The Humanist Dilemma: I Pretended to Pray for a Friend and She Thinks It Worked!

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Breaking Promise to Pray: I live in the Bible Belt where Christianity is the default view of most people. This often forces me into ethically uncomfortable situations with people I don’t know particularly well (and sometimes with those I do know). One problem in particular is the frequent urge to gather a group of whoever’s present for whatever reason from whatever background to give a quick prayer to their deity. If I’m with people I know well enough, I can usually decline, or sometimes execute the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers (MAAF) recommendation of keeping my head up, and then scanning and nodding at others who are doing the same.

When it comes to people I may have just met for some unofficial event, it presents a dilemma. From one perspective, I have not seen sufficient evidence to suggest a deity exists, and therefore don’t care one way or the other. From another perspective, I want to respect other people’s beliefs so long as they aren’t causing harm (this doesn’t count as harm in my opinion). From yet another perspective, I don’t want to falsely give them the impression that I believe the same way they do about the existence of anything outside the natural realm.

The same underlying dilemma extends to situations where people ask me to pray for them. I can’t figure out how to respond in a way that expresses that I care even if there is nothing that I can actually do given the specific circumstances. Recently this happened with a friend who was stressing over a test. I had already assisted as far as I was legally allowed when this friend asked me to pray for success. I said I would, even though I clearly wouldn’t. I chose to do that because I thought it would at least help this friend psychologically to succeed. But it felt dirty intentionally lying and I’m not sure it was the correct choice. This friend did eventually succeed and I still haven’t shared my nontheistic views. Did I make the correct choice? Do I need to say something further to this friend?

Do you have any suggestions or strategies I can use to help discern how to best proceed in these types of situations in the future?

— Conflicted and Feeling Dirty


Dear Conflicted,

Isn’t it ironic that dealing with other people’s unrealistic notions creates very real problems for those of us who don’t subscribe to their irrational beliefs?

You did an excellent job laying out the various scenarios you face and the options for how to look at and respond to them. There are no absolute right or wrong answers and, unfortunately, no way to completely eliminate the discomfort you may encounter with whichever responses you choose. So do what you’re most comfortable with depending on the specific situation. Prepare some fallback responses so you can be ready when such situations come up to minimize those nagging “I wish I had said/done” retrospectives.

I’ve never heard of the MAAF technique per se, but I’ve been using it for decades (and rarely notice anyone else doing the same). What a clever way to spot other non-believers in a group of believers.

You may want to be most explicit about your views with people who you know are unlikely to respond with hostility or offense, and exercise your least revealing responses with those you don’t know/don’t care about, or who might be in a position to make trouble for you, such as a boss or a militant believer.

As for the friend who attributes their success to your prayers, you can and should reveal that you never prayed for them—because you believed in them and their hard work, and that (not some supernatural force) is the reason they passed the test. If that paves the way for further discussion of your views, great. If not, at least you have planted a seed that may eventually bear fruit.

Planting those seeds is important. The more people who openly identify as non-believers, especially among believers, the more believers are apt to reconsider their views of reality, including their notion that non-believers aren’t normal or good people, or that everyone they encounter believes the same things they believe. So seize every reasonable opportunity to express your convictions.

Also, bear in mind that most of us occasionally resort to “pray for me” or “I’m praying for [my team, snow, catching the bus, etc.] without meaning it literally, just as we often blurt out “bless you” after a sneeze without literally invoking divine intervention. That may not be the case in any of the scenarios you cite, but it is as harmless as your reluctantly feigned piety—just sound without fury, signifying nothing much. So stand up for your views whenever you think it’s prudent, and give yourself permission not to feel guilty when you pretend to pray. If it would make you feel better, you can invoke the sign of the cross—by crossing your fingers behind your back.