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.

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.