Establishment of an “outsider” group and subjective assignment of people to that group (also called, ‘social exclusion’)
  • Repetitive behavior
  • Gaslighting

The religious bully says “I’ll pray for you” with a dismissive tone to someone often seen as “in the wrong.” You, the subject, the nonbeliever, the homosexual, the recently divorced, the promiscuous unmarried woman, etc. do not know the path to God because of your identity, sexuality, situation, and so forth. My advice to the recipient of this phrase’s contempt would be to speak. Be indignant. Practice voice. Remind the speaker of their unnecessary verbal and mental abuse . Tell the religious bully why you are not in need of that prayer, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with you.