Tuesday, September 23, 2008

I'll pray for you...

Nearly two years ago, Daniel Dennett wrote one of the most beautiful things I've ever read. After surviving a 9-hour operation to repair damage to his heart, he wrote 'Thank Goodness', a short essay that discusses the ordeal, his take on the sentiments of well-wishers and his view that "Thank Goodness" isn't simply a secular substitute for "Thank God".

This essay has been on my mind for the past few days. It came up in a discussion following Sunday's show and I found myself thinking about it again this morning. As it turns out, I've got a few health concerns of my own and I visited my new doctor yesterday to discuss them. While we won't have test results until Thursday afternoon, there's a pretty decent chance that I'm diabetic (at a minimum, there's a serious blood sugar concern and a few miscellaneous issues to address). I wanted to keep friends and family informed of the situation, so I fired off a quick e-mail, with the full knowledge that I'd receive a few "I'll pray for you" responses.

In situations like this, that doesn't really bother me. Yes, it's as silly as saying you'll sacrifice a goat for me, but I understand that most of the time it's really just a sincere attempt to show that you care. The words don't matter nearly so much as the sentiment, and I can appreciate both the sentiment and the inability to find a "better" way to express it.

I wouldn't be upset if someone said they were keeping their fingers crossed, so why should I be bothered by those who say they'll pray for me? As rhetorical as that question appears, the situation is not nearly so clear cut. Of those who would promise to keep their fingers crossed, I suspect there are relatively few who seriously entertain the notion that doing so is likely to have an effect on the situation. Of those who would offer to pray, I suspect that many (if not most) believe in the efficacy of prayer. Despite that difference, I'm not going to let someone's superstitions distract me from their sincere desire to see positive changes in my life.

Unfortunately, some people simply aren't content to offer a simple "I'll pray for you" without injecting even more of their ignorance, self-righteousness and superstition into the mix. I received an e-mail response from one individual that went beyond the simple, superstitious sentiments of prayer. Without violating this persons privacy, I'd like to quickly point out some of the responses. I'll paraphrase, rather than directly quoting the message, but the following is accurate...

'I've been praying for you for a long time. I pray to the God that you deny and he's told me so much about you.'

It's curious that he couldn't be bothered to give either of us the specifics on the problem. I'm wondering what else your god told you about me...if you'd just tell me, we could check the claims for accuracy. It'd also be nice to hear these 'divine revelations' before their confirmation. It's a bit like looking at the lottery numbers and saying, "Yup, those are the numbers that God told me would win."

'I believe that this is what I saw that was "wrong" when I looked into your eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul and your soul is sick.'

This is a very thinly veiled assertion that my illness (whatever it may be) is because I'm an atheist. I have no doubt that this individual cares about me and wants me to be healthy and happy, but their religious beliefs have so thoroughly poisoned their mind that they're unable to address situations like this rationally and simple expressions of love and compassion become opportunities to preach their superstitions with an "I told you so" bent.

Everything becomes tied to their religious views. If something bad happens to them, it's the devil, trying to attack them for being a good Christian. If something bad happens to me, it's God punishing my defiance. Health problems, money problems, family problems - every single event has some supernatural motivation.

People like this are unable to face reality rationally. The world is full of demons and angels, pulling our strings, guiding our fates, pushing us around like pawns in a cosmic game of chess. There is no grand mystery or wonder in their world, the supernatural 'explanations' fill the gaps. There is no hope of discovery or improvement, humanity is sick and sinful and the Earth is simply a place to wipe our feet while we wait for Jesus to spirit us away to the real life. Yes, modern medicine may be able to tell us more about illness, but these people already know that the ultimate cause is man's sinful nature and the capriciousness (though they refer to it as 'justice') of the invisible friend they call 'God'.

Those of you that have been crippled by religion, unable to face reality without your superstitions, I'll pray for you.

No really. If "I'll pray for you" is shorthand for "I'm sorry you're in that situation and sincerely hope that things improves"...then I'll pray for you.


  1. Very nice post, Matt. I've come to use "I wish you the best" as my version of "You have my prayers".

    My wife dealt twice with gestational diabetes, so I realize how it affects a person's life. I'm sure you'll handle what comes with courage, and I wish you the best.

  2. A nice post Matt and while i am aware that it will not help your health - i hope that the news is good and that you maintain good health. You and the boys in the two shows have given me many hours of entertainment via my Ipod and i wish you a speedy recovery and many more years of sticking it to the deluded.

  3. I hope that the news is good too, or as good as it can be under the circumstances. I also loved the last line of your post:

    No really. If "I'll pray for you" is shorthand for "I'm sorry you're in that situation and sincerely hope that things improves"...then I'll pray for you.


  4. I think prayer gets rid of that discomfort of helplessness in some people, people who worry about not being useful and forced to know that someone may be in a dire condition. I feel that way too, but I try to at least make a marginal attempt to make them feel happy and comfortable. It seems to me when you can't really help the person the best thing to do is make them feel good through the ordeal. That being said, I honestly can't comfort you much, but I can wish you good luck, and I hope that whatever happens turns out well.

  5. Matt,

    Sorry to hear about the Diabetes. Hope all goes well with the doctors.

  6. It's a rough time when the hope is that it's only diabetes and nothing worse.

    I can understand the "I'll pray for you" line, because it's an easy one. I'm here genuinely concerned as to your well-being and there really isn't just a one-liner that covers it.

  7. Sorry to hear about the health concerns and potential problems Matt. As for the preaching vulture(s) I do concur with your assessment totally. I am very fortunate that no one in my immediate or extended family is strongly religious, and I don't really have to deal with any of these situations. Hopefully that mustard seed of reason that must reside inside their brains somewhere,will find some fertile ground soon and blossom forth! Here's hoping that you are completely fine and that people stop taking advantage of others at a time of need.

  8. I always feel uneasy with the sentiment that people are praying for me. It's trying to invoke a process that will modify my behaviour without my consent; in effect it's trying to curse me.

    When genuine loved ones do it for my safety, I can see the gesture in it. But when random Christians tell me they are praying for me to see the light, do they really expect God to go into my head and mess with my wiring?!?

    Also, on that topic. If someone was manipulated into believing in Jesus by God, would that still count? It seems to violate the tenants of free will, not to mention if God can just go around converting people on her own, then why not do it anyway? It would save billions from the burning fires of hell. It seems everything about the sentiment is wrong...

  9. Hope it works out for the best with the health issues by the way.

  10. Back when I was a Christian it always made me feel good when I could say "I will pray for you." And it made me feel even better when I actually did. I felt like I was actually doing something. Of course, I wasn't doing anything other than making myself feel better.

    Now that I am an atheist I don't have that copout. There truly is nothing that I can do to help you Matt. Even saying good luck sounds trite because I don't believe luck is some force I can will upon another.

    All I can say is your situation sucks and I feel like crap because I can't do anything about it. I want things to go well in your life because, through your various shows and web pages, you make MY life better.

    So you are in my thoughts and I hope everything works out just fine.

  11. Sorry to hear of your health concerns, Matt. I hope you find a suitable treatment through science-based medicine.

    The Sydney Atheists are going to be participating in the 'walk for a cure to diabetes' event, which will help to raise funds for diabetes research. We will be thinking of you on our walk and hope to be able to make some small difference to help those in your (possible) circumstance.

    Get well soon from all of the Sydney Atheists!

  12. We're very sorry to hear of your health problems. It's times like this we look to family and friends for support, not so much in a 'help me' kinda way but more of the 'if I need some reassurance' I know you're there. So with that in mind be assured you have many friends seen and unseen wishing you "all the best mate".

    Margaret and John Macalpine Atheist Experience/Non Prophets Facebook Fan Site

  13. Thank goodness that you have at least access to the best that medical science has to offer.
    I wish you the best!

  14. Yeah, I always get a funny feeling when people say this to me too. In the first "you're sick/something bad is happening" sense of the phrase, I don't really care. If they want to think they are "intervening" on my behalf, I don't really care. They might as well be saying "Zeus be with you" as far as I'm concerned. But the other sense in which people say this...the "I'll pray for you because you're on the wrong path" sense...pisses me off to no end. Just imagining someone sitting there talking to "god" saying "oh please help this silly person!"...such arrogance.

  15. there's a pretty decent chance that I'm diabetic

    If it turns out you are, should people pass the hat and get you a cake? Or would that just be cruel? Then again, we atheists can't tell right from wrong (just like Adam and Eve before the Fall, so that's all right).

  16. I'll pray for you, you corrupt atheist coward!

    Just kidding, I get angry when people say that to me, too. In fact, I get angry when people say "Bless you" after I sneeze. I yell at them, "Don't bless me!!"

  17. My usual response to "God bless you!" is "May a pink unicorn bring you lots of candy!"

  18. [b]Just kidding, I get angry when people say that to me, too. In fact, I get angry when people say "Bless you" after I sneeze. I yell at them, "Don't bless me!!"[/b]

    Seriously? Its just a meaningless phrase, no-one really takes it literally anymore. Just like when someone hurts themselves and yells "Jesus fucking Christ!!!". They aren't actually making an attempt to bring Jesus into the conversation, just saying a commonly used phrase for expressing pain(along with god damn it).

  19. I agree with enshoku. I think "bless you" is like "god damnit" or "oh my god". I know atheists who say all 3. They're just lexical items now...phrases. Sure some religious people might ACTUALLY want god to bless you after you sneeze, but I don't want to be that one annoying atheist who always gets offended when someone says "bless you". Also...don't forget a god doesn't have to bless things. A blessing can be given by people too. I just looked it up in my American Heritage and saw one definition as "To confer well-being or prosperity on".

  20. Sorry to steal a bit of your thunder Matt, but my mom was just diagnosed with diabetes. I wrote a post elaborating on my opinion on this, if anyone wants to read it, here is a link:


  21. @Enshoku and Sparrowhawk:

    I dunno about Juju but personally, the reason I consider "[god] bless you" really annoying has nothing to do with it having the g-word. Here in Mexico the phrasing(if not the origin, perhaps) is completely secular since we say "salud"(health). What annoys me is the dumb superstitious behaviour. Why does anyone have to say anything when someone sneezes?. Other than " would you like a tissue?" maybe.

    Furthermore, why should I say anything when you sneeze? and why, oh, why the hell do you get pissed when I fail to utter the magical words?. My response to someone sneezing or someone saying "bless you" to me is the same: I totally ignore it/them. It's their deal if they want to recite incantations, I'm not bothered by it. But don't you dare get all bitchy on me 'cause I don't follow your asinine lead("YOU DIDN'T SAY 'BLESS YOU'!!!!!").

    It's not like I get angry. It is merely a pet peeve of mine. Like capitalising "god." We're not German and it's not a proper noun. And don't anybody give me the old "little 'g' god is a god and big 'g' god is the god" 'cause I'm not buying it. Last time I checked there's no "generic, all-purpose" god***. Just like I capitalise Zeus, Odin, and Osiris, I also do it with Jehova, Yahweh and Allah. I know they mean "god" too but it's in a dead language. Hey, at least they're trying to give them a proper name.

    I understand it sounds petty but damn it, that's how I feel and my reasoning seems pretty solid.

    I'm trying to quit using smileys so I'd like to point out that nothing I said was in (real)anger. Imagine me smiling while I said it.

    Yikes... tangent!. That's all I have to say. oh, and Mr. Dillahunty, may your test results be as good as my father's were recently. He was told his results were like that of a 20-year-old. I'll be thinking of you.


    ***Well, maybe the deist's god qualifies but that one is so watered-down that I don't think it counts.

  22. @adrael: I don't know why people have to say anything when people sneeze. I don't say it all the time, and I don't even know if I can explain why I say something when I do. I usually say "salud" too, because at least it makes more sense, right? "Salud" is the Spanish word for health, and if someone is sneezing they MIGHT at least be sick...I mean there's at least a chance. You have every right not to say a damn word when someone sneezes. All I can tell you is that it's just one of those weird cultural things we do for no reason other than...people just do it. And I still maintain you can say "bless you" without even actually intending to say anything about god. I've said it before. It's just a lexical item that I think for a lot of people has no real relation to the concept of blessing or god or anything, but basically just means "you sneezed and I acknowledge it". Why acknowledge it? Dunno...

  23. >'I've been praying for you for a long time. I pray to the God that you deny and he's told me so much about you.'

    Then why didn't they let you know you had diabetes? Maybe if they would have shared that sooner, you could have started treatment sooner. God might have shared some really helpful information--but apparently didn't think it was all that important.

    Hope things improve with treatment.

  24. It always surprises me of the ego that some people have about their religion, I was just informed last night that I am Condemed to Hell since I know about Jesus, but do not accept as a Savior. Here's to your continuing health until you too burn in Hell for all eternity.

  25. I have allergies. I sometimes will sneeze 20 times in a row.

    There are people who will say bless you 20 times if I sneeze 20 times.

    I hate these people. Isn't one 'Bless you' sufficient? No, they say. It has to be said for every single sneeze. It drives me crazy!

  26. @adreal

    Other than your pet peeve towards people who say bless you, I agree with you on everything. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I refuse to comment on Ray Comfort's blog is because "god" must be capitalized in all circumstances. along with abusing; Biology and logic, he abuses Common Grammar, Does he no know bounds!

  27. @Juju: Sheesh...I think you can probably find better things to be so angry about don't you? You sound like Denis Leary x3.

  28. @juju

    You should abuse these people with false sneezes. After about 300 or so I'm sure they will stop.

  29. Juju, in such situations, I tell people like that to just give me a blanket "bless you" to cover all ensuing sneezes.


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