The Value of Prayer in Hospitals: An Atheist’s Response

A friend and I recently had a discussion about the value and variations of prayer. The conversation initiated after my friend told me that he knew someone in the hospital. Minutes before we saw each other, he had received a test message which briefly read [paraphrased]: “The doctors said he doesn’t have much time left. A lot of people have been praying for him, and even though I don’t really believe in prayer, you can. . .”

My friend did not seem nearly as perturbed by the speaker’s disbelief in prayer as he seemed off-put by her timing of the statement which seemed more the product of egocentricity than sensitivity. My friend questioned why the speaker felt clarity imperative and also worried about the dismissive/general attitude conveyed through her message.

In past years, my father has been in the hospital a few times. I would often hear statements, such as:

“I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers.”

“I am praying for your dad’s health.”

I have never felt the need to identify myself as a non-believer in those moments, because to do so felt like a rejection of someone’s compassion.

However, I understand why the speaker felt compelled to say she doesn’t “really believe in prayer.” While I do not know her intent or reason for expression, I think her statement was made to convey a disbelief in divine intervention/miracle. Nevertheless, when discussing the relevance of prayer, her mindset seems to express a stereotypical view on how people pray and does not properly observe the subjective experience of prayer.  At the same time, I also sympathize with the speaker, because I know how it feels to be the non-believer surrounded by a group of the religious inside a hospital room, lobby, corridor. The effects can feel suffocating.

Despite this, I write to encourage fellow atheists to see the positive aspects of prayer in these situations, because to dwell on the negative or pervasiveness will only make such circumstances more difficult and tense. While staying with my father in the hospital, I tried to recognize the prayers of others as both a coping mechanism and an expression of empathy for the suffering. I would often thank them and genuinely feel a sense of gratitude, because to those offering prayer, the concept of prayer means something.

A perhaps too convenient or silly analogy to make at this time of year could be a similarity between prayer and giftgiving. One person knits a pair of socks for a friend- chooses the yarn carefully, pays attention to detail and craft, etc. Then, that person gives the socks to the recipient, someone who incidentally does not wear socks, because he/she finds them restrictive and prefers sandals. To the recipient, the socks have no practical value or purpose directly related to their life, but there is still something inherently good in those socks- a symbol of comfort, fondness, and time. A sign that someone cares.

Even though I am nonreligious, I hope that if ever hospitalized or ill or dying that someone out there decides to pray for me, not because I believe their action will make me well but because I would find warmth in their sentiment.

Upcoming Entry
Religious Bullying: “I’ll Pray For You”
In my next entry, I will discuss prayer as a potential instrument for
religious bullying and purveyor of wanton judgement.