Why Some Atheists Are Offended By Prayer

Dan Gilgoff, Co-Editor of CNN's Belief Blog, does not appear to have a high opinion of atheists. In a recent post, he complains that "hordes of atheists" have been leaving comments on a post from a Catholic priest suggesting that Christians should pray for Christopher Hitchens.

Far from being touched by the priest's gesture, the atheists are mostly offended.
Mr. Gilgoff really doesn't get it, does he? Let me see if I can explain what is happening here to anyone else who might be as confused as Mr. Gilgoff seems to be. I'll start with a brief explanation of reactions to the "pray for Hitchens" thing and then expand to consider the broader subject of why some atheists might take offense at prayer.

Praying for Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is an outspoken atheist and critic of religion (see books by Christopher Hitchens). The idea of anyone praying for him is inevitably going to strike many of us as ludicrous. Why? We know that is not what he would want. Think about that for a minute. How smug would one have to be to adopt an attitude whereby one insists on praying for someone who regards prayer as a waste of time and does not want to be prayed for at all?

By expressing himself in the language of religion, the priest chose to exclude atheists. Had he suggested we should keep Hitchens in our thoughts or hope for a speedy recovery, there would have been no cause for complaint. Sure, this may have been what he meant, but it was not what he said.

Offended by Prayer?

The broader subject of why some atheists are offended by prayer is only a bit more complicated. However, we can simplify things by highlighting the following:

  • We know that intercessory prayer has no demonstrable impact on one's recovery from illness.
  • We understand that the benefits of prayer are no different from those of relaxation or meditation in that they are incurred solely by the one praying.
  • Praying for any sort of divine intervention strikes many of us as worse than doing nothing at all because it celebrates inaction.
  • When someone chooses the language of religion, he or she is communicating in a manner that excludes atheists.
This last point requires a bit of expansion. Saying "I'll pray for you" communicates something to atheists that the speaker may not intend. It communicates, "I don't care what you may or may not believe; I'm going to use your misfortune as an opportunity to flaunt my religiosity."

I understand that the speaker may mean his or her statement as a simple expression of concern. But why must I translate it? And what am I to make of it when I happen to know that the speaker is aware that I am an atheist?

When a religious person uses prayer language around an atheist, there are at least two possibilities. First, the religious person may assume that the atheist is religious because of his or her implicit assumption that everyone is religious (i.e., religious privilege). I suspect that most atheists find this mildly annoying but are so used to it that they don't take real offense. The second possibility is that the religious person makes no such assumption and uses religious language anyway. This is the scenario more likely to offend the atheist, especially if there is reason to believe that the religious person knows that the recipient is an atheist.