The Humanist Dilemma: How to Walk Away from “I’ll Pray for You” With No Drama

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What to Say When They Pray: How do you answer the remark, “I will pray for you,” when sharing an upcoming event in your life that, in the interlocutor’s mind, requires divine intervention? I wouldn’t want to say, “I don’t believe in prayers” or “nothing fails like prayers.” “No, thanks” also isn’t an option as it would engender more questions. Saying “thanks” and walking away also doesn’t seem right.

I once replied, “Oh, I’m not a believer,” which earned me the condescending remark, “Oh, you poor dear, I will pray anyway.”

—Not Endeared

Dear Not Endeared,

This sort of question has come up many times before and it will come up many times again because there’s just no response that will achieve what you hope, which is to stop the person from telling you they will pray for you as though they’re doing you a favor and avoiding any discussion of why you don’t appreciate the gesture.

The moment you respond with any objection to the offered prayers, you are inviting reactions and, of course, demonstrating (to the other person) just how much in need of prayer you really are. You ruled out a simple “thanks,” but if you don’t want to engage, that’s your best bet. Even acting as if you didn’t hear is only likely to generate another, louder, “I will pray for you.”

Although some people are ready with clever retorts they like to whip out on these occasions, those often invite back-and-forth conversation (not a bad thing if you are up for it). Or their answer is so rude or hostile that the pray-er either is unlikely to ever address them again (scorched earth is generally not recommended), or is inspired to redouble their energies. There’s rarely a good reason for harsh or downright nasty responses (unless someone is clearly attacking you, and maybe not even then). More likely, the people offering prayers are probably just saying what they automatically say, and they may mean it more as a pleasantry than an actual promise to put in a good word for you. Unless you want to express and explain your lack of high regard for prayers—in a civil, genuine way, and open yourself to a real discussion (possibly productive, probably not)—the best course is to acknowledge the unwelcome gesture with a simple, civil thank-you and move on.