04 December 2008

'I'll Pray for You...'

When someone says 'I'll pray for you' it causes me to pause.

I have a few questions:

1. What is the point?

2. Who does it actually benefit (if there is a benefit)?

3. Does it make any difference and if so, to whom and how?

4. What am I supposed to say?

I can't stop people praying for me but I do ask the above questions as I cannot see the point. Of course, people who say 'I'll pray for you' are saying it with the best intentions. It is being used to convey sympathy, empathy or is an attempt to make both parties feel positive about something.
Well it doesn't make me feel positive in any way.
It bugs me, to be truthful. I think of all the inane things that humans say because we have been conditioned to say them or think or act because some ignorant ancestors (who did not have the scientific information which is available to us today, granted) who tried to make sense of this crazy natural world and came up with a whole load of stories and ideas - so, amongst other things, we pray. And we pray for others.

Praying changes nothing. Praying is such a complete waste of time. Rather than pray for me or for someone else how about putting some action behind your words and try and change the reality that we find ourselves in. Rather than passively putting your hands together make those same hands do something worthwhile like protest against the various forms of injustice in the world, the abuse carried out in the name of god and gods, the hundreds of millions of children being miseducated or not being educated at all, the abject poverty that a disproportaionate number of people on this planet live in, the homophobia, racism, ageism, corruption of governments, the Federal Reserve...I could go on.
There are so many things we could be doing both individually and collectively that would make real change happen in this world and yet what do we do? We pray. Totally useless. Totally mind-numbingly facile and pointless.

Let's say for instance that someone has a child who is ill with a serious life-threatening medical problem. They pray for that child to recover - often for long periods. They pray with all their hearts and minds. Sadly the child dies.
What was the point of their prayer? Did 'God' hear their prayers and ignore them? Did their prayers help the child in any medical way? Does the death of the child mean the parents were bad people? Had the parents failed to pray hard enough?
Now these questions may appear callous and cold but they are essential questions concerning actions humans take in our lives and if we are to critically analyse why we do things then these questions would be a place to start.

In my view, a belief in prayer is cruel as it is as irrelevant as Santa Claus. Adults don't believe (or do they?) if they pray to Santa Claus that he will help them or their families in anyway and so why this equally imaginary god or gods?

You have no doubt heard of some parents, devout Christians, who have refused to allow their sick children to receive blood transfusions or any other form of treatment because they are relying on 'the power of prayer' and then their children die.
We cannot allow these views to persist without comment. We cannot allow children to die needlessly in this way without comment and we definitely shouldn't allow 'the power of prayer' to sweep past us without asking hard questions. We cannot because they cause misery and unnecessary death based on mythical ideas.

In addition, if these gods are all-knowing, all-present then there wouldn't be any need to pray. Think about it. If god knows your every thought, why would humans have to pray to be heard by god or gods? Why would god allow your beautiful child to be stricken by some dreadful disease and after your earnest prayer your beloved child still dies - why would god allow that to happen if this god was omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent and a loving god?

Let's just cut to the chase and say that prayer offers temporary mental comfort to those who believe in the supernatural. Full stop. But it doesn't actually change anything other than a few feel good areas of the brain. It changes nothing in our physical world. Praying or telling me you will pray for me doesn't make you a better person, it isn't a barometer on your 'good character'. So please, don't waste your precious time praying for me.

If you want to make a difference then "do something meaningful" as the great man Carl Sagan suggested.
Forget prayer. Do something meaningful.
Think about this when you next feel the urge to pray.



Anonymous said...

Ahh but there is money in religeon Zee. Why else would Tony Bliar (not a misspelling) be touring the USA getting paid to blather on about it?

I'm a Pastafarian myslef - Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. Check us out.

I once asked some Jehova's Witnesses - who told me there was more evil in the world than ever and that people were no longer listening to the "word of God" and that the Devil was abroad - whether they could say with 100 per cent certainty that it was not the Devil that was sending them knocking on people's doors in order to make them hate Christians. And that even if they could say they were sure with 100 per cent certainty that my hypothesis was wrong because they could prove their witnessing was not the work of the Devil himslef.

I'm afraid they were flumoxed.

And, feeling kind hearted but intolerant of ancient ignorance, I explained to them that they could also not be 100% sure whether or not I was either a messanger of God or else the Anti-Christ.

Then I explained the double-blind experimental scientific method for discovering validity and reliability in the World....You know, the kind of thing that led to inventions by man rather than creations by God and the Devil.

I then invited them to call again next week so that we could continue our exciting conversations.

For some reason they keep walking past my house now.

Does this mean I'm left out come Armaggedon? Oh darn it!


Anonymous said...

Those are very powerful words. I can't say that I blame you because I sometimes wonder in the point of prayer. I believe that we as a society have been conditioned to do and say certain things because that is what's expected.

I like what Robin did with the Jehova's Witnesses. I thought I was the only person who questioned why they knocked on my door. I must say that they along with a few other religious groups in our area have not been back to visit me.

Anonymous said...

Hi Zee. Just came across your site by chance and happy that I did. I enjoy reading stuff that triggers a reaction in me ... something waking up or getting a bit clearer.
This is such a huge subject .. I'll just make a couple of points.

I enjoy the power behind your words and really resonate with your reaction to those words 'I'll pray for you'. I've often been at a loss how to react when I hear that and usually just mumble something like 'Oh .. ummm ok then. Thanks!' and then rapidly change the subject. Mainly because I just struggle to find a common language or understanding with those who believe in any deity ('God', 'Santa Claus ..whoever). I respect their right to believe and practice whatever they choose ... I just don't get it.

However, in my mind there's a clear difference between 'prayer' as a religious doctrine or ritual and 'prayer' as a spiritual practice. All of the spiritual traditions recognise the value of some form of contemplation, meditation or prayer ... as a way of finding our own connection to the universe, spirit, god, life energy - whatever word works for you. This form of 'prayer' is not about asking for anything, it's not 'praying for someone or something' and it's not about believing in or talking to some big old man or woman who looks over us.

This form of prayer looks for the peace inside us .. so that when we take action we do it from an energy of love and compassion and not from an energy of anger or hatred. As such, I don't consider that spiritual form of prayer a waste of time. On the contrary.

I guess I'm saying that I agree with much of what you write .. and that what most religions push as 'prayer' simply gives 'prayer' a bad name.

Thanks again for the provocation.

isabella mori said...

i agree with much of what ian said.

curious, by the way, do you tell people that prayer bugs you? (well, maybe not using those exact same words :)

the challenge around prayer is that good prayer - rather than mindlessly reciting words or "putting your hands together" - is experiential.

i come from a tradition (several traditions, actually, i'm one of those syncretists that makes many religious people scream and run even more than from atheists) where prayer and action go hand in hand. if you have time, you could look up richard rohr and the centre for contemplation and action, he is close to my heart in many ways.

good, loving, deep prayer acts on the person who prays, often in subtle ways. psychologically speaking, this person is then much more likely to engage in acts that further the prayer's cause. mystically speaking, the idea is that the cause is also furthered through the acts of a deity but honestly, i don't think anyone needs to buy into that.

let's not forget that prayer isn't the only thing that often doesn't bring about the desired end effect. it's the same with science. s*^t happens.

as for jehovah's witness, i wrote an article about that a little while ago. we had a sad case of that here in vancouver about two years ago. i find the actions of a parent who pits religion against science very sad.

Anonymous said...

I have to say that Ian expressed my thoughts perfectly. In my mind there is a big difference between spirituality and religion. I am not a religious person; I constantly strive (not always successfully) to remain connected with my highest self. As for people praying for me - I generally say thanks and keep it moving. It's the thought that counts.

Anonymous said...

As for Jehovah's Witnesses.. I often wonder why they are out knocking on doors at all. According to their belief there is only room for 100K souls in heaven. Why one earth are they recruiting? They are just bumping themselves out of heaven.

As for praying at first I thought this post was cold. But you make some good points. Prayer is the last resort option. It's what we do when our hands are tied or there is simply nothing we can do. At least that is how it used to be. Now it seems like one of the first things people do which absolves them from taking action. "I won't have to get up off my ass or reach into my pocket if I say a prayer for you."

NewtonsOcean said...

Hi Zee -

It is precisely this belief in a god that is prepared to intervene personally in our lives that seems so illogical to the rest of us, isn't it? One wonders what maintains people's faith in prayer in the face of such a deafening silence, apart from hope (and faith) springing eternal. Psychologists have observed that we all tend to over-estimate coincidences (by disregarding all the times when coincidences don't occur). Likewise, if a prayer appears to be answered now and again, people will take it as a sign that someone is listening...

I'm glad you enjoyed my HM post - thanks so much for leaving a comment.

Anonymous said...

this post has been roaming around in my head these last few days, so i think i'd like to add something.

i went through a period where i got pretty ticked off when people told me they were praying for me. what irritated me was that i thought (rightly so in some instances, i'm sure) that they would also pray for me to find the light, to accept jesus as my saviour. saviour theology was and is something that does not fit me. i think i felt not so much prayed for/over as preyed upon. "you're having a problem and that proves that you need jesus, and not just any jesus, this exact jesus that WE believe in, who is the right and only jesus". something like that. i would imagine something similar could happen with fervent muslims.

i'm not sure i know what changed. it doesn't bug me anymore, maybe because i don't have strong connections anymore with people who would like to convert me. and those who are just acquaintances, well, what they think of and about me isn't that important.

Anonymous said...

I always question the tone. Our neighbor was in some trouble and mentioned that our other neighbors said, "I'll pray for you" in regards to his crime/case/etc. Now his take was they were praying for things to turn out OK for him legally, mine was that as devout as they are, and as messed up as the crime was, they were praying for his soul/redemption because what he did was so wrong.

Jackie said...

I suppose I have a different opinion here. I don't have the time to go in to all of the details but I will share a little.

My husband is 62 years old and perfectly healthy. When he was 2 years old in 1948 he had Spinal Meningitis.

He was so severe that the back of his feet were touching the back of his head.

The DR.S had given up all hope. His mother had began to pray that God take him rather than let him suffer like that any longer.

Then there was a minister and a prayer session. Within minutes my husband, unfolded his crippled body and stood up in his crib. At the age of 2 he turned and made the statement I saw Jesus.

His recovery is documented medically as a mystery.

Then of course there is the famous prayer study that every Psyche major reads about in Psyche 101.

It was a double blind highly regulated research involving people sick and dying in hospitals.

They randomly chose 100 people. They prayed for 50 and didn't pray for the other 50. None of these people knew if they were being prayed for or not.

The ones that were prayed for did see a great deal of improvement. the ones not prayed for did not recover not improve as fast.

These are facts and not just my faith. so take it for what it's worth.

Prayer works and I for one am always grateful that anyone cares enough about me to pray for me.


P.S. I am a left winged liberal, who does not belong to or attend any organized religious affiliations, I don't go to Church, but, I am a Christian and I am blessed to be one!

Unknown said...

Prayer works! God loves you. He wants you to know that. So keep praying that is the way you talk to God. God listens.

Bent Society said...

For the record regarding that last comment above - I found this on Richard Dworkin'd website:

"Intercessory prayer is widely believed to influence recovery from illness, but claims of benefits are not supported by well-controlled clinical trials. Prior studies have not addressed whether prayer itself or knowledge/certainty that prayer is being provided may influence outcome. We evaluated whether (1) receiving intercessory prayer or (2) being certain of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with uncomplicated recovery after coronary artery bypass graft (CABG) surgery.

Patients at 6 US hospitals were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: 604 received intercessory prayer after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; 597 did not receive intercessory prayer also after being informed that they may or may not receive prayer; and 601 received intercessory prayer after being informed they would receive prayer. Intercessory prayer was provided for 14 days, starting the night before CABG. The primary outcome was presence of any complication within 30 days of CABG. Secondary outcomes were any major event and mortality.

In the 2 groups uncertain about receiving intercessory prayer, complications occurred in 52% (315/604) of patients who received intercessory prayer versus 51% (304/597) of those who did not (relative risk 1.02, 95% CI 0.92-1.15). Complications occurred in 59% (352/601) of patients certain of receiving intercessory prayer compared with the 52% (315/604) of those uncertain of receiving intercessory prayer (relative risk 1.14, 95% CI 1.02-1.28). Major events and 30-day mortality were similar across the 3 groups.

Intercessory prayer itself had no effect on complication-free recovery from CABG, but certainty of receiving intercessory prayer was associated with a higher incidence of complications.

See this too


I thought telling lies was a sin...as an aithest I won't prey for you but I will debate the facts.

Anonymous said...

Amen to everything you said dear

Bent Society said...

But you could pray for my spelling and typos :-). I know its "pray" and not "prey" - but there must be a pun to stalk hunt down in that somewhere - and "I do beleive" that atheist is the correct spelling.

Anonymous said...

I sure do share your views on much of what you are saying about prayer. I believe that prayer is really a time and space in which you show some kind of humbleness and gratitude for creation and creativity, the animating force or call it the animating force of the universe. It's a way to connect to that force, not to tell the force what you "want".
I feel the same way you do when somone dies and people say "they went to God" like God is some "place". If you believe in God then wouldn't God always be with you?

Anonymous said...

May He bless you =)

Bent Society said...

Good blog here zee:


Rev. Bob said...

I usually say "I'll be thinking about you too."

Or when the other person is really pushy, I say "I'll think for you."

Some kid on Facebook asked me if there was anything I wanted him to pray about for me.

I told him, world peace, a cure for all diseases, and a pony!

C Woods said...

RE: Bent Society's remarks.

I liked Bent's use of "prey" ---I thought it was appropriate.

The explanation for the people who knew they were being prayed for in that study was that they must have believed their conditions were bad enough that they "needed" prayers ---thus they didn't fair so well because of negative thinking.

So ---please don't tell me if you are praying for me.

I've also read studies (sorry---don't have info on the specific studies) that people who pray or meditate are slightly healthier than those who don't. But the way they prayed or meditated made a difference. The ones who made prayers of petition: "God, please let me win the lottery" didn't fair as well as those who prayed for guidance or made prayers of acceptance: "God, do as you will." This seems to agree with Isabella's point that "good" prayer or meditation acts on the person who prays, rather than requesting something external.

I know people are trying to be kind when they tell me they'll pray for me. In their belief system, it is the best they can offer. But I always want to say, "Don't bother. It will do no good." The one time I did say that, the person took it to mean that I, myself, thought I was beyond hope. I'm beyond anyone's hope that I will turn to religion, but otherwise I am a very hopeful individual.

Kayla said...

"Forget prayer. Do something meaningful."

I believe the benefits of prayer lie precisely in the fact that it moves people (the ones praying) to do something meaningful.

Joining our will to a greater one (through prayer) for the good of others is a powerful equation in my opinion.

Of course my beef has always been with people who say they'll pray for you just for something to say and don't really mean they will actually do so. I try not to throw the phrase out there unless I am really going to make an effort to pray for them.

Rod Williams said...

I am myself somewhere between an agnostic and liberal generic Christian but I am not hostile to religion. I appreciate it someone says they will pray for me. I take it as code that they care about me and will be thinking about me in my time of need. It is like sending positive energy. It is like saying, “I’ll be thinking about you.” I am not sure if there is a God hearing prayer and I am not sure if there is such a thing as cosmic positive energy, but I appreciate the sentiment.

okaonis said...

There is an over generalization on your statement about blood transfusion. Christians don't condemn transfusion just as using anaesthesia is valid.

It\s Jehovah's Witnesses that condemn blood transfusion.
They are not Christians if you learn more about them. They don't even believe it that Christ is God.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to jot a quick comment. Scenario : 2am,eyes swole from a cry fest. As usual, had the "what do you believe?" Question come up in a relatively new, but going very well relationship. The christian obsessed person in him disregarded the core values of the girl he fell in love with all because "I'm not Christian". Of course he didn't say this directly, because that wouldn't be the "christian like" thing to do (but what does it matter if he can simply repent later), but I can pretty much predict the BS from here...With that, I felt down and out a bit, not about who I am but the overall involuntary battle that one has to go through in the black community being atheist. So I blogged from my blackberry (gotta love the berry!) 'African American Atheist' and came across your blog lol random... Just wanted to say thanks!
-Jeffri "the girl"
22 yr Scottsdale, AZ

Anonymous said...

Wow, wow, and again I say wow.

Twisted Vegan Sisters said...

My mom is what I call a hippi. My dad is Jewish, other family members christian, friends Muslim.. and as for my family and I, we simply chose not to judge.

I personally believe that we simply don't know what exists, and that the concept of God is ambiguous at best. However, it is important for me to be tolerant of what others believe. I try to accomplish this without judgment.

When my friends say they will pray for me, I say thank you. There intention is more than enough for me to appreciate and understand there well wishes. I liken praying to meditation, and positive thinking. I'm more concerned about the action, then the actual word used to describe it.

The absence of religion is not necessarily the absence of spirituality (having only read this post, I am not sure where you fall within the spectrum). However, the best way to practice and live your own spiritual truth (or lack thereof), is embracing that of others.

And with that sad, I will go back to being my generally light heart ed self.

Kirk Petersen said...

The answer to "what am I supposed to say?" as a non-religious person when someone says "I'll pray for you" is really pretty simple. It's the same thing you should say if a secular friend says "I'll keep my fingers crossed for you." Two words:

"Thank you."

Or, if you want to be tedious and off-putting, you could launch into a lengthy discussion about whether it really helps anything to cross your fingers.

tammy said...

AMEN. I found a kindred ?soul? i love your blog.

Anonymous said...

If I am not getting too personal, I would like to know at what point in your life did you stop believing there is a GOD.

philippe Orlando said...

I can't tell you how refreshing it is to find a black woman who doesn't believe in God. I'm originally French, I moved to the US in 1990 and I've had devastating experience with African Americans and it's been tough for me to develop and maintain friendships within that particular group, as God is always in the way.
I'll read your blog more in detail soon.

philippe Orlando said...

Nothing bugs me more when somebody says they’re going to pray. What is the point? Do we have any proof that praying actually works? If it’s true that your god is omnipotent and all knowing and all-present what’s the point of praying then if he already know what I most urgently need and want? He just wants me to get on my knees and beg that’s it? Have you noticed for what people pray? Look at the ridicule of a football team praying to win? God cares about football? The creator of billions of galaxies care about football! If God didn’t intervene when the Christians were playing the lions in the Romans’ arenas, he’s not going to give a shit about football. Right now as we talk there are people praying in Congo. They are praying that a group of men don’t enter their village, kill all the men and have fun torturing the women. In the last year some of them have heavily prayed so a man would not introduce the barrel of his rifle into a woman vagina and fire it, just for fun. That particular tortured has happened, again and again, along many others. God didn’t judge decent to intervene then, but here at home, we have people praying over a football game. The less it makes sense, the less brain power is needed, the happier you are, uh? What is wrong with you people?

1skepticalbrother said...

Brother Philippe,
I enjoyed your posted comments, I could not agree with them more. Black freethinkers are slowly coming out of the closet, all of us are not emotionally dedicated to the Abrahamic religions. You may have unwittingly settled in a Christian, African American "no fly zone" for critically thinking aircraft.
I was so fed up with the level of irrational religiosity in the Black community that I decided to write a book that questions the intellectual and spiritual integrity of this behavior. I will have it finished by December 31st, 2009.

Peace and Critical Thinking,
Blog: The African American Agnostic
email: negrononbeliever@gmail.com

philippe Orlando said...

1skepticalbrother ,
I would be very interested in reading the book. It's needed big time!

Jonathan West said...

I've come across a particularly fatuous case of "I'll pray for you". Fr David Pearce, a monk and priest at Ealing Abbey, has been convicted of multiple counts of indecent assault and sexual assault against boys at the scjool the Abbet runs, and given 8 years in jail. The reaction of his Abbot, in a letter to the parents of the school?

"I will remember in my prayers all those whose lives have been troubled by Fr
David’s actions."


Stella Calleja said...

My mum tells me she will pray for me all the time. She looks at me in the eye, it looks so meaningful to her...yet i always feel helpless. How will praying help me? I don't get it, and to tell you the truth I didn't get it when i was still a believer, either.

She knows I'm an atheist, and yet she keeps repeating these words. I'm sick and tired of hearing that I'll be remembered in my mother's prayers. I'd be so much happier if she is reminded of me when she sees something i like or something that I identify with...And just thinks about me the way I am, not the way she would like me to be.

Philippe Orlando said...

earl, I guess you didn't get it, uh?

AudioAndroid said...

Having a conscious connection with ur creator is not pointless. Direct communication with the Godhead is the pinnacle of all yoga. Just because you pray - does not make you incapable of direct action.

Michelle said...

I was a sickly kid. One of my dad's many aunts (all 8 of them different religions too) told my mom they'd be sending prayers for me. A month later she phoned to ask if I was better. When my mom pointed out I wasn't... dear aunty told my mom she was the problem. Her LACK OF FAITH had scuttled the miraclulous healing of me.

My mom put the phone down on her. Which narrows her down to being one of two great aunts who never talked to us? LOL