November 17, 2018

The Selfish Nature of Prayer

hands clasped in prayer
"I'll pray for you." "You're in my prayers." What do statements like this mean to you? What do you suppose they mean to most atheists who are on the receiving end of them, atheists who do not generally believe that prayer accomplishes anything?

I derive no benefit from your prayers. If you want to pray, go right ahead. All I ask is that you admit that you are doing it for yourself. You derive whatever benefit there is to be had from the act of prayer.

Maybe prayer lets you feel superior to others, especially when you insist on doing it publicly. Maybe it helps you relax. Maybe it gives you the reassuring impression that you are not alone in the universe. Like I said above, these are all potential benefits to the person praying and not whoever they might be praying for.

If prayer yields any of these benefits for you, so be it. But don't tell me that it is for me. Better yet, don't tell me about it at all. Pray to yourself in private like your bible instructs.

Maybe your statements about how you are praying for me are intended to bring me comfort. They do not. They highlight your superstitious beliefs and lead me to feel a mixture of pity and disgust. They remind me that I live in a country where most of my neighbors are caught in the grip of a delusion I consider to be both irrational and harmful. This brings me no comfort.

Praying for someone is a selfish act aimed at soothing yourself without doing anything beneficial for those for whom you are praying. If you want to help, offer something real. If not, feel free to move along.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2005. It was revised in 2018.