Okay, once again I will preface this post by identifying myself as an atheist. And I will be talking about a problem I’ve been having with some truly well-meaning religious people.
Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, people have told me that they “know I don’t believe, but..” they’ve prayed for me because “you never know?! right?” Uh, right. I’ve never been a fan of Pascal’s Wager, the proposition that even if it makes no sense and you don’t believe in any god, you should make yourself believe, because, hey- what if you’re wrong?
When someone tells me that they prayed for me, even though they know I don’t believe, what they are saying is “My belief is right and you are wrong, but I like you, so I’m going to make myself feel like I’m helping you by thinking about you.” I realize that their intentions are good, even when they are essentially doing nothing.
Last year we lost a member of our family to metastatic leiomyosarcoma. The prognosis was terrible when she was first diagnosed, but she sought out the best treatment at the Mayo Clinic and lived over a year longer than her doctors predicted. As her disease progressed, her husband maintained a blog to keep all of us posted on how she was doing. The process of losing his wife tore him apart, but the progress and stasis her doctors achieved, he attributed not to science but to the power of prayer. When we sent messages of support, we told them that we loved them and thought about them all the time, but never mentioned prayer. It started becoming clear that our refusal to say that we prayed really started to bother him. He wrote this on his personal blog:
Prayers on the behalf of others are uttered to a Divine Creator who presumably has the power to heal and comfort the mind and body. Mere humans can’t do this to the extent that the Almighty can, so why not bring out the heavy artillery if you really care about a friend? While one might feel a bit of comfort from the “thoughts” of a friend, why would anyone in real trouble settle for the relatively impotent “thoughts” of a fellow human being if they could receive a blessing that originates from the petition of a person kneeling in prayer?
What most religious people don’t understand is that while it is kind and well-meaning, to pray for someone who does not believe is the same as the “impotent ‘thoughts'” of a fellow human. I appreciate the love being expressed by the thoughts people send my way, but I’d rather you wrote me a letter, or invited me out for coffee or donated to fight MBC or even volunteered for your local cancer society with me in mind.
Having cancer for a year and MBC for two I’ve learned that the thoughts of my fellow human can be freaking amazing, and the potential for kindness is unlimited. But don’t pray for me ’cause “you never know,” since if there were a controlling deity, it gave me the cancer in the first place.
If I hurt of offended anyone, it wasn’t intentional. I know we atheists have to walk a fine line in expressing our opinions when there are believers amongst our friends. To make up for any insult or hurt feelings, here’s a corgi puppy. They always make me feel better.