You can read about atheists being offended by prayer. Most of what I’ve seen was written by religious interpreters who seem to know what we think and what our motivations are. In my opinion, few skeptics find praying offensive. Anyone who comes from a religious background has probably prayed. I think it’s a waste of time. However, prayer can be troublesome.
Does It Even Make Sense?
I used to pray often. As a practicing Catholic, I was expected to pray to god’s three persons and dead people. I prayed to various saints who are dead souls in Heaven, and for those not there yet, but who are in Purgatory.
I’ve asked for things or prayed as a form of worship or self-punishment, called penance assigned by a priest after confession. I prayed for “the repose of the soul(s)” without knowing exactly what the hell that meant or why I was praying for it. I prayed without a logical thought as to exactly what I was praying for. Most often, I simply prayed to pray or because others were.
You may ask, so what? Is praying harmful? Did it do any good? Was it beneficial to me or to someone else? Was time spent in any form of prayer wasted and silly?
Ironically, I thought everything happened because a spiritual consciousness caused it. I assumed I was praying to a god responsible for everything that happened: a god who knew everything, was everywhere, and had everyone’s best interest in mind.
Yet, prayer was a crutch for me. Even today, I can hear my mind thinking, “Please don’t let this be happening…” Who or what is that plea addressed to? A god or the universe? Is prayer a habit?
“Everything happens for a reason.” That mild form of predestination doctrine is what many people say, most often regarding some undesirable event. Of course, no reason is ever given and one is seldom discovered except in some shoehorning effort to make it fit religiously.
Before I accepted my own atheism, although I prayed, I thought it was kind of dumb. However, since so many of us seemed to do it and thought it worked (all evidence to the contrary), I prayed hard and long. I gave blessings, I prayed over graves of loved ones, I prayed for sick people, for friends and enemies, and sometimes for things other people asked me to pray for, like for them or rain. Whatever I needed to do to persuade the eternal supreme entity to do differently, I gladly did. I carried a pocket notebook of things and people I wanted to pray about so I would not forget.
I no longer pray because I’m almost certain there are no gods, no saints, no spirits who care, or any receivers of my message. Additionally, if I did believe in any of that or thought it was likely, I would still not pray because it accomplishes nothing.
Do I care if other people pray?
Usually, I don’t. Sometimes I do. Prayers and praying can be annoying, especially when staged for living witnesses to see and thereby to be affected or persuaded. Prayer is especially annoying when my cooperation and/or participation is in some way socially expected.
On its own, prayer seems innocuous enough. However, even the bible (new testament) decries staged, showoff, holier than thou praying (Matthew 6:1-34). Must I wait to eat while someone prays? Why? May I talk while they talk to a god? May I take a drink of my beer? If I don’t want to hold someone’s hand while they pray, am I being rude? The act of praying does not make someone special or privileged. But it is fine if one assumes so. Just leave me out of it.
I consider people’s praying as I do when they do yoga or meditate. I consider most yoga and meditation beneficial to the person doing them. I am neither offended nor distracted by it. I simply don’t care. I don’t expect them to interrupt my evening, disturb my meal, or want to hold any of my body parts while they contemplate existence or do a downward facing dog. I’ve never heard of someone blocking an emergency exit while chanting a mantra or standing on one foot.
No one has ever said to me, “I’ll meditate for you.” And while no yoga pose has been entered for my recovery, I did appreciate when friends and family said they would be sending me healing energy and good vibes. Their sincere concern helped me feel better, and perhaps to recover. I’ve told friends that I would be thinking of them during their surgery and I hoped they would have a speedy recovery. “Get well soon.” Praying is not person to person. It invokes the will of spirits and that’s woo-woo.
When people say they will pray for me, I request, “Please don’t.” I’m not offended if they do. I just take a pass on prayers.
While I’m unconcerned with how people spend their time trying to change some god’s mind, I think it’s silly. Their intention may be good, but why can’t they accept that I reject all prayers?
What is the bigger picture?
Another problem is the package deal. Prayer is not an isolated independent action done by one person to the benefit of another. Except for children and people manipulated into it, no one is forced to pray. If nothing else changed and everyone just stopped praying, would some deity get pissed off?
Many believers think so (all evidence, etc.). It’s not so much that prayer is part of a belief in god and a person’s relationship with some god. Prayer is distinctly tied to a religion and often to a specific denomination.
On the other hand, when people have asked me to pray for them (or for rain in one case), I sometimes will. They seldom ask, but I do see or hear the occasional request. While I don’t believe in their (or any) god, that does not mean I don’t care enough about them to offer up a prayerful blurb or two. I consider saying or thinking “God help you” as praying. I am also willing to yoga up the cat pose or contemplate a nirvanic eternity, if someone were to ask me (no one has).
The problem I see with praying is the package or the bigger picture. When organized religion, personal religious beliefs, or cult-like attachments influence people, it is more than simply praying. If someone prays for me to believe in god, is it acceptable for me to pray or to wish that they stop believing in god?
Must I adapt my behavior to the praying behavior of others (holding hands, being quiet, closing my eyes)? Does your right to practice your religion (freedom of religion) trump my right not to (freedom from religion)? If I decline an offer to pray for me, have I offended them simply because I think differently? If it is my opinion that people who pray are wasting their time, sometimes mine, and offering an opinion different than mine, is it acceptable for me to say so?
The prayer playing field is not level. It’s sloped in favor of those who pray even by some who don’t. What harm does it do? In most cases it threatens my freedom from religion. It is often staged “look at me” behavior and begs for someone to be easily offended.