Atheists can pray too

Two weeks ago, a good friend of mine asked me a hypothetical question:

I have a daughter with leukemia; The doctors say she might not pull through. Will you pray for her?

Well, as an atheist this puts me in a difficult position. I have several options available, none of which are particularly enticing. But before we get to my response I’d like to explain about my position on religion in general, and my objections to prayer in particular.

I dislike religion because it encourages magical thinking over scientific rationality. Because it can encourage bigotry and strife. Because it can be used in incredibly destructive ways. Because people appeal to their religion as a rationalization of their personal hatred and pettiness, as an escape from personal responsibility, and as a means of dehumanizing or demonizing others. And finally because it does not encourage questioning investigation or skepticism of claims made in the name of the Almighty, let alone the physical universe, rather, it encourages mob mentality.

I object to prayer specifically, because it can easily be used as a psychological crutch to avoid personal responsibility. How many have to die from faith-healing for us to learn that it doesn’t work? Instead of seeking known secular options that have been proven to work, some people are tempted to talk to their all-powerful imaginary friend. The worst part about the horrific outcome of these cases is that it only reinforces their belief system (aka, the True Believer syndrome). I object to prayer used in this manner because it’s worse than pointless; it’s actively destructive.

I have enough trust in my friend that he’s tried all the scientific options available (and is not using prayer as a substitute for actual medical attention), that he knows I think praying in this fashion is pointless (and has considered not asking so as not to put me in a difficult situation), and that humoring his beliefs won’t cause any physical harm. Based on these assumptions my options are:

  1. Tell him I won’t do it.
  2. Though it’s strictly logical to take this position, it’s not a very nice thing to do. My friend has come to me in a time of need; asking for prayer is actually a veiled question. Really, he’s asking, in terms of his own world view, for me to express consolation towards his predicament. It would be rather unkind of me not to comply with the request simply because we have different beliefs about how the world works.

  3. Tell him I will pray, then not do it.
  4. It’s virtually impossible that my friend would figure out I’d lied. (But then I don’t really have any practice lying, so maybe he would). I could convince him I’d pray and then just not do it, and answer any unlikely follow up discussions with details about what I actually didn’t do. But I’d also have to live with the fact that I lied to a friend about something which meant a lot to him; not exactly good for the self-image.

  5. Tell him I will pray, and actually do it.
  6. Really, what does it cost an atheist to pray? It’s simply wasted verbiage, at most a few wasted minutes of my life. I’ve spent many minutes doing much less. It doesn’t hurt my philosophical outlook to engage in the motions of a prayer, it doesn’t even hurt me and my atheism if I break down for a minute and actually mean it. I’d have a lower opinion of myself if I selfishly refused to devote a few minutes of my personal life as an outreach to my friend.

In reality I’m somewhere between 2. and 3. That is, I’d certainly tell my friend I’d pray, I’d even intend to carry it out. Wether I actually would, I don’t know. I might try, and then find myself incapable, or I might forget (unlikely), or I might postpone by waiting until I felt in the appropriate mood (which would invariably never strike). But, though I can certainly be called upon to pray, I can’t be called upon to believe that it’s actually gonna do any good. And I’ll only do it if I’m fairly certain that my actions won’t encourage any of the undesirable psychological behaviors that make me adverse to it in the first place.

Sometimes being an atheist humanitarian is difficult.