Prayer: Why I may do it Anyway (if asked)

May 14, 2008 at 9:31 am 25 comments

On Good Friday, 1973, my parents caught me smoking. It wasn’t the first time I’d been caught, but it was the last. This wasn’t because I quit immediately, per their demands. It was, rather, because I quickly grew fairly skilled at hiding my vice from them. Oh, they continued to harbor suspicions, but they never again caught me in the act. Anyway, it so happened that, like most good evangelical Christians, our family was scheduled to attend the annual Good Friday service that very evening. So, off to church we went.

I sat through the service and dreaded the coming altar call because I knew exactly what was going to happen. Sure enough, the pianist had barely begun playing the prayer chorus when my mother ambled over to where I was sitting with some friends and insisted that I accompany her to the altar. There, of course, I was compelled to repent of my sin, renounce my filthy habit and ask Jesus to forgive me. I mouthed the requisite syllables as tears of rage flowed down my cheeks.

I was enraged at being compelled to say a prayer that I did not mean and thereby label myself as a hypocrite. You see, when I was fourteen I was in what I now regard as a state of rebellious disobedience of God. I believed in God but had absolutely no desire to follow, obey, love or worship him. Therefore, my prayer was utterly insincere and, as I understood the matter then, both he and I knew I hadn’t meant a word of it. I believed that uttering an insincere prayer while in a state of believer’s rebellion was the height of hypocrisy.

Fast forward to late 2007-early 2008. My husband, the deacon, and I had read stories of newly minted nonbelievers (referred to here as de-converts, a term the deacon despises) who had endured uncomfortable situations over the holidays when they were asked to say the blessing over a meal. We had also read some accounts of atheists who refused to pray with others who were ill or otherwise hurting simply to comfort them. Naturally, we had a conversation about these dilemmas before drifting off to sleep one night. As we spoke, I reached what was, to me, a startling conclusion: in some situations, if I’m asked to pray over a meal, or to say a prayer at someone’s hospital bed or some other circumstance in which prayers are perfunctory rituals, I’ll likely just go ahead and do it. I won’t offer to do it, but, if asked, I may not automatically refuse either, although I’d prefer not to do it. The reason is this:

Unlike my fourteen-year-old self who believed that her insincere prayer had gravely offended a god, my adult, atheistic self recognizes that all prayers are meaningless mumblings that simply drift away into thin air. They don’t harm or offend anyone of either the mortal or deistic kind. Therefore, my primary reasons for offering prayers of any sort would be to a) ease the discomfort of another who would regard the prayer as an act of kindness, or b) fulfill a ritual that, while meaningless to me, is important to someone in my presence. My disbelief will not render my prayers any less effective in procuring divine intervention than the prayers of believers; all of our prayers will go unheeded and unanswered. On the other hand, if someone is ill and will be comforted by a few words uttered at the bedside, my prayer may provide psychological and emotional comfort to that person. My primary purpose in visiting, after all, should be to support and comfort the one who is ill in any way possible.

And yet …. there are two reasons why I’m not entirely comfortable with this position, and hope that it will be a transitional stance that I will one day discard completely. First, I’d rather not say or do anything that will strengthen someone’s faith in a non-existent deity. Second, I’d rather not give others reason to suppose that I share their belief in said non-existent deity. I realize that, in acceding to their requests to pray with them, I will be doing both of those things. I don’t like this, but I can’t just abruptly sever ties that have accumulated over a lifetime, and, in many cases, over generations. Moreover, hospital rooms, family reunions, church pot lucks and other such settings are not good venues for launching into detailed explications of one’s rejection of religion.

Renouncing faith is an extraordinarily messy business. The intellectual break from faith, which many (including me) experience as disorienting and traumatic, is only a small part of a larger process. It is, in many ways, the easiest part. The social break from faith and faith bodies is much more difficult to achieve. It will happen for me. The deacon and I will gradually break away from our current obligations and have, in fact, already begun doing so. Eventually, most of our existing social and religious connections will be substantially weakened or totally dissolved. When that happens, we will be able to profess our unbelief more openly than we can now. Until then, I will live, somewhat uncomfortably (and yes, somewhat hypocritically and dishonestly), with my current atheology of the meaningless drivel called prayer.

– the chaplain

Entry filed under: thechaplain. Tags: , , , , .

Should we embrace moderate Christianity? My De-Conversion: What Sealed the Deal

25 Comments Add your own

  • 1. LeoPardus  |  May 14, 2008 at 10:45 am


    I in the same boat right now. I know prayer is meaningless (thought it may serve in some ways as mediation), but I still wind up in situations where refusal to pray would engender “launching into detailed explications of one’s rejection of religion” at inopportune times.

    I think praying just to “keep the peace” is fine. Like you, I suspect that someday things will change. Until then it doesn’t really bother me if asked to pray.

  • 2. HeIsSailing  |  May 14, 2008 at 11:17 am

    The Chaplain:

    “My husband, the deacon, and I had read stories of newly minted nonbelievers …who had endured uncomfortable situations over the holidays when they were asked to say the blessing over a meal.”

    Last Thanksgiving, we had quite a few friends over for Thanksgiving. I was asked to give a Thanksgiving prayer before the meal. Nobody there knew the full extent of my ‘de-conversion’ except my wife and one freind – and what a terrible moment to bring it up..!! But I wanted something meaningful to me too.

    So, when asked to give thanks, I looked at all my family and friends instead of thanking ‘God’, I thanked each person there for being a part of my life, and for making that special meal and special day possible. I did not bow my head and close my eyes – I looked at each person there and thanked them.

    Nobody objected – everyone loved it. I think they all got it – even the more conservative people there. We went on to have a great celebration!!

    So now, I regularly turn to my wife and thank her for the wonderful meal she has prepared. Doing that is so much more meaningful for both of us than thanking ‘God’.

  • 3. HeIsSailing  |  May 14, 2008 at 11:18 am

    blasted spirographs!

  • 4. Walking Away  |  May 14, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    This certainly was timely for me. I was asked to pray for a meal yesterday, which I did. I really like your way of looking at this because for me its not possible (at this point) to refuse to pray at work.

  • 5. Paul S.  |  May 14, 2008 at 2:18 pm

    Walking Away said:

    This certainly was timely for me. I was asked to pray for a meal yesterday, which I did. I really like your way of looking at this because for me its not possible (at this point) to refuse to pray at work.

    You have to pray at work? Do you work in a church or something?

  • 6. karen  |  May 14, 2008 at 7:09 pm

    Interesting thoughts, Chaplain. Thanks for your honesty.

    It does take time, tact and some finesse to extricate oneself from church responsibilities and relationships (to the extent you want to do that).

    I had already gotten less involved over the years before I finally cut the ties that bind (ha!), so it was a fairly easy matter for me to sort of just slip away. It also helps if you’re attending a large church with multiple services – if you don’t show up, the regulars simply assume that you’ve started attending another service!

    When I went to visit an ill friend a couple of months ago I actually contemplated that she might ask me to pray with/for her. Much as I hoped this didn’t happen (and it actually didn’t), I concluded that I would have to politely pass.

    I wasn’t prepared to go into my whole deconversion story, but I just couldn’t imagine myself making up words and having her think I was sincerely talking to a divine presence that I no longer believe in. I figured I would find a way to demur or stand by quietly while someone else prayed – but I didn’t think I could bring myself to say the words personally.

    As it worked out, it wasn’t an issue and we had a lovely visit anyway. But it is interesting to have those situations come up and wonder how you will react. Usually if I’m in a group and there’s a prayer before a meal, etc. I just stand silently without bowing my head or closing my eyes. That seems to be the way I can get through it without feeling like a fraud or a hypocrite.

  • 7. satoruvash  |  May 14, 2008 at 7:53 pm

    What an awkward situation.

    I think it is a cultural phenomenon. I do not believe many Christian Hispanics for instance, pray before meals, not even the most fanatical. And yet, many Christian Westerners do so even if they are not fanatical.

    As for being asked to pray at someone’s bedside . . . I cannot say that has ever happened to me. Growing up in the Anglican community, there was a special group of people who would keep up to date with anyone that was ill and/or hospitalized. Then, they would arrange for the priest to go and visit. In other words, prayer was scheduled, and was considered more powerful if the priest was present.

    The priest would announce the date(s) and time(s) such a person would be visited and if anyone wanted to join the prayer session at the hospital, they were welcome to. The general consensus was that prayer in numbers had a more profound effect on the person than multiple individual prayers. Furthermore, constant prayer by one or two people was thought to be rude. It would depress the sick person. It would suggest to them that they were more ill than the doctor was saying. Even if the person was dying, so much prayer would make them focus more on death and less on making the most of the time they had left.

    My parents are Anglican, but they never pray before a meal. Growing up, we would say thank you directly to the person(s) responsible for preparing the meal instead of God. Even now, when my parents invite their Christian friends to their home, no one prays. They have a toast instead. It is the secular version of a religious tradition. This is similar to what HelsSailing did.

    I agree with the reasons you state for not praying. If the person knows you are an Atheist and asks you to pray, it is very rude. If the person does not know and asks, perhaps you can secularize the ‘prayer’ by personalizing it. Take the opportunity to reveal to them what you think of them, what they mean to you, thank them for support/love they have offered you in the past and finish by wishing them a speedy recovery. If they are on their deathbed, the ‘speedy recovery’ part should obviously be omitted. Unless they are a religious fanatic, they will be more affected by your personal statements than by your invocations of God(s).

    I am luckier than you. My parents rarely mention God and when their religious friends do, I just ignore it. Also, all my religious fanatic relatives live in other countries.

    I have only Atheists friends and one very devout Anglican acquaintance who does not impose her Religion. It took me years to realize that she was praying before meals and I only found out when someone else at the table asked her why she did not say grace if she was so devout. Apparently, when everyone else was talking, she’d take 10 seconds to say it in her head. Her eyes never lowered, and she’d grasp her hands discretely under the table. If only more Christians were this way, you would not have to be put rudely and unfairly on the spot.

  • 8. Julian Rodriguez  |  May 15, 2008 at 1:04 am

    Just remember that in the study some scientists did on the effectiveness of prayer they found that the only ones who were affected by prayer were the ones who knew they were being prayed for, and the outcome was negative, that is, they got worse.

  • 9. LeoPardus  |  May 15, 2008 at 11:36 am


    There have been numerous studies on prayer’s effectiveness. They’ve shown effectiveness or ineffectiveness by any and every variable. Some studies showed no effect, some showed positive effects, and some showed negative effect by prayer.

    Just wanted you to know that it isn’t “the study”. It’s “the studies”.

  • 10. Lady through the Looking Glass  |  May 15, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    “The social break from faith and faith bodies is much more difficult to achieve… Until then, I will live, somewhat uncomfortably (and yes, somewhat hypocritically and dishonestly)…”

    This is the hard part that I’m trying to deal with. I feel like such a hypocrite whenever I attend my church, which isn’t as regular as in times past. I still go because of my few responsibilities there, and also so as to not arouse any suspicion.

    I realise that Christianity may never lose its hold entirely on me, since I’ve been in it all my life. Now that I’m becoming more of a Deist, my prayers, whenever they occur, are mostly expressions of thanks and appreciation. If I’m in a situation where I’m asked to pray, I find that I squelch down my own views about praying re that particular situation and do it for the person who asked and/or the person in need of comfort, etc.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • 11. Andrea  |  May 15, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    I personally have no problem addressing a prayer to the “God of my fathers”. Respectful enough to keep the peace, without me sacrificing my different perspective on life.

  • 12. exevangel  |  May 15, 2008 at 6:04 pm

    I bristle at public prayer that is intended for showing off that one is praying, you might recall I posted on this subject on this site previously. But I do tend to recite along both the Lord’s prayer and apostles’ creed at the church where I still sing. I am not always sure why I’m doing it, and I’m certainly not doing anything meaningful by reciting the rote words. As a child, we would “bless” the meal in either Norwegian or Dutch depending on which side of the family we were around, and that amounted to small children reciting by rote some words taught to us by our grandparents. It was a showpiece event, an “oh how cute” thing. It had no meaning but ritual.

    It was actually my current partner, who was concerned for me during my early deconversion, who noted that a ritual is not necessarily a bad thing and need not be a God thing. At the beginning of all meals together, at the point at which I previously would have prayed, we reach across the table and grasp hands and give them a little squeeze. It serves the same purpose of “starting” the meal without the religious overtones, but instead saying “hey we are here together and that’s good!”

  • 13. LeoPardus  |  May 15, 2008 at 6:24 pm


    Yep. I recite those too. I’m there for the beauty of the liturgy and communal action is part of that, so it’s cool with me.

    You did prayers in Norsk? Huske du bønner?

  • 14. The Celtic Chimp  |  May 16, 2008 at 7:38 am


    A common dilemma for Atheists I don’t doubt. Nicely stated.

  • 15. karen  |  May 16, 2008 at 5:42 pm

    At the beginning of all meals together, at the point at which I previously would have prayed, we reach across the table and grasp hands and give them a little squeeze. It serves the same purpose of “starting” the meal without the religious overtones, but instead saying “hey we are here together and that’s good!”

    That’s a lovely tradition! And I like HIS’s suggestion about thanking those actually responsible for the meal and gathering.

    It’s great to find some alternatives to religious rituals.

  • 16. TheNorEaster  |  May 18, 2008 at 9:41 pm

    If I ever did leave Christianity, I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life bitching about it.

  • 17. The Apostate  |  May 18, 2008 at 10:33 pm


    If I ever did leave Christianity, I wouldn’t spend the rest of my life bitching about it.

    Think before writing. Or not.
    Just think about how pervasive Christianity is and how utterly obnoxious Christians are in our society. Not to mention that probably every person that writes for or visits this site has close friends and family that continue with their belief system which deeply and sometimes hurtfully affects us all.
    But you don’t give a rat’s ass about that anyway, do you?

    My equally absurd retaliation to you is this: if you stay with your cult in this, according to Christians, depraved and sinful world, why don’t you just jump off a cliff so you can get to heaven a wee bit quicker – because trust me, you aren’t doing much to “further the kingdom of God” with your attitude around here.

  • 18. Ted Goas  |  May 19, 2008 at 11:28 am

    TheNorEaster, one person might call it bitching. Another might call it preaching. Still yet another would be stating a point of view. There are a lot of Christian denominations that have no problem claiming that other belief systems are wrong.

    The Apostate, that’s a bit harsh. Not all Christians are obnoxious, but it’s ones that are that give the religion a bad face. Though I know it’s tough to be tolerant of theists when encountered with comments like the one TheNorEaster left…

  • 19. The Apostate  |  May 19, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Ted Goas,
    I apologize if it came across that I was saying all Christians (or even a majority of Christians) are obnoxious. I was speaking about the vocal minority that makes life a hell for people who want to live without having dogmatic feces flung in their face. I realize my grammar left that ambiguous in my previous comment.

  • 20. Ted Goas  |  May 19, 2008 at 6:10 pm

    I understand, Apostale. No worries.

  • 21. Anonymous  |  May 23, 2008 at 5:10 pm

    If you don’t want to pray, then don’t. Many Christians go through the same thing. The difference is that you were wise enough to know that praying this way is hypocrisy. Prayer should be of sincerity. That’s one of the things that makes prayer meaningful. It gets empty when the words are meaningless. For me, I think God doesn’t care if you worship Him or not. To me, worship and prayer are meaningless if there is no sincerity behind it.

  • 22. John Dave Coleman  |  May 23, 2008 at 7:44 pm

    I was pained to read about your Good Friday forced confession. That probably would have made me smoke Camels for the rest of my days. I’m a Lutheran pastor who shares some of your struggles, as best I understand them. Please know that this is a friendly query. It sounds like you come from and may still be part of an evangelical Christian church. In that tradition as you’ve experienced it, do folks talk about or practice “contemplative prayer” or “centering prayer”? Just curious. I haven’t read all of your posts, so please forgive if you’ve already talked about this.

  • 23. the chaplain  |  May 23, 2008 at 10:21 pm

    John David:

    I’ve heard a bit about “centering prayer” in my denomination but, to tell the truth, the folks in my tradition (The Salvation Army) put more emphasis on serving others, living as they believe Jesus would live – so that people can “see Jesus in them”, than they do on prayer and Bible study. They believe prayer and Bible study are important, of course, but they feel that solitary faith is not fruitful; faith is meant to be shared, not nurtured secretly. The Salvation Army takes its evangelistic mission very seriously. It’s a bit less successful in discipling and shepherding sometimes.

  • 24. Thom  |  May 24, 2008 at 6:35 pm

    When I was Christian then I was never comfortable with praying out loud. Anything that had to say to god was between me and god and nobody else.
    Praying out loud in church I would cringe and tell him in my mind that I apologised for having to us name in a fake prayer spoken out loud, but that I sincerely hoped that he would understand my situation and take mercy on me, and that I would speak with him myself later.

  • 25. fluorophore  |  May 26, 2008 at 8:43 am

    I was so saddened to read about your forced altar call – thank you for sharing that with us and educating me – I’m probably not the only person to be shocked at what happened to you. I am so sorry.

    I hope it’s not unwelcome, but I’d like to offer the thought to your and your commenters that perhaps prayer is not about words. And to those who might suggest that it is – I’d ask to whom are those words important? To us? or to God?

    Nor do I think that it is possible to be insincere or hypocritical with God – those are words that describe human interactions.

    I’m glad I found this site – this is a really good and supportive community. I wish you and all here (and all of us) much healing on your journey.

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Attention Christian Readers

Just in case you were wondering who we are and why we de-converted.

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Whether or not you believe in God, you should live your life with love, kindness, compassion, mercy and tolerance while trying to make the world a better place. If there is no God, you have lost nothing and will have made a positive impact on those around you. If there is a benevolent God reviewing your life, you will be judged on your actions and not just on your ability to blindly believe in creeds- when there is a significant lack of evidence on how to define God or if he/she even exists.



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